Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Objectivity of the Critic.

Like almost every book blogger I know, I use GoodReads. In fact, it's the place where I met my fellow Torch Bearers, bonding over our love and frequent criticisms of YA. It's arguably become the most popular book review related website but with that fame has come a noticeable degree of infamy with many. Criticisms of the critic are nothing new. We're certainly no strangers to that here! However, I've noticed several instances over the past few months where authors are warning other authors or reviewers of what they see as major problems with the website. I've discussed my feelings on the author-reviewer relationship many times and maintain that GoodReads is a necessary and vital addition to the sphere of readers but it's certainly not perfect. Indeed, there are many very negative reviews. I myself have written some of them, as have my co-bloggers. But the criticisms I've seen directed towards these reviews is that they are unnecessarily cruel and biased. The former is an issue for another post, but I will briefly say that while snarky humour is subjective – one person's hilarious beatdown is another's personal vendetta – I must support the right for these reviews to exist because to condone their removal is censorship. I have a lot of faith in my co-reviewers to call out the unnecessary cruelty and attacks since GoodReads is a site for consumers. There will always be the perceived bad eggs on every site you check. It's the circle of blogging. However, the latter issue, that of objectivity, is a trickier subject.

As part of my Edinburgh Book Festival duties, I attended the event of Radio 5's resident film critic, Mark Kermode, a man as famed for his eviscerations of films he dislikes as he is for the praise he gives. He admitted that he has certain biases but he tries not to let this effect the review since it is his job to be as fair as possible. While I do agree with giving every book I review the fairest chance possible, I must also acknowledge my own biases. I can't stand the instant attraction trope, I'm hyper aware of over-used romantic and storytelling tropes in YA and I'm also extremely critical of the depiction of romances, arguably more so than the average reviewer. A lot of the time, it's impossible for me to put these biases aside when I pick up a new book or go to see a film, especially if it's part of a particular genre such as paranormal romance YA. I don't think this lessens my impact or integrity as a reviewer but I can see why some people would consider me less than objective in my reviews, as I have been accused of numerous times.

The price we put on objectivity in our reviews is a topic that fascinates me. Indeed, I wonder if objectivity is as valued today in our world of internet reviewers, bloggers and extremely close author-reviewer relationships as it was. I received many more comments on my snarkier Sparkle Project than I ever have on my more recent work, and many authors have expressed their chagrin at the funny reviews that they see as being written solely for the purposes of popularity. Indeed, they are very popular, and this trend isn't limited to GoodReads. Professional critics are famed for their subjectivity and the often hilarious results it produces – Roger Ebert displayed particular vitriol towards the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones because of personal biases regarding religion, Pauline Kael was notoriously lax towards film-makers she was fond of, and Mark Kermode's most popular reviews are those of films he rips apart, such as the Sex & the City movies. We are entertained by anger, especially the geeky kind, which is one of the reasons the reviewers of That Guy With The Glasses have become so popular. How much power these reviews have is a different story. These reviews, as well as many of my own, are more likely looked upon as a form of entertainment in themselves rather than a true form of criticism to be analysed by the potential consumer before they make their final choice. That's not to say they don't possess some power, but the value placed upon them is of a different manner (an interesting exception to this is the New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley, whose hilariously scathing reviews can destroy a Broadway show.)

There are certain instances where my biases are too much and I feel I cannot properly review a work due to such conflicts of interest. There are several authors with whom I am very friendly and chat to frequently. I will not review their work because that feels like a crossed line to me. I would not be able to separate myself from that association. I know some reviewers who can do this and am fine with it, but I would prefer it if they offered some sort of disclaimer addressing this possible conflict just to put their possible biases forward for the reader to judge. This also extends to professional authors offering cover quotes for me. It's part of the business, I understand that completely, I know it's a close business and I know many authors give glowing reviews to their friends. It's part of the game and I know it would be stupid for each cover quote to come with a small font disclaimer on the back or something like that, but many readers put a lot of trust in their favourite authors and I find it somewhat disingenuous for that relationship to be spoiled by unacknowledged nepotism.

There are also some authors, directors, musicians, etc, for whom their personal lives or associations have become too much of a distraction for me to look at their work in as objective a manner as possible. Orson Scott Card's rampant bigotry and donation of money to homophobic groups will always be the first thing I think of when I see his name, not his work. I refuse to watch Roman Polanski's movies because it feels too much like rewarding a rapist paedophile. Chris Brown is not a musician to me, he's a violent thug. As such, I would rather not waste my and the readers' time by paying attention to such works, even for the purposes of snark. It's too much effort and nobody would gain anything from it.

For me, reviews are a crucial part of my life as a reader and consumer. I have a circle of friends and co-bloggers with whom I share similar tastes and opinions and find I generally agree with. Even when we don't agree, I appreciate their opinions and honesty. They, like me, have certain biases and I am aware of them, although I understand not everyone will be, but I trust the average reviewer to draw those conclusion themselves. As long as a review is substantial and gives me well thought out reasons as to whether a book is good or bad, I will find it satisfying. This is a similar reason as to why I tend to distrust reviewers that offer nothing but glowingly positive reviews or extremely negative ones. Both often seem insubstantial of real content or analysis to me. I need to know more reasons why you loved a book beyond the hero being sexy!

GoodReads is not the enemy. No reviewer is the enemy. Bloggers read and write because they love it. Objectivity is strange because I don't know if it really exists. We all have our biases, acknowledged or otherwise. Some will review for laughs, others for serious debate, although these things are not mutually exclusive. All I can really hope for from my reviews is that people find some level of satisfaction in them. I think that's all anyone can really hope for.

We'd love to hear some of your thoughts on this subject. What do you look for in a review? How highly do you hold objectivity and how much do your own biases play a part in your criticisms?

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