How personal should book reviews be?

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In a recent comment, a reader stated that s/he would have preferred the review to be more objective, as it was too biased by personal taste. In reply, I stated that yes, my reviews are very subjective, but that’s the way I want them to be. I still feel that way, but the comment got me thinking – how personal should book reviews be? What do you consider subjective and objective?  Who are you writing them for, and how does that influence your opinion in the objectivity/subjectivity debate? A reviewer for a literary magazine, I imagine, should be as objective as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, a blogger writing simply for enjoyment and mostly sharing the blog with friends can make it as personal as they please.

To me, Violin in a Void falls somewhere between these extremes. It’s entirely my own initiative, no one expects or pays me to do this, and thus I have the independence to do and say as I feel.

On the other hand, this blog is not simply a means of sharing my thoughts with people who know me and are familiar with my preferences. For that I have sites like Goodreads. Here, there are readers who I have never spoken to and who, I presume, are looking for useful reviews, insights and information. I want to be able to give them that, and to increase my following, which would mean maintaining interest largely through the quality of my reviews.

At the same time I can’t and don’t want to ignore the fact that reading, and reading novels in particular, is normally quite a personal thing. We all bring our own experiences and preferences to a book, and when I’m reading I’m very aware of how taste influences my opinion of a text.

As a result, my reviews tend to be fairly subjective. And as I said, I want it to be that way. To suppress my biases is not just to avoid saying something negative and potentially mean about a book, but also to avoid speaking passionately about books that I loved. The former might be frowned upon at times, but the latter is always encouraged. In my opinion, reviewers should be free to do both.

But with that freedom comes responsibility. In being candid and subjective, I feel that I should explain myself, that I should say why I feel the way I do. After all, I am writing book reviews that are available to everyone, to people who know nothing about me and my tastes. My blog is not particularly noteworthy or influential, but I take it seriously, and I take reviewing seriously. Consequently, I need to give readers a means of judging whether or not they would agree with my opinions on a piece of writing. So if I say that a novel is boring, then I explain that it’s because there’s too much romance. That way, romance fans will understand that they might feel differently, while those who dislike the genre know they would be more likely to feel the same way I do.

At times I also try and imagine what other readers might think of a book. A sci fi novel that I loved might bore some of the genre fans because it focuses on characters not technology, so I point that out. Such suggestions can be especially useful when writing a negative review for the kind of book I don’t typically enjoy – it’s a way of saying “this is how I feel, but the people who this is written for would probably disagree”. A more objective review would probably take this point of view as often as possible, with the reviewer putting themselves in the shoes of the intended reader. I’d rather not attempt this. I think it’s essential to judge a book based on what it’s intended to be (don’t expect a literary masterpiece from an escapist crime novel, for example), but I feel it’s disingenuous to try and insert yourself into a different persona for the sake of a review.

That’s more or less been my strategy thus far, but it doesn’t work for everyone, so I’m throwing a few questions out there, because I’m curious to know what others think and it might be good to reassess my reviewing style. How personal do you think book reviews should be? Is it ok to let out your personal tastes show? What do you consider subjective and objective? If you review, who are you writing reviews for, and how does that influence your opinion in the objectivity/subjectivity debate?

4 thoughts on “How personal should book reviews be?

  1. I like to know the truth in reviews. I want to know how a book made you feel, what you think could be improved etc. Also why you liked a book.

  2. As I’ve been following a few reviewers with similar tastes to my own (and a few with completely different tastes and opinions), I’ve grown to dislike reviews that are too objective. I want a review that “gets down to business” and tells me “I (didn’t) like this BECAUSE”. Reasons and motivation is key. People who get too personal and just attack the author/writing/style/subject without explaining themselves gives subjective reviews a bad name.

    Reviewers that are trying to be too objective sometimes make a book sound good that isn’t. Or tells you a book is great, but all the reasons are flat and generic. I listen to personal opinions more.

  3. I’ve always thought that you balance the subjective/objective quite well – as you said, you give your reasons, and point out why a fan of the genre might like/not like the book.

    You can’t please all the people all the time. Personally, I like reviewers to be a bit subjective – especially if you don’t know the person; it makes them human, and makes you feel less guilty about not liking something that you feel you should, because you’re a fan of the genre…or an English major!

  4. I figure that the whole point of a review is to express your opinion, and therefore it cannot be but subjective. As long as you explain the reason behind your opinion (which you do!) then it’s all good. 🙂

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