Reviews: An Object Lesson in Subjectivity

Reviews — Who are they for?

Honestly? I have no gods-damned idea.

The standard line is “Reviews are for readers, not writers,” but I’m not sure they’re even that. Maybe in aggregate — if a book has a large number of ratings, the average may be some sort of an indication of overall merit. And maybe some of the large, reputable reviewers serve that reader-informing purpose — I’m thinking of ALA’s Booklist or Book Page, both of which many libraries and booksellers rely upon — but some of the big trade reviewers, like PW and Kirkus, use readers with no more real qualification for the work than random folk on Goodreads, though their opinions are given considerably more weight. When you’re reading as many books as you can, randomly assigned to you, for $25-$50 a review, is that really thoughtful and considered work? I have my doubts.

Too, so many reviews are so personal, particularly on Goodreads and Amazon. I can tell you how I felt about a book at the time that I read it, but does that mean you’ll feel the same way? You won’t come to it with my background. You won’t be in my mood. You won’t have the same level of stress or distraction or whatever else might interfere with enjoyment. I’ve felt wildly different about books I’ve read more than once, just based on where in my life I was when I read them. Reviews are so subjective, and I feel as though that’s to the detriment of any one particular review’s use to other readers.

They’re certainly not for writers, though, unless the purpose is to give a writer hives. Debut authors are warned, many times, not to read reviews. And we all still do anyway. I’m trying to break the habit, but I can’t quite help it. And when the reviews are good, it’s rewarding! I like seeing that folk are enjoying the book, and I love when they mention their favorite characters, scenes, or themes. I bounce with delight when someone mentions one of the side characters that they attached to — Alhena or Bartasco or Neitin or Felix or Vibia. I wanted From Unseen Fire to be a world big enough for readers to find space for themselves in, and I created that large cast wanting to give as many windows into that world as possible. So it’s reassuring to see when the things I wanted to land have done so.

But the rest of the time? It’s an object lesson in “You can’t please everyone”. On the same day, one reader will say I infodumped too much and another will complain I didn’t explain the world sufficiently. I will never make both of those people happy. I will also never be able to please the people who come to a book with their own predeterminations of what the book Will Be, who then get annoyed when it isn’t exactly the book they wanted to read. I understand that frustration, but when I feel that way while reading a book, I always assume it’s about me, not about the book or its author. I go through periods where all I want to read are quick fluffy things, and I go through periods where I yearn for deep dives into complex worlds, but I never blame a book for being what it is just because I picked it up at the wrong time for me, personally.

Not all reviewers are so generous.

Ultimately, I think reviews are for the reviewer. At their best, it’s a way of processing all those words you’ve just spent time with. I used to run a personal review blog, and that’s what most of mine were: exploring the book’s ideas and characters, and looking at what the book made me think about and examine in myself. At their worst, they’re a way for a reviewer to strut — to show off how much they know, or how many books they can read in a week, or, at their absolute ugliest, how snarky they can be. There’s a weird culture of “who can hate things the most?” in some review circles, and personally, I just don’t understand it.

Anyway, I’m really going to stop reading them, I swear.


If you’d like to read From Unseen Fire and leave it an excellent review, it’s now available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook from many fine retailers!

Author: Cass Morris

Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

One Reply to “Reviews: An Object Lesson in Subjectivity”

  1. I get a fair amount of requests for reviews, and I’ve run into the issue of a book just not being for me. I know that a five star review system is a broken medium, and I’m usually loathe to subjectively penalize (particularly when I didn’t engage in the social contract of purchase).

    My standard MO is to fade into the ether rather than leave anything below a three (and even that takes the consideration of whether my opinion adds to the mercantile narrative). Do I want objectively bad books clogging the airwaves? Not at all? Yet my “I loved it.” might not make it a “good” book.

    Mike and Jerry at Penny Arcade have delightfully ranted about such concepts regarding video games, and Mike once opined (in paraphrase), “I’ll usually play what a friend hands to me, but even then they’re not, ‘You have to play this. It’s an eight!'”

    What’s a pro/am reviewer to do? How can reviewers help make the systems better?

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