Sunday Salon: On Celebrating Subjectivity

It has been hard to escape the whirlwind of opinions surrounding bloggers as valuable and actual reviewers, or not. There have been a lot of thoughtful responses to this question, not least of all Ana’s post “On Objectivity, Again” last week. When I read her post, I felt that my own draft “On Subjectivity”, which I had been staring at for weeks, as I so often do, lost most of its value. Ana really said it all. And yet, I feel the need to hit publish this week. Because I feel these thoughts, like my last post on being an insecure reader, all build up to my vision of what I want my blog to be. Of course, what follows is written in my particular round-about version, asking more questions than I provide answers.

During my first year of blogging, I questioned the use of the word “review” on my blog. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what instigated my doubts about my use of the term. Now I suspect it may have been another round of these questions popping up. Actually, my opinions have changed a little. There is something anti-authoritarian in me that feel the need to go “so, I’m not allowed to use the word review for what I’m doing? Well, what if I want to use it anyway?” But really, is it even a question of what word we are using? Actually, I think that is beside the point. It is, in the words of my former post, what I felt to be my inability to claim that I wrote “proper reviews”. My question now has more to do with what a “proper review” actually is? Who decides on the definition? And why should we care?

Maggie Stiefvater answers that a review is “an unbiased, careful look at a book — basically it is a little academic paper.” I have been puzzling over why this one sentence struck such a nerve for me. I think it comes down to two things: the claim to objectivity, and the claim to professionalism, or an authoritarian voice, defined by a small group. Let me try to explain.

First, let me point out that I respect Stiefvater’s opinion. And that, I think, to some extent, her definition of a review is correct (though I doubt it is really a matter of being correct or incorrect). However, I feel that way because it denotes a segment of reviewers who approach what they call reviews in that particular way. It may be what a newspaper aims for. But here’s the thing: bloggers do not equal newspapers. And who says that what bloggers do cannot simply be another way of defining the word “review”? Is it the fact that newspapers reach more readers, have a longer claim to “objectivity”, can point to a tradition, that enables them to claim the right to define a “proper review”? I am simply asking questions here, because I do not know the answer. But the questions do intrigue me.

Claiming objectivity always triggers something within me. What kind of objectivity are we talking about? In particular when it is related to a claim to authority, such as academics. I have been trying to think of “objective”, or “proper” reviews in relation to what I have come to think of as “proper” historical writing, and “amateur” history. The funny thing is, it is rather hard to define, isn’t it? It is a hurtful and snide contrast, that is not always necessary. One of the things we are made to be aware of as academic historians from the very start is the subjective nature of every step undertaken in research: the source as representation instead of fact, the selection of sources as an accidental and to some extent subjective process, the interpretation of sources along certain lines, with certain theories, methodologies, and personal preferences all interfering. Subjectivity is part of the process, every step along the way. One of the things required in writing an academic paper is reflection on the selective and subjective process. When a paper lacks such a critical reflection, and simply claims to tell history “as it happened”, with no reflection on the subjectivity come into play, many will question the legitimacy of the paper. Some would call it amateur, but I personally resent that term. “Amateur” historians can provide valuable viewpoints to the discussions, while some academic papers can be without its uses at a certain point in time (but may become relevant again later, etcetera).

There is a way in which historians claim to be “objective”. When writing one particular paper, the researcher supports his thesis with an overview of the interpretation process, and providing “proof” of the reading of the sources (through citations, etcetera). I wouldn’t say this proves objectivity, but it does prove careful analysis. Furthermore, it has been accepted that one subject requires a study from diverse angles, taking all sorts of biases into account, to eventually result in different viewpoints on the same subject matter, that together do not make up “the truth”, but at least secure the reader with the knowledge that no interpretation is absolute, and with diverse angles from which to decide his own standpoint.

Now, let us return to the question of reviews. If you ask me if I think there is a difference between reviews, some citing more extensive proof to back up their claims than others, I would answer that this is true. If you ask me whether I think that the more extensively researched reviews therefore provide an objective view of what is, or is not, a good book, I would give you a resounding “no” as an answer. Let’s not forget that all reviewers are persons, that all read books by some standard; a standard formed through education, the amount and diversity of their reading, their personal life, their personal contacts, and their aims and interests. That standard may work for them personally, it may work for their readers, it may work for one group of professional reviewers, but it does not mean the standard is universal.

I do not believe in rigid boundaries between “professionalism” and “amateurism”. I do not believe in “one correct reading”, or even one standard of aspiring to what is “objective”. In short, I believe in diversity and overlap. I think one of the reasons blogging has grown and newspaper book supplements have shrunk, is because perhaps people do not need just the professional opinion on culture anymore. Not everyone want to accept the professional response of one person as truth, or as the main guiding principle, anymore. I wonder if that was ever really the intended purpose of newspaper reviews? I doubt it, but it has become a dominant defense mechanism is response to blogs, while I think the two could engage, exchange, overlap, and  interact.

It is the personal response that I seek, and through reading a selection of such personal responses, I aim to come to some opinion of whether or not to buy a book. Furthermore, through reading a selection of thoughts on a book, I aim to broaden my own perspective and the standards by which I judge a book. This is not to say that professional reviews no longer have a place in this world, I am sure I could learn a lot from them, we all could. It means that there need not be a choice. There need not be one rigid definition of what is a “proper” review, or what is a “proper” reading, come to think of it. I, personally, prefer to look at a book through the eyes of others, persons I have come to know because they provide glimpses of their life along the way of writing about books, it is how I constantly renegotiate my own identity as a reader, as someone who thinks about my reading. Association, dissociation, discussion. It is the very diversity of reviews which I want to celebrate through blogging, it is the subjectivity which allows me to make up my own mind, because it does not tell me what to think, or by which standards to judge a book without allowing change, but because it tells me what others think, and how I may or may not want to interact with that. Subjectivity, to me, is not a dirty word, it is not something that marks the boundary between professional and worthy reviews, and amateur ones. Actually, I love blogging because of its acceptance of the personal, of the subjective. And I think we can be allowed to celebrate and embrace it.

I should note that I do make a distinction between “celebrating subjectivity” and “celebrating personal attacks or rudeness”. I think that discussion is one that relates to “freedom of speech” and having the decency to take the feelings of others into account. The internet makes it easier to ignore the feelings of others, sometimes, but it does not mean that inflicting hurt should become our new standard. But honestly, it also does not mean that there is one stark contrast between “objective and professional” reviews, and more “personal and subjective” ones. It need not always be the same discussion. Professional reviews can marginalise and hurt, as can blogs. In a positive way, both can contribute to celebrating reading and books, and learning from each other. Why the need to define and exclude, when we could be diverse and interact?

Clearly, this post did not come out as planned. Clearly, there are a ton of questions that I could discuss again and again. But there’s only one place to start doing that, right? And that is by pushing publish. Happy Sunday!

Edited to include Jodie’s fabulous analysis of the objective/subjective, and academic/personal debate. I *wish* I could have formulated it so spot on: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

20 responses to “Sunday Salon: On Celebrating Subjectivity

  1. Great post, Iris! I like especially how you suggest that maybe bloggers are redefining the word “review”. Yes, words get new meanings through the years and there is nothing wrong with that. I think it’s perfectly fine to call what we write a “review” even if it’s not always quite to newspaper standards.

    With regards to newspapers (3rd par from bottom), I do think there is this idea that a newspaper review is “truth” and that newspapers aim for that. I think so because under their reviews there often isn’t a name, but just the initials. So, the person behind the review is identifiable, but not actually important. This suggests (to me) that the review could have been written by any of their reviewers and still come out roughly the same way, i.e., the review is the truth about the book and not a personal opinion.

  2. “Subjectivity is part of the process, every step along the way. One of the things required in writing an academic paper is reflection on the selective and subjective process. When a paper lacks such a critical reflection, and simply claims to tell history “as it happened”, with no reflection on the subjectivity come into play, many will question the legitimacy of the paper.”

    This is such an important point. A lot of people associate “objective and unbiased” with “how academics do it”, but that’s such an oversimplification of the complex and very self-aware process of research and literary analysis. The very best critics and researchers are the ones who KNOW they are influenced by several factors and probably have no final, definitive answer to offer. And the very same approach is usually behind the kind of bookish conversations I gravitate to online.

    On a similar note, asking more questions than providing answers is often my favourite approach to complex questions. Thank you for being willing to do that.

    • To clarify, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in the idea of scientific objectivity, but I think it’s silly to pretend that history or literary criticism are only of any value if they manage to emulate the approach of the natural sciences.

  3. As always – what a thought-inspiring post, Iris! I started commenting here, but then realised this was getting so long I decided to make a post out of it. I’m still honing it but will post the link here once I’m finished.

  4. Wonderful post, Iris. Like you, I was struck my Steifvater’s “little academic paper” line, and I have to say I don’t think even newspaper reviews read like little academic papers. I don’t get that at all. However, it is true that most of them avoid a lot of personal reaction and reflection, which bloggers often embrace. One of the things that I love about blog reviews is that there’s room for us to lay out our own biases and subjectivities and discuss how that colors our responses to a particular book.

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  6. I don’t think anyone from an academic background (including historians) would even use words like “objective” or “unbiased” anymore, but that doesn’t mean one can’t draw certain distinctions between “professional” reviews and “amateur” reviews. I think the problem is that the very word “professional” (which could actually only mean nothing more than one which receives monetary compensation), exerts its own form of bias and implies “better” which of course isn’t the case at all. What we perhaps need is a less emotionally-freighted word to imply, say, reviews that focus on a particular author’s achievement vis-a-vis his or her own oeuvre, or the genre generally, or one that provides plot plus analysis versus reviews that focus on reader reaction. But there is a lot of overlap still amongst those categories. Indeed, sometimes what passes for a “professional” review is nothing more than reader reaction by a “famous” person. None of that seems very useful to me. I think in the final analysis [sic] I go with paid versus unpaid!

  7. It’s so hard to put into words how I feel about this topic, because my feeling on it is a work-in-progress, and so much of what I feel is “gut instinct” unsupported by any sort of academic knowledge. I don’t know how to talk about what is and is not objective/subjective, etc. So I commend you on getting this written and getting the conversation going. I know everything you have written must have felt unfinished, like you were “getting at” the point you were trying to make but couldn’t quite capture it in words. That’s how I feel about this topic! And I agree — eventually it’s just time to hit “submit.” Since you and I are questioners more than we are the type to declare a definitive and final answer, I think it’s an endless struggle: we’ll never feel like we’re ready to hit “submit.” :)

    Here are my bumbling thoughts on this topic, written a week or so ago. I still feel they’re a work-in-progress that will likely change a lot, once I start taking some lit classes. But they’re what I could sculpt for now.

    Thanks for posting this. I so agree: the definition of a “review” is not necessarily finished cooking. The book blogger yeast might be changing the shape of reviewing. ;)

  8. What a wonderful post! I write reviews for both professional publication and for my blog. I’m required to follow a more narrow definition of review when I publish. I much prefer and enjoy the broader “definition” used by bloggers. They are both reviews in my opinion.

    On the helpfulness front, a review by a blogger that I follow regularly is usually much more helpful to me than the latest professional critic’s review. I get a feel for where we agree or diverge and can use that to inform myself about how I might or might not like the book being reviewed. Even if we disagree, I enjoy the more personal thoughts and responses that bloggers provide about books they have read. And because they are blog posts, we can even interact on different aspects of their review. A much more edifying experience, I think.

    You are so right about the capacity for hurt in a professional review. Some professionals have forgotten that there are real thinking, feeling people reading their reviews. Don’t know how many times I’ve come away from some of those reviews feeling like a dunce because I either liked something the professional thought was horrible, or I thought differently about the value of a book that the reviewer praised as seminal.

  9. I disagree that any one definition of ‘review’ can be considered binding – any linguist would know that a word’s meaning can change depending on the cultural and social context. If I say that what I write is a review, who is she to say I’m wrong?

  10. I’m just reading the new collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s work, and he raises the same question about “objectivity”–says that the American public would have been better served if journalists could have been more truthful and less “objective” about Richard Nixon.

    Writers always have to be honest first.

  11. I think this is a really well-written post and as Ana said one of the best way to approach a complex question is to keep asking questions. I don’t think there really is a right answer to this debate. If, in the end, it all really comes down to semantics, the reality is that our definitions of words are fluid and subjective. Language is constantly evolving and the language we use to discuss something is truly up to us. Is what we write on our blogs a review or is it a reaction? In the end does it matter?

  12. wonderful post ,I just do what I do I no way qualified to do it but love doing it all the same ,all the best stu

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  14. Excellent post.
    I don’t even try to make my blog posts “objective and unbiased” – that makes them impersonal not as interesting (on a consistent level) and frankly – too damn hard to write several times a week.

  15. Great post–very thought-provoking!

    Somehow, this objective/subjective debate reminds me of middle school: I remember when we were learning how to write essays, the first rule we were taught is never to use the word “I”. This one personal pronoun somehow invalidated whatever points you made.

    Since discovering the world of book blogging, exactly zero “professional” reviews have convinced me to buy or read a book. Sometimes one will make me curious about a book, but before setting out to buy it I first check to see whether bloggers I trust have enjoyed it.

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  17. Pingback: For the right-brained book bloggers: a manifesto, or why I don’t call my posts “reviews.” « A Room of One's Own

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