I'm going to start with this post, which is going to establish what I mean by "what's good" and "what you like;" despite seeming like pretty self-evident phrases, it turns out that there's a stunning amount of ambiguity lurking there. Then, in part two, I'm going to discuss how to accomplish those things. But to start: part one! Check it out, below the break.
Let's start by laying down a few premises:
1) It is almost impossible to write a review which is entirely "objective," and such reviews are almost always shallow and, frankly, dullI lead with this because a legitimate criticism of reviewers--"the reviewer is confusing or conflating objective issues with subjective complaints"--often gets reduced to a totally untenable suggestion (or demand)--"the reviewer should stick to objective complaints." The fact is, almost nothing about a story is truly "objective," and even things like spelling and sentence construction can be very subjective (to what degree is it acceptable to render phonetic spellings, run-on sentences, or passive constructions in character dialogue? In first-person narration? In third-person narration where the narrator has a distinct voice?).
But even if we identified some limited subset of construction that we could deem "totally objective..." well, would a review that talked about nothing but spelling be interesting? More to the point, would it be worth reading to anyone but the author, and would it be even a fraction as useful even to that person as a more complete review would be?
The fact is, "objective quality" is only a very small part of a story, and to comment solely on it would be like judging cars entirely by how many MPG they get: it's important information, sure, but it's myopic to treat it as the entire story.
2) "Subjective" covers a vast range, from broadly agreed-upon to entirely idiosyncratic.I think this one's pretty self-explanatory. Some subjective elements are technically matters of opinion, but are so much in the popular consensus that they can essentially be treated as fact; other opinions are virtually singular to the reviewer. The point here is simply that "subjective" doesn't necessarily mean "one person's opinion;" essential elements of the main six's characterization are "subjective" in that they can't be objectively proven, but that doesn't mean that a reviewer saying "It's out of character for Applejack to greet her friends with a hearty 'Heya, F***n**s'" is speaking without basis.
3) It is a reviewer's responsibility to indicate to what degree a criticism is subjective.So, reviewers are going to say things that aren't undeniable truths: that are, in fact, opinions. And those opinions will range from "consensus" to "eccentric." That's all fine... but a reader ought to be able to tell how subjective those subjective elements are upon reading the review. Otherwise, all they're really getting is an unvetted set of opinions, after all. Whether the reviewer does this by citing examples so that a reader can see the extent and nature of the issue and judge it for themselves, or just by being self-aware enough to say "this probably won't bother most people, but..." it should be possible for a review-reader to easily tell how unique-to-the-reviewer any particular bit of commentary is.
With those premises established, let's take a minute to acknowledge that there are lots of kinds of reviews. There's the kind that I do on this blog; there's pre-reading; there are comments left on stories; and on and on. There are also reviewers who take the "review" part of their commentary more seriously than others, most obviously with some using the fics they target as vehicles to crack jokes and rant. I would hold that all three of the above hold true in any of these situations, though; a comment, author-centric review, and an AVGN-style diatribe should all still be guided by an awareness of those three points.
So with that said: how does one actually go about the messy business of separating an opinion-that's-basically-fact from an opinion-that-absolutely-isn't? And how ought all this to influence how one reviews a story? Should one discount idiosyncratic opinions, or is it enough to identify them while still highlighting them?
I'll discuss all of this on Monday. But for now, what I want to highlight is this: any review that aspires to more than editing advice (and very limited editing advice, at that!) must be informed by the reviewer's opinion; the question is how best to use and clearly show that opinion.