Friday, March 11, 2016

Reviewing: What's Good vs. What You Like (Part 1 of 2)

One of the easiest difficulties to encounter when reviewing--and one of the most common criticisms leveled at reviewers--is an inability to separate the quality of a story from one's enjoyment of it.  So... here are my thoughts on the matter, and on how to (try to) avoid conflating the two.  This all will be phrased specifically in the context of writing reviews of fanfiction, but it's equally applicable to any form of reviewership.

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, dull
I 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.


  1. "But even if we identified some limited subset of construction that we could deem 'totally subjective...'"

    Shouldn't that be "objective"?

    1. I would say that that's subjective~

      Okay, okay, I'll fix it. I'll replace the semicolon-which-should-be-a-colon which M noted below, too.

    2. If it makes you feel any better, I probably would've used an em dash there by mistake. I think we've established by now that punctuation isn't my forte, so that doesn't put you in good company, but at least you're not alone!

  2. "So, reviewers are going to say things that aren't undeniable truths; that are, in fact, opinions."

    What really freaks me out here is that neither Grammarly nor Word's grammar checker flag this as incorrect, yet it is clearly semicolon abuse.

    What dark sorcery is this?

    1. Could they be confusing "that are" for a grammatically correct sentence?

  3. Is that a "Heya, fucknuts" I see? Chris, you're giving me better and better ideas for terrible fanfic.

  4. I'll wait until the next post to weigh in much, but for me, the biggest thing in trying to bridge the gap between subjective and objective is walking through a logical argument.

    I've seen TRG rejections where a reviewer's reason was no more than "I didn't connect with the character." If something like that appears on Joe Blow's FiMFiction blog post, that's fine. It's not illustrative to the author or to any potential readers, but he's not purporting to represent anyone's reaction but his own. But again, it really limits the usefulness of his review, and unless he's got some other reason to gain a lot of readership with his blog posts, nobody's going to pay much attention to it. Now, say fifteen people review the story, and all give similarly short and unhelpful comments, but twelve of them are all the same "I didn't connect with the character." In aggregate, that does start to highlight a problem, though it's still not going to help the author address it or the reader decide whether it would hamper his enjoyment.

    Why I find that pretty inexcusable for serious reviewers and, more importantly, feature groups is because they should at least try to transcend that subjective/objective gap. That starts with an explanation of why you didn't connect with that character. With that, the author and reader can understand and either agree with or counter your evaluation. And then comes the hard part, which is pretty critical for feature entities, because it's the role they assume by holding themselves forward as gatekeepers of quality: providing that reasoned argument that shows an opinion should have enough consensus behind it to be taken as much closer to an objective statement. In other words, do a convincing job of saying why not only "I didn't connect with this character" but "I think most discerning readers would fail to connect to this character."

    That's not an easy thing to do, and too many reviewers rest on "I know what I'm talking about, and you should just take my word for it." It's the good ones who can transcend personal opinion, and the length of a review isn't even that reliable a guide as to which ones can.

  5. It's a very difficult thing to do, and from what I've seen, reviewers succeed or fail at it based on their own instincts rather than any "mechanistic way" of telling the difference.

    I've also noticed that quite a lot of reviewers will go easy on a story for objective structural flaws if the story is one they really enjoy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

    The best sort of a review summary I have run across goes something like this:

    If you enjoy A, B, and C, you'll probably enjoy this story. If you dislike X, Y, and Z, avoid it.

    Any of those variables could be subjective or objective observations, and it doesn't much matter after a reader has compared the reviews to the actual stories and discovered the reviewer's particular idiosyncrasies.

  6. Always a worthwhile topic. I'm doing some reviews lately as well for Everfree Northwest's Scribblefest contest (in addition to my own entry) and while I think I'm doing a pretty good job of keeping these two things separate, a little reminder is probably a good idea. I'd like to see part 2 when it comes!

  7. I think one of the main problems is that many people see being objective as a goal, and therefore, believe that their own reviews and opinions are objective because they have good opinions, and therefore, they must be objective, right?

    I see people complain about "subjective" complaints, and then they themselves make subjective complaints.

    Subjectivity is, thus, inevitable.

    But the thing is, there's both subjective in the sense of "I personally struggled with this" and subjective in the sense of "this is a problem which cannot be easily quantified but is, in fact, a flaw".

    There isn't even always a clear distinction between those, though; for instance, is an accent too difficult to read? Some people will say yes, others will say no, even though readability is about as objective a concern as you can get - thus, even our view of objective things is often subjective and based on our own personal ability and experience. Some people might really suck at reading accented voices in text, while others have no problem with even thick ones.

    I think one of the greatest dangers you can face is in thinking that you are rational or objective, because what happens is that you then believe yourself to be such, while behaving irrationally or subjectively. When you believe that you are rational or objective, what you do BECOMES rational or objective in your own mind, resulting in your desired behavior failing to actually manifest itself.

    That's not to say that striving for these things is bad, but I think a lot of folks end up taking the end point because they're positive things and end up putting themselves there.

    The reality is that analyzing the value of things like stories is a highly subjective process which is informed by some objective rules which are very difficult to quantify, but different people put very different weights on different things. Ultimately, I think what a reviewer really needs to do is get a feel for themselves and analyze why they feel the way they do. I think that's really the most important part of a review - the reviewer understanding just what it is that is making them feel a certain way about a story.

    That is, I think, the most "objective" form of knowledge you're going to get from a review - what it is a story is like, and why it made the reviewer react in the way that they did.

  8. My biggest criticism of your reviews is that you don't review enough stories by Cold in Gardez, and you never give him enough stars, either.