There’s been a ridiculous amount of drama surrounding book reviews in the last few months. I’ve been staying out of it, mostly because the bizarre ‘us vs. them’ mentality that everyone is rushing to perpetuate is so…unbelievably…tedious. So let’s talk about something else!
If you’ve spent any time around any sort of reviewing community, you’ve likely heard people mention a rare (possibly mythical) creature known as an ‘objective review’. Almost never can anybody define what such a thing might look like, or where you might go to see one. But they’re sure that it exists, and they’re equally sure that it would be preferably to whatever subjectivity-ridden trash they’re commenting on at that moment.
Demanding ‘objectivity’ in a review is a great way of revealing that you’re one of those people who can’t handle people whose taste differs from yours. (This is not a bad thing. The sooner you expose yourself, the sooner everyone can get down to the important business of ignoring you.) It’s a stand-in for ‘I disagree with you, so I’m going to make a clumsy attempt at undermining not only your opinion, but your right to state that opinion in the first place‘. Put like that, it’s transparently stupid.
But just for fun, let’s see what an ‘objective’ review would actually look like! Here are the first two paragraphs of my review for Matched:
I’ll be upfront. I expected to dislike Matched.
On the surface, it sounds like yet another entry in the already-homogenous YA dystopian genre: teenage character (usually a girl) lives in a restrictive future society where [something] happens on their [x]th birthday; the [something] leads her to meet a male love interest, who opens her eyes to her society’s hidden flaws. In Matched’s case, the [something] is the titular Matching Banquet, in which 17-year olds are ‘matched’ with each other according to the meticulous statistical acuity of the omnipresent Society.
So far, so standard, but Matched very quickly surprised me. I found myself caring about the events of the Matching Banquet even though I knew in advance that Cassia’s ideal Match, her best friend Xander, would be briefly replaced on her screen by her neighbour Ky Markham. On the surface, it doesn’t feel like a momentous event, particularly when you know it’s coming, and I have to applaud Ally Condie for pulling the rug out from under me and getting me invested in the story right from the beginning. A subsequent scene involving the pre-ordained death of Cassia’s grandfather cemented my opinion that Condie is far more talented than most other YA authors making their debuts at the moment.
How ‘objective’ is this? Actually, I’m going to say that all of it is except for that struck-out sentence in the first paragraph. I’ll explain why in a second.
Now here’s the next paragraph:
Unfortunately, the narrative begins to slack off somewhere around the 100 page mark. As with so much speculative YA at the moment, the story ultimately boils down to a love triangle: will Cassia choose the safe option in Xander, her ‘official’ Match, or will she end up falling in love with the enigmatic outsider Ky? Well, take a wild guess. As a character, Xander is terminally boring up until the last 50 pages or so. Ky is far more interesting, to the point that he’s easily more compelling a character than Cassia herself. I honestly cannot figure out why the entire story wasn’t told from his point of view. Of all the characters, he has the most interesting backstory, the greatest reason for wanting to change the society he lives in, and the most to lose. Cassia felt like a secondary character in his story, which is a problem given that we spend the entire novel with her. The book’s surprisingly downbeat ending even leaves him in a very interesting situation for the sequel (Matched is, of course, the first in a trilogy), yet I have a sinking feeling that we’ll be forced to experience that sequel through Cassia’s eyes.
Whoops. Strikethrough indicates subjective piffle getting in the way of the sweet, rigorous objectivity.
What was wrong with that last paragraph, you ask? Simple: I didn’t preface my thoughts with some variation on the phrase ‘I think…’ or ‘It is my opinion that…’ It is objectively true that it is my opinion that Matched was better than I expected. It is also objectively true that it is my opinion that the book goes downhill halfway through, but I forgot to include a disclaimer in that part – therefore, so the thinking goes, I’m trying to turn subjective taste into objective fact. This is primary school-level thinking, that if you don’t make sure to say that something is your opinion, you’re trying to proclaim irrefutable truth and can thus be ignored. And that’s really what people who demand so-called ‘objectivity’ actually want: an easy way to dismiss opinions they don’t like as, er, mere opinion. (As opposed to opinions they do like, which are presumably not opinions.)
Think about what an objective review would actually look like. It would be a collection of absolutely uncontroversial facts about a book: Is title, the name of its characters (but nothing about how well-written they are), the viewpoint in which it is written (but nothing about whether that viewpoint is appropriate for the story), a bare-bones explanation of its plot (but nothing about how interesting or affecting or exciting that plot might be). Riveting.
Nobody really wants an objective review. What they want is an excuse to instantly dismiss opinions they don’t like.