Why I don’t believe in unbiased reviews

thoughts orangutan

Controversial opinion time: my subjective opinion is *subjective*. Okay, just kidding, that’s not really debatable (even if it is fun to see people trying to debate that). However, I’m not here to talk about how silly it is to try and dictate taste today- no, right now I want to talk about why it’s okay to have biased reviews (which is probably a lot more of a contentious statement).

Let me explain. It’s not just that being opinionated is unavoidable in a review- though since we’re all human (/sentient primates) that is the case- it’s that it’s actually desirable to share your opinions. As Lashaan brilliantly said in his post “how objective are your reviews”, being subjective actually helps readers to figure out whether we might dislike or like a book. The main point of a review isn’t just to get across a sense of what happens in a book- that’s what a synopsis or blurb is for. No, reviews are to help us make value judgements over whether we want to read something or not. And that can only happen if we’re in touch with our own thoughts and feelings about a book.

Now, of course, that means we have to be aware that we’re being subjective. In Rachael’s excellent post, “How to Not Suck at Reviewing in Five Easy Steps”, she pointed out how it’s necessary to compartmentalise our own emotions and identify when we’re being subjective. It’s no good, for instance, to just say “well that was rubbish” and leave it at that. We have to be reasoned in our approach to reviewing. If we say we don’t like something, preferably it should be done in a way that other people can make up their own minds (and also not to shame other people for liking it). Even better if we can state our own biases to explain where we’re coming from; best of all if we can go as far as to recommend it to people who might actually like it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being biased, we just have to remember not everyone will share our view.

Throne_of_Glass_UKFor me, the only issue would come from stating an opinion as fact. Elliot Brooks argued brilliantly in her video “Book Lovers Love Book Hate” that claiming a book is “objectively bad” doesn’t make much sense- I mean, we already know it’s your opinion, so how can it be objective? Too often I have seen this on Booktube as well- especially with regards to reviews of Sarah J Maas books- which I have always found especially illuminating. One complaint, for instance, that regularly arises is that the ellipsis (or otherwise known as fragmentation) is “objectively bad”… which, sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, isn’t the case. As discussed in my post “the Art of Fragmentation”, the technique has many uses that can be appreciated whether you enjoy it or not.

tasteIn fact, this is the entire reason I created my Differences in Style series. What works for one reader may not work for another- and that’s okay! Once again, taste is subjective and therefore so are reviews. Maybe we’ll agree, maybe we won’t- regardless it’s not the end of the world. That’s the beauty of an opinion.

So, I really want to hear what you think! Do you agree or disagree with me here? Does it matter that reviews are subjective? Or should we be striving to be more objective? Is that even possible or desirable? Let me know in the comments!

98 thoughts on “Why I don’t believe in unbiased reviews

  1. I definitely agree! I try to be honest in my reviews about the fact that my opinions might be different than other people’s (also if I was in a bad mood or something that affected my reading). I hope that my readers are familiar with me and my reading tastes, and read my reviews with that in mind.

    I don’t know that reviews are really as useful or interesting if they are too objective – I like a little bit of personality when I read blog posts. Also probably not as fun to read.

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    1. I really get what you mean, I try to do the same. And yeah, I’m sure most people do (cos in my experience, you get pretty used to people’s tastes and get a clear impression where someone is coming from when they write their review).

      And I absolutely agree with you!

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  2. I’d like to think that my opinions aren’t affected by whether I received an eArc or something like that, but I was always acutely aware that my reviews were subjective. Are there really people out there that cannot acknowledge that? As you said, whenever I don’t like something, I either try to explain why or mention that it’s not a genre or whatever I am super comfortable in, but know that it has many fans elsewhere.
    I think that people trust my reviews, because they know what kind of person I am and what my taste is like and can therefore better judge if it’s something they’d enjoy or not. Even when it’s something I disliked, but we differ in opinion a lot, it might work for them.
    Great post!

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    1. Oh yeah I agree with you- and I hope that’s the case for me too. Yeah unfortunately I have seen the people who really are not objective (all on booktube) and as Elliot Brooks said in her video, they hilariously tend to use the phrase “objectively bad” a lot! (and for me, as a reviewer, that’s a pretty big red flag that they don’t know the line between fact and opinion!)
      And yeah, hehe I definitely trust your reviews (and I know other people do too!) cos it’s really clear where you’re coming from (and the same goes for bloggers I follow). I think, in my experience, bloggers are really good about spelling out why they liked/disliked something, whilst also being honest about how other people might like it.
      Thank you!

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  3. I think …you have lost me along the way LOL Anyway our reviews are ALWAYS biased as we give them from our personal reading experience! As we are shaped by our beliefs, education, sense of right or wrong we will never be able to write something totally unbiased.

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  4. Can I just say yes to everything you wrote. There’s a reason we have the saying, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” We all likes and dislikes, but my hot take on a book isn’t the end all be all. Whenever I state something in my reviews, positive or negative, I try to back it up. And, as far techniques the author uses in the actual writing, I feel like the written language has evolved so much, especially with the advent of widespread social media usage.

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  5. I completely agree, for the past year or so I am ending my reviews by ( is possible) writing the biases I might have even something as basic as liking the author’s previous works or my background 😄 because it genuinely makes a difference!!
    Every time I see the word unbiased I wonder how that’s possible (since the thought originally struck me, I cannot ignore the implications)

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  6. I totally agree. Books reviews are not going to be objective, because there is just no way to move outside your own biases. You can identify your biases and point them out in the review, but ultimately every person will read a book in a different way and have their own opinion of it. Honestly, it makes reviews more fun. I like to read why people felt the way they did about the book, and see for myself if it is something that would hit me the same way.

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    1. I’m glad you agree! Absolutely! And yeah I agree that it makes reviews more fun- I personally *want* to see people’s individuality and differences of opinion! (I even find it interesting to read when I liked a book and the other person didn’t- it rarely makes me change my mind, but it gives me a fresh perspective). Same!

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  7. I agree with this completely! This is the reason I much prefer to read the reviews from “non-professionals” like bloggers, because we really talk about how the book impacted us personally and how it made us feel, as opposed to more professional reviews that seem more focused on trying to be “objective.” It definitely gives me more of a sense of whether I’ll like the book.
    And the idea that a book is “objectively bad” bothers me so much. Book reviews and ratings are just opinions, and opinions are by nature subjective. So yes, I absolutely agree.

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    1. Ah I completely agree with you!! yes!! I don’t personally enjoy reviews from “professionals”, because they’re (often) missing that personal touch. And tbh too often they’re trying to be arbiters of taste… and I don’t like that. Me too.
      I absolutely agree with you!

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  8. I think there can be bad writing (e.g. using a word to mean something it never has, or perhaps writing a book with long, convoluted sentences where clarity is needed, such as technical books) but I think that generally, books we don’t like are books that don’t jive with our sense of taste/preference. I think the more important thing is for the reviewer to be upfront about their biases – that way the reader can decide if they agree with that worldview/preference or not.

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    1. Yes, when I hear “objectively bad,” I think of something where words are used wrong (Sarah J. Maas occasionally does this, actually, though I enjoyed some of her books), or books where the plot doesn’t make sense, or books where the plot is contradictory or inconsistent in some way. As an extreme example, I just read a medieval text where a character who died is later alive and kicking and doing stuff in the plot. I think something THAT crazy is unlikely today with professional editors, but I would say that made the structure of the text ojectively bad (I still enjoyed the overall story, though).

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      1. Thank you for voicing my own thoughts on this subject. If we think that writing is a craft, then there is an understanding that there are good and bad ways to do that craft. This discussion is muddled because the craft of writing a romance novel is different than writing literary fiction, and just because one genre is more highly regarded as a genre, doesn’t mean that the craft is bad. There is also an issue here that one might think that one’s personal taste is based on something being well crafted, which might not be the case. You can like something that’s not written well, and you can dislike something that is crafted well. So, you have both a discussion on genres having different worth in some groups and that personal taste doesn’t match something being well-crafted or not. No wonder people are worried when discussing books.

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        1. I do agree with you here- especially that you can like something that’s not written well and dislike something that is. I do think there is a difference in quality in books (and of course that there are good and bad ways to write). My point of contention was more that, more often than not, a critique of something that may sound technical, actually is a personal preference. I also think it’s possible in the case of different genres to just say “this isn’t the kind of thing that appeals to me” rather than commenting on its worth- which I don’t think is advisable (plus you won’t be making a claim that it’s good or bad objectively that way).
          I don’t think people should be worried about discussing books though- as with my reviews, this is just my subjective opinion 😉

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          1. I agree with you. I think a lot of times people want to think well of themselves and therefore think that my tast = well written. That is one of the things I like about blogging. It makes me think about why I like the things I like, trying to put it down on “paper”, without it having to do with a form of objective truth. It’s just my thoughts and connecting with others on their thoughts.

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        2. I really like the mention of craft! Writing/reading is often tricky because, on one hand, you can say everyone has a unique style, there’s not a “right” way to write, etc. But, then, in grad school I literally taught people how to write (expository writing, not creative writing) and made a point of saying that you can learn to do it and learn to be a good writer, which implies there are some sort of objective standards. Knowing what’s actually some sort of standard (like clarity) and what’s just your opinion is the important part, of course. It’s important as a reader, and I tried to work on that while teaching, too, because some students definitely have writing styles that aren’t “wrong” in any sense; I just didn’t like them. And I had to squash the impulse to “correct” or change things that just weren’t “the way I would have done it.?

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          1. That sounds like a great learning moment for you regarding understanding who you are as a writer and a reader, and your taste contrasted with craft. (But, I have also felt the urge to correct students whom just write differently than me and can empathise with that pain,).

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      2. Yeah I understand that (the example I was mentioning to do with Maas was in relation to her use of ellipsis- which is more of a subjective issue (which people are free to like/dislike)- but it’s also true that she does use the wrong words sometimes). And yeah that’s very true. hahaha yeah that makes sense- I can completely understand someone saying something like that was wrong (though, like you said, it may not take away from the overall enjoyment of the book)

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        1. Oh, I was just musing on Maas’s weird word choice in general because it’s something that always strikes me about her writing. :p She has such an interesting vocabulary, and yet she often uses words that are sort of almost right but not quite.

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    2. Oh I do agree with you that, technically speaking, something can be bad (or perhaps wrong). And if someone was to say the spelling was incorrect (or any of the things you mentioned), then that would be fair enough. But the funny thing I’ve noticed is that the criticism is that it tends to be about really subjective things (as with the example of saying ellipsis is “objectively bad”- which is a statement of opinion, not fact). And absolutely agree with that.

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  9. To be honest I don’t think I would even want to read an objective review. Sounds kind of boring! I think especially in blogging because we put so much of our personalities into our reviews. It’s how we connect with each other as book lovers and also how we get a sense of whether we have the same taste

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  10. I agree. One’s personal tastes and experiences will always color their opinion of and interpretation of a book. I try to separate that where possible (ex. if someone says “I don’t like novels written in verse, but people who do might like the book), but I don’t think you can ever be completely objective. Mainly I dislike when people act like some pet peeve of theirs is meaningful to others: “I hate characters with purple eyes, so Protagonist A is stupid.” Not…really.

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    1. Yeah for sure! And yeah I also try to point out my biases (but I’m sure I don’t always manage this, cos I’m a human/monkey 😉 ) hahahaha yeah I’ve definitely seen that too! That’s the main issue I was talking about- cos I see that kind of thing a lot (though not really on blogosphere to be fair, so kinda preaching to the choir here 😉 )

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  11. I agree with you. I definitely expect a personal touch in reviews, what I liked or not and why. I don’t like to describe a book in review that doesn’t say much other than what’s in the book which doesn’t help much. Reviews are definitely subjective, one cannot write an opinion without personal feeling and opinion varies.

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  12. I 100% agree – reviews are subjective by their very nature, and I don’t think there’s much point striving to be “objective”, unless by “objective” someone means they’re acknowledging/announcing their own preferences and biases in their review, which you mentioned and which I think is always helpful (though that is more a case of acknowledging subjectivity rather than being objective, as you say).

    Perhaps the only thing that would make a criticism in a review truly objective is if many many other reviewers said that exact same thing… but even then, you’d have others still who wouldn’t notice or care and might like it, so it’s going to be impossible to label something “objectively bad”. Funny that people try though!

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    1. Yes absolutely! And yeah I definitely think it’s good to acknowledge where you’re coming from, for sure.

      Yeah that’s true- I think there can be a consensus about a book (although, like you said, some people can say that). I guess the best thing to say there is “loads of other people agree with me” (and I’d completely understand someone saying this- in fact, it can be helpful!) haha yeah it is!

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  13. Well the whole point of a review is to give your opinion, right ? You HAVE to be biased and tell people how you think… How else can you get your point across ? Sure professional writers and reviewers in newspapers, magazines etc. know how to write while putting more distance between themselves and the book, but all in all, they still say whether they like it or not…

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  14. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve proven that I’m not a professional reviewer time and time again by injecting the “I” which is my subjective viewpoint into every review I’ve ever written. Because I’m not a professional, I tend to not review things I’ve hated as well, so it begins to seem as if I like everything. I assure you, I do not. But, I liked your post. Great write.

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    1. oh yeah I really relate! and I do understand that as well- I go through phases in that regard- so I get pulling back/not reviewing books you didn’t like. I think it’s entirely upto the individual reviewer what they feel comfortable with! Thank you!

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  15. Unless you’re only commenting on grammar (and even then debates rage about correct grammar, he he), then all reviews are subjective. You’re telling people what you liked or didn’t like so if you didn’t like a book then you’re going to think it’s bad. To someone else it will be good so there’s no such thing as a truly objective review.

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  16. I agree with you. I often start reviews of books or films by saying: ‘I have a weakness for Vienna or Eastern European themes or whatever it is, therefore I cannot be unbiased about this…’ There are some themes that just resonate with me more. Although that might make me more critical in certain instances, for example when it comes to cults and new religious movements, because that used to be my area of expertise.

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    1. I’m glad you agree! And yeah I hear you- I try to do the same! And absolutely agree with you. And that’s completely fair- I think we all have things like that (and that’s a really interesting area of expertise as well!)

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    1. Yeah I think there’s a lot of discussion on that and I agree with you- I do think that the writing can be bad (even just with things like grammar and spelling, which I’ve seen in traditionally published books as well) and other issues as well (I think Briana mentioned continuity issues, which is a good one)

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  17. Great post, and I agree with your points. Opinions aren’t objective, but isn’t that the point of writing to reviews? When I review, I’m sharing my own reaction, which may or may not align with others.

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  18. Screw people who think they have an objective perception of a product (e.g. a book) they’ve consumed and that their perception can be universally acknowledged by everyone. Long live our ability to translate our feelings into words and make reviews INDIVIDUAL! 😀 Thanks for the shoutout and great post! 🙂

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  19. I agree, all reviews are opinions and they can never be unbiased. That being said, if you can substantiate your claims (opinions) with a bit of reasoning, that is all we ask for!

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  20. Hm. I think there is a bit of confusion regarding wording here – because I do claim to write an unbiased review, given the dictionary definition of the word bias, which I looked up and is – “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.” I do NOT write reviews where my opinion has been unfairly slanted in any way and I don’t think book reviewers I visit do, either.
    However my reviews are entirely subjective, based on my experiences, my mood when reading the book and my personal tastes. That doesn’t mean it’s unfair, though!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ok I hear you that’s one definition- but there are other definitions, such as “the fact of preferring a particular subject or thing” or “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned” etc. I’m not saying that people’s opinions are necessarily unfairly slanted (though it’s possible- but I, like you, wouldn’t enjoy those reviews) rather that it’s possible people have different life experiences etc that may make them like/dislike a book more. So yeah, I definitely mean more that they’re subjective- not that the opinions are unfair in any way

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  21. Hmm.
    I think you can build a case that a given book is objectively bad … but to do that, you’re going to have to demonstrate how it violates basic principles of storytelling. Which means, you know, you’ll have to do some actual work and analysis. And, of course, there is always going to be the one in every crowd who doesn’t like there to be basic principles of anything and will be happy to see any principles subverted.

    This is indeed similar to the grammar issue. As a linguist, I know that the rigid idea that there is one ideal form of each language that should never be changed or riffed on is false, and that people who hold to this view are usually actually measuring how well-educated others are, so it’s actually a class distinction. However, just because rigid prescriptivists are wrong doesn’t mean it’s not possible to make speech errors. A true speech error will be instantly recognized by any native speaker of the language who isn’t drunk or otherwise in an altered mental state.

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    1. Ah yeah I totally hear you- I think it is possible for the way a story is told to be flawed- but I agree that there needs to be some strong analysis to prove that. And yeah that’s true as well- so even if I don’t like someone, say, being inventive with storytelling, there’s easily going to be an audience for that book.

      Haha yeah that’s true! (and although I’m much more in the grammar stickler camp, I do have to recognise that there are plenty of people who don’t agree with me as well- and that, ugh I hate to admit this, it’s often just my opinion vs theirs 😉 )

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  22. Undoubtedly we all have our biases and those go into our reviews. I…love some really badly written books and rate them high because they filled me with joy! I also rate things that took a LOT of work lower because….sometimes they bore me. Sorry book! Sometimes I’ll recognize that a book is great and it’s just not for me and that goes into my reviews too. But I don’t think there’s any way you CAN’T bring your own bias into a review.

    Let me give a really weird analogy for what I’m trying to say. I used to be an operations manager at a store and every year we’d have the fire marshal in for an inspection. After years I knew what to expect to make sure we were in compliance. One year our marshal retired and we got a new guy. He came in and suddenly things that had been okay for years were now outside of compliance. What. I asked him ‘what the heck man, this stuff was fine before!’ and he said ‘well, every Marshal kind of has certain things they focus on more than others so some might pass you for this stuff where as I wouldn’t because those are the things I notice first’. Well, I don’t think that’s great for something as cut and dry as a fire inspection BUT, it applies really well to reading books. As readers we all have different things we focus on. So even if we think we’re being ‘objective’, just like our friends the fire marshals, there’s sure to be different things we’ll focus on and others we might let slide. Therefore….even objectively we can’t be unbiased, imho. 🙂

    Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ahh I completely relate (I think that people think because I’m naturally quite critical/opinionated, that I think my own taste is amazing… not true lol! I think a lot of the time I like some serious trash- and that’s okay 😉) And yeah I agree with you! I never try to pretend that giving something a low rating means it’s bad. Yeah for sure!

      Haha that’s hilarious! And it’s a great analogy! (though yeah it’d worry me too about a fire inspection!) hehehe! Absolutely!

      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  23. I agree that reviews are subjective, and that our subjectiveness helps readers determine whether they’ll enjoy a book. I’ll trust what some reviewers have to say about a book because they enjoy the same things I enjoy about a book. But I may follow other book blogs simply because I love how they write or what they have to say.

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  24. Being objective/subjective in a review always leaves me conflicted because sometimes I don’t quite click with books that objectively have everything to make them a good book and I don’t really know how to explain it. I enjoy subjective reviews because seeing someone else be passionate for a book makes me want to read it more! really enjoyed this discussion!

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  25. It really goes back to why we seek out reviews in the first place. We want to hear a second opinion, either before we read something, or after. Emphasis on the word opinion. We’ll gravitate towards people who share our tastes, or have a voice we can relate to.

    I think we can be unbiased when it comes to author or other external circumstances, but not about the story itself. I mean, we can pick apart the the technical aspects of a book, but usually no matter how ‘technically’ good a book may be, it just can’t be good if it doesn’t make you feel anything. So at one point in a review we’ll always have to talk about the feelings, and those are very, very biased!

    I don’t know what it is about reviews on Sarah J Maas’ books, but they’re so interesting!

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      1. XD Even before I read her books I was reading the reviews, because they’re so mixed! And people have a lot of things to say and pick apart. For better or worse, they have and continue giving us a lot of stuff to talk about!

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