Monday, March 22, 2010

Subjectivity Centered?

Last week in my post about me I mentioned that I had written a new short story, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to give it to people for feedback or not. Well, my curiosity got the best of me, and this past weekend I did share it with a few people. I got some compliments, and I got some criticisms. Not surprising, right? After all, it's all subjective.

I admit I never was a great believer in the idea that "it's all subjective." I think in many respects criticism can be quite objective, and the better the critic, the better the objectivity.

So, why does saying about subjectivity come up so often?

In thinking more about the criticism I got back today, I wonder if the reason criticism seems subjective is because most critics differ in what they think writing should be.

We see this among ourselves and our different goals. Some of us are striving to make high art. Some of us are looking to write a book that agents will approve of. Some of us want to see our books on a bookstore shelf. Some of us want to make a living through writing.

If we were to start with the same story, and each of us wanted to accomplish different goals with it, I'd argue that the direction each one of us revised in would also differ. Chances are, someone who is trying to write the type of book that has never been written before won't succeed very well in getting an agent in today's publishing world. That doesn't mean that what she or he wrote is bad.

So, I wonder if having the unity of vision is absolutely essential before a writer and reviewer can seek to exchange ideas that are actually helpful in the revision process.


And...Happy Birthday to Michelle!!! Da da da-ta da-ta da da dah!


  1. Yes, I think so, absolutely. Objectivity needs something to anchor its standards to, an objective. There are all kinds of writing, for different purposes--teaching, entertainment, originality, stimulation, marketability, whatever.

    I think that whether a piece is "good" or "bad" at least partially depends on whether it meets the goals the author has in mind for it. So the reviewer must understand the author's purpose and have some knowledge about how that purpose is best met, whether that's publishing in YA or impressing a university professor or whatever.

    I found this to be hilariously true when I brought a raunchy piece of writing, designed to be entertaining to the general public, to a writers' group which was (unknown to me) made up mostly of Christian writers, whose sole purpose in writing was to praise God.

    All I could think was, I hope God has a dirty sense of humor.

  2. Happy Birthday Michelle!!!

    In thinking on your post Davin, I try to be as objective as I can be when critiquing others. I think I look for the obvious flaws, grammar, puncuation, continuity of the plot.

    That being said, I also think that whatever I read, I'm subjective. If I don't like the genre, I won't read it, ie; horror, sci-fi, vamps, etc. I tend to stick to what I know.

    Therefore, how could any of us really get an objective critique if the person doesn't like the genre you write? I mean, I couldn't do justice to a horror story now could I? I don't think I could anyway. So I really think that in this writing world, everything is subjective whether we want it to be or not.

  3. My greatest example of subjectivity: I hate the movie Forest Gump. Yes, I know, absolutley everybody else loved it. But for me, it just wasn't a good movie.

    I think, when trying to find a good reading critic, they need to fall somewhere in the middle of loved it/hated it. Why? Well, if they absolutely love the story, then I don't think they can objectively critique the story, and the same thing goes if they absolutely hate the story. You need someone right there in the middle.


  4. I think if we want unity, we’ll never find it. We are all biased in some way. The best reviewer is an open-minded one, who likes many forms of writing.
    You said something about how we all see something differently. Two weeks ago, I did a post like we use to have in school. I start you finish sort of thing and everyone wrote something different. It was interesting.

  5. Oh, happy, happy birthday Michelle!!!

    I find that, if two or three people say the same thing, then it usually warrants a revision or at least more consideration. If, however, it is an out of the blue comment, then I think that falls into the 'subjectivity' box.

    Or, if it is a matter of taste. For example, I'm not a big fan of horror so any review I give in that genre (not that I'd be offering) would be super subjective and riddled with my limitations.

    so, I guess I'm saying

    consider the source (do you respect the person? do they understand your genre?)

    listen for duplicate comments (if it keeps coming up as a problem, give it some thought)

  6. Very interesting post. When I began querying I believed professionals in the writing industry looked at a piece of work as an English teacher would- judging by the writing. But that's not what I've found.

    I read an agent inteview in which the agent said outright, "a piece can be beautifully written but if it has to do with whales and I hate whales, I won't want to rep it." Agents say over and over its about personal taste.

    I also think life experiences play a part. I've read pieces and totally got what the author was saying while others said things like "no one is going to do (blank) when (blank) is happening to them?" The scene just didn't connect with that other person. They didn't pick up what I saw as clues to the MC- but perhaps, I added them in due to my own experience.

    And I think what one reads also plays a part. The vast majority of readers are reading modern writers who write in styles that fit modern life. The popularity of first person POV is an example of this. 1st person used to be rare while ominiscent POV was common- now most readers like to be deep inside the MC's head while I tire of the one-sidedness. I start thinking- enough of you, is this story all about you!? But, that's, of course, my personal taste.

    So, it goes back to one's writing goal- to sell, to make money, to write what you love. Whatever your goal, I think you must write your story as you see it. Otherwise, nothing new will emerge.

  7. Davin, hey my friend. I have missed you.

    What a terrific post. And I agree. If we all started out with the same story, with different goals, that same story would look very different after we were finished revising. Mine would be MG with more than a touch of adventure. These same stories would now be separate and very different.

    I think the unity of vision between writer and reviewer crucial. And indispensable. That said, I have critiqued many stories that I wouldn't read otherwise. I always try to give decent, honest feedback. And it makes me a better writer to read and critique lots of stories even those that I don't normally read.I found I can be very objective. I mean, I never read sci-fi before Beth started writing it. Now I actually like the genre.

    I am unplugging for a little while. I will miss you loads. I plan on typing an email to you this week, Davin. Take care. See you soon.

    Oh and HAPPY BIRTHDAY MICHELLE. Uh, you don't want me to sing, I know. You might think the world was coming to an end. That's how truly BAD my singing is. I hope your wishes come true. =)

    See you soon Michelle and Scott. Write on! (^_^)

  8. Davin, excellent post. I'll admit that as I read, I was thinking, well, yeah, that's how I've thought of "subjectivity" - that if the writer and reader are not on the same page then it's usually not going to end productively for the writer.

    I think one of the reasons I've stuck with the 3 main beta readers I have right now (you're one of them) is because they understand where I'm trying to go with my writing. They see the vision I do because they know me. I often hesitate to show my work to others who don't know me well because that completely objective criticism is often not what I'm looking for. Sometimes it is - like for my synopsis, it was. It all depends!

    Thanks for the Happy Birthday wish! Thirty isn't so bad except that my body is sore from minimal exercise, I have a pounding headache, and I'm always tired lately. But I don't think any of that has to do with my age. ;)

  9. Genie, Great point about the artist's success being relative to her or his intentions. I completely agree. I studied with an art teacher for several years that really promoted this line of thinking. It took me forever to understand it, but when I did it was very liberating for me.

  10. Interesting post, Davin. When I am asked to critique for others, I try to be as objective as possible. But when I have to read poetry for example, I know a great deal of my criticism is subjective. There's just some poetry that I don't "get".

    Now if I were to critique for Lady Glam for instance, it would be helpful for her to mention that she prefers not to have objectivity. I'd then have to get a good idea of what her vision is before I help her revise.

    In the end, I think it just depends on what you as the writer are hoping to get out of it. I often want a subjective opinion just to see if there are things in my writing that I didn't think of, like symbolism I didn't intend but someone else sees. Or I may want an objective opinion to make sure the mechanics are tight. I don't think there's any hard fast rules for when I prefer a subjective criticism over an objective one.

  11. I agree that most critics disagree about what they think good writing is to some extent. I really do not think that unity of vision between writer and reviewer is essential, though. Certainly if someone asks me to read and comment on their 911-based thriller, I'd be a bad audience because I don't like that sort of book. But on the other hand, I've been told extremely useful and insightful things by folks who don't write like me or read what I read. We don't control who our readers are. It's like saying that we can only have a meaningful conversation with people exactly like us. There are plenty of things to be learned during communication even if there isn't a great deal of cultural overlap. I've also gotten feedback from people where almost everything they said was useless except for one thing. Let's not get into the habit of pretending that every single work of fiction is radically different from every other work of fiction. Readers of both Stephanie Meyers and Lev Tolstoy want to be told a story.

    Not that this is the case for Davin, but I see this "it's all just subjective" mostly from writers (and other artists) when they get feedback they don't like (and from reviewers who don't know anything about what they're reviewing and don't know the difference between criticism and opinion). All criticism is valid for the one giving the critique. But no, that doesn't mean we have to change a word or move a comma to please that person. But I do think that all criticism is educational whether I incorporate it into revisions or not.

  12. Two other things:

    1. Happy birthday, Michelle! You don't look a day over 25.

    2. When I critique, I critique as me. I don't worry about subjective versus objective. If I don't like something, I say so. If I love something, I say so. We don't get objective readers, nor do we write objectively in most case. Art is all about subjective experience, anyway. Art is personal. I want my readers to experience my fiction in a personal way. I don't care about objectivity at all.

  13. Scott: I agree with you on those points. I would have a difficult time reviewing a horror novel, for instance, but I could do it well if I understood what the writer's intentions were for the work, and I think I could do it objectively.

    Everyone wants to be told a story, and on that basic level I think everyone, including non-writers can give excellent critiques. I have several friends who don't write who have given me some very valuable critiques.

    Yes, I always use the "subjective" excuse when I get feedback that hurts. It's a consoling thing to do, but dangerous, as well. I've learned to step back and look at my critiques objectively, as well, then slowly move in closer and closer to figure out what will work for me and what will not.

    Genie: Your comment intrigues me! I know that readers aren't objective, and that's fine, but I often don't have the time nor the patience to send my work out to a hundred readers to get an overall sense of where it stands in the reading community, if that makes sense.

    I like objective and subjective criticism, I guess, when it comes right down to it. And I think what I end up doing is asking for different kinds of feedback depending on where I am in the writing process of the work.

  14. Some of that subjectivity can slough off if the criticisms all cluster around the same point. If everyone is tripping up on a similar matter, you can bet that there might be a problem.

    Feliz cumpleanos, Michelle!

  15. For me critiques are just about gaging the readers reaction. I might get a good suggestion or a bad suggestion but that's not really what I'm looking for. I want to know if I am conveying what I want to convey. If I forgot to mention something important because I'm so used to the story that I felt it was self evident I need a reader to point that out to me. If I'm distracting them from the main point I want to get across in a particular scene with details that I think are nifty I would like to know.

    Useful criticism doesn't' always offer any suggestion at all. I remember work shopping a particular piece some time ago where I killed off a character. The general reaction was "His death wasn't dramatic enough. We don't know how to feel about it." That was EXACTLY what I wanted them to feel about it. Their suggestions for a more dynamic symbolic death let me know that I was getting across what I wanted to and was thus very useful even if I didn't take their advice.

  16. I think that this topic--and related topics--come up a lot because a great deal of the criticism we get frustrates us, because readers aren't actually answering the questions we want answered, and we might not even know what those questions are! We just know that we're not hearing what we want/need to hear in terms of feedback. Half the time people will be talking to me about my story and I want to wave them silent and say, "No, that's beside the point" when I'm not even sure what the point is. We have to either train our core readers to talk about what we need them to talk about, or get used to the idea that the critique we get is the critique we get, whether we need it or not. None of which is optimum. What I really want is for readers to tell me if the book "works" but that encompasses so much and I'm blind to my readers' experiences as the writer so it's nearly impossible. Any more, I just hand things over and say, "Let me know as soon as you want to stop reading" and then take it from there.

  17. Scott: Yeah, you could handle it that way. In fact, that's not a bad idea. I think writers can reach a point where very little feedback is enough - even if it's for the reader to say "I got bored here" or "the character seems off here." I can usually take it from there and see what might need fixing.

  18. "a great deal of the criticism we get frustrates us, because readers aren't actually answering the questions we want answered, and we might not even know what those questions are! We just know that we're not hearing what we want/need to hear in terms of feedback."


    I don't know if there is a solution to this. On the one hand, you hope your critiquers have some common ground with you in terms of goals for your writing and such for their comments to have some meaning. But sometimes when someone gets to know your writing that well, they may have nothing new to say either.

    The only thing I can think of that works, is to have a few people whom you trust, and have them read sporadically. And hope that I am alert enough to catch good critiques when I hear them, and be able to let the rest float away without clouding my idea for work so much that I no longer know what I want.

    And oh, happy birthday. Congrats, you can finally buy a drink legally. : )

  19. Anne, I think a lot about the kind of things you mention in your comment. Being in a writer's group, I do end up critiquing a couple of memoir writers and one women's fiction writer. I do wonder if it is fair for me to offer criticism when I know so little about their genres.

    Scott, that's a really interesting perspective. I feel like I always try to win a reader over with my writing, but maybe I'd get the best feedback from someone who was feeling fairly neutral. I'll have to think about that.

    Southpaw, thanks for the note about your post! That sounds pretty fun. I'll check it out.

    Tess, great point about duplicate comments. Yeah, more and more I tend to only pay attention to the repeat criticisms I get from my small, trusted group. The really cool thing about growing as writers is that I see how different we all are.

    Susie, very well said! Thanks for that! Yes, I do appreciate that agents go out of their way to say how subjective their tastes are. That makes their rejections more tolerable, doesn't it. More and more I have become a supporter of writers who are good about staying true to their vision. I'm better at that, but I also think I'm inexperienced enough so that critiques are still helpful for me.

  20. If you have 3 writers in a room there will be 4 versions of the story. Writing is subjective and there are many paths you could take. Critiquing is also subjective and a good critique will offer suggestions and alternatives rather than try to discredit your path. Sometimes you might like a path they suggest? That's your subjective view of the critiques.
    The most important thing is you got it out there, let people read it and the world didn't explode :-)

  21. I think subjectivity comes from what a reader likes most in a book. If you want to be transported to a new world, you love lots of detail. If you are a people person, you want a lot of characterization. Maybe you love a fast pace and lots of action. If you pick up the wrong book for you, then you're going to be bored or disappointed that more wasn't done to flesh out the part of the story that is most meaningful to you.

    I think the ideal critique would be to find someone who loves the kind of book that you have written and is willing to be honest. They would be most able to point out what works and doesn't work in your story. That would be helpful, I think, not frustrating.

  22. Robyn, Yes, critiquing other types of writing can make us better writers. That's a great point! And, the nice thing about blogging is that we can sing with words, which is often more pleasing to the ear. :) I look forward to your email!

    Michelle, I've noticed that my list of readers shrinks as I feel more confident and more qualified as a writer too. And, if you ever feel old, just remember that you are the baby of the Lit Lab. :)

    Eric, thanks for your comment. The idea of someone wanting subjective criticism is new to me, but it makes total sense. I'm sure I've wanted that without realizing it on several occasions!

    Scott, I feel like readers can like different things and still appreciate the same books. I think that still comes from the idea of people respecting what each story is supposed to be and not demanding that it be something else. I don't think each book is radically different. I'd say there was a countable group of types of books most people try to write. Then, you get people like Marquez or Proust. That's interesting that you consider all of your criticism subjective. I have another writer friend whose writing I also deeply admire and he is also subjective in that way. It makes me think a lot, honestly, and sometimes I can feel myself coming around to being that same way. But, often I fight it. I will say that a piece of writing I don't personally like is good, and maybe that's a bad thing.

    Loren, yes, I think you have a valid point. I think it's also great when you are able to have a group of people discuss your work with each other while you eavesdrop.

    Taryn, that's a great point and I think subject for a good post. I think with every criticism it is the writer's job to interpret that criticism into a language that is useful. Often, a reader might have a problem and suggest one solution, when in fact there are always an infinite number of solutions that they can't see.

    Yat-Yee, very well said indeed! And, you made me think of one reviewer I had for my novel that just seemed to be perfectly in touch with what I wanted the book to be, even though it wasn't there yet at the time. Talking with her felt so magical because somehow it felt like I could talk to myself better. That was a great writer named Susannah Pabot.

  23. Charmaine, the great thing is I keep trying this over and over again, and the world never explodes! It's great! ;P

    Shelli, Yeah, that type of reviewer definitely sounds ideal. I do feel lucky in that I occasionally stumble upon those instances when the reader likes the type of writing I'm doing and can help me to evaluate it. My stories vary a bit, so that doesn't always happen with the same people, but it's a great feeling when it does happen.

  24. I tailor my advice on what changes might improve chances of publication.
    I try not to think about whether I "like" the story or not.
    Some people seem to approach critique as a chance to praise the writer and make friends.
    Not me :)
    But then I usually miss good stuff other people catch. I guess I'm hard to please.

  25. I like this thinking Davin.

    I recently got a response back from a e-zine about a short story I submitted. Four different people critiqued the story, and all pretty much came up with different conclusions. Except one. That one consensus told me what the rest of the story was missing.

    I like readers of different genre's to read my stuff. Because when only people who read in your genre critique your ms, they have the same preconcieved notions the author does. Different readers have different perspectives.

    Even if they're not applicable to your particular story; the feedback gets (me) to thinking around different aspects of the same concept.

    So yeah, the writer needs to remain true to their original idea; but who's to say that ideal doesn't change with feedback.

    Do I now have a better story, as opposed to a different story, because of subjective POV's? I sure hope so.


  26. Over my writing career I've ignored a lot of advice due to the same thinking.

    However twice this spring (two different stories)I've had the same problem cited by an editor that a critiquer pointed out for not purchasing the story. Problems I dismissed because I thought the person critiquing my story didn't understand my vision.

    I guess it partly matters which is more important to you. Your vision or pleasing the reader. As I'm learning this is not always the same thing.

    Personally, I've never published anything, and that has taken priority. Sometimes I think visions are the luxury of an established writer with a large fan base. But at the same time, if I don't "envision" things, I have nothing new to write about.

    I just don't know.


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