Are book reviews subjective?

Book reviewers use four main strategies to turn their subjective opinions into more objective assessments: recognizing conflicts of interest, maintaining critical autonomy, using evidence-based reviewing, and applying reflexive reading.

McMaster Researcher


Chong, P. (2013).  “Legitimate Judgment in Art, the Scientific World Reversed?: Critical Distance in Evaluation.” Social Studies of Science. 43 (2): 265-281.

Funded by

What is this research about?

Objectivity is the foundation for legitimate judgements of truth. This can be hard to apply to aesthetic judgements, which are subjective. Critics are constantly trying to have their definition of excellence become the norm in their field. Book reviewers must work past offering a judgement of personal taste to producing an argument to validate their evaluation.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher conducted 30 in-depth phone interviews with book reviewers who worked for large American newspapers. The interviews explored how reviewers determine what good fiction is and how they convey their conclusions in their reviews.

What did the researchers find?

The researcher found that there are four strategies book reviewers employ to maintain critical distance. Critics of subjective topics use approaches that are similar to ones used by those making judgement in scientific matters.
1) Recognizing conflicts of interest
Before agreeing to take on a project, critics must assess if the relationship they have with the author could affect their evaluation. Critics are more concerned with giving unwarranted negative reviews than unwarranted positive reviews.
2) Maintaining critical autonomy
Reviewers are conscious of factors that can affect their judgement. This includes reviews of the same book written by other critics. Reading a review written by another critic might encourage a reviewer to change their evaluation to match, or intentionally write an opposite opinion just to seem contrary.
3) Evidence-based Reviewing
Part of the authority that comes from a critic comes from their knowledge of literature. Critics recognize what characteristics good fiction has and must be able to both recognize and quantify those qualities in a new book. 
4) Reflexive reading
Reviewers need to ensure that they are reading critically, and constantly questioning their responses to the text. They will read it once as a reader and then again as a critic. Critics said that their first response to a novel is emotional. After their initial reaction, however, critics must evaluate if their response was an indication of quality.

How can you use this research?

This research helps shed light on how art reviews are created. It helps explain the processes that go into creating legitimate critiques of subjective subjects.

Have you seen an impact of this research?

Suggest an Impact