Hey, mon petit chou! It’s Lila and today I’m bringing back the good ol’ Hardcover Haven discussion post! Yes, that’s right: today we’re getting down and dirty in the gritty pits of personal opinion and making a proper mess. And the topic on today’s menu is…*pulls slip of paper out of bucket and squints at it in an attempt to read my own handwriting*…“Is there actually such a thing as a ‘non-critical’ book review?”
Now, I got to thinking about this topic because in the past two weeks, book Twitter (ah, that good o’l hellsite is the culprit yet again!) exploded when the popular,well known booktuber, Sam from Thoughts on Tomes, (whom I personally hold in high regard) tweeted about her distrust of people who rate everything/most of what they read five stars and how she thinks that only so-called “critical reviews” are helpful to readers.
And I thought to myself, “What a messy rabbit hole of a recycled argument to go down—sounds like a task for me!”
Now I have a lot of Thoughts™ on Sam’s thread a lot of which boil down to “I vehemently (yet respectfully) disagree with both of those statements,” but, interestingly enough, going down the path of which is more valuable—“critical” reviews or more “light” and “fluffy” reviews?—actually continually lead me back to the same basic opinion: that all reviews, by the inherent nature of being a review, technically are, in fact, “critical” reviews, and what differentiates a review as “useful” or “not useful” to you as an individual is just a matter of whether or not the reviewer supports their rating and/or overall thought/s with the type of “evidence” that you personally find valuable.
In other words: there is no such thing as a “non-critical” review.
Listen, if someone states an opinion on something as simply as saying “I like this because [x, y, and z]” or “I dislike this because [x, y, and z],” they’ve essentially given you a basic critical review, by definition of the statement. A critical review is simply a statement of opinion which you “support” with at least one form of quantitative (i.e., in a literary sense, “logical”) or qualitative (i.e., in a literary sense, “emotional”) evidence.
Now Susan may say “I like this color because it’s [ insert color name here], hex code #00000, CMYK yada yada, RGB blah blah blah…” and Stacey may say “I like this color because it makes me feel good.” but at the end of the day, both of them have, in fact, given what technically can be considered a “critical review,” the difference is that Susan gave a quantitatively based critical review and Stacey gave a qualitatively based one.
So which one has more value, then?
Ah, but that’s where you may get lost, friends, because the answer to that is that both reviews are equally critical and have equal value but it is up to the individual audience members who receive these two reviews to decide how much weight to put into each. Does it matter more to you that Susan told you this color is hex code #00000 or that Stacey told you the color makes her feel good? It’s up to you.
So then what is the argument we’re actually having in the literary community when people bring up “critical reviews”?
The truth is that we’re actually having the argument of what “matters” more: a qualitative review or a quantitative one or one which combines the two? Does it matter more when book reviewer Susan tells us, “This was a good book because of the author’s use of imagery, theme, characterization, wordplay, etc…” or when book reviewer Stacey tells us, “This book was good because it gave me all the good feelings.”? And the answer is, once again, that both reviews are equally as valid and important but how much weight we give either depends on our own individual decision making processes.
Look, allow me to make an analagy.
I’m a physics major, a “scientist-in-training,” as one might put it, and in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, and physics), we put an equal amount of importance on quantitative data—a.k.a. numerical/mathematics based data—and qualitative data—a.k.a. data we can observe with our five senses. When a scientist says “Plant A is taller than Plant B” and another scientist says “Plant A grew 6 centimeters overnight, while Plant B grew 4 centimeters,” both statements are given equal weight. And I think most people can recognize that, while both statements utilize different methods of observation, both also, essentially, say the same thing. And I could ask you which statement of “Plant A grew more than Plant B” is more strongly supported by evidence and do you know what any scientist worth their weight in degrees would tell you? That both statements are supported by evidence of equal weight and importance.
So what am I getting at here?
I suppose, at the end of it all, I’m saying that quantitative (a.k.a., in the literary community, “critical”) reviews and qualitative reviews (a.k.a., in the literary community, “fluffy”/”light”/”uncritical”) reviews and reviews which combine the two forms are all equally important and valid! And, also—just because someone leaves a review that’s just a bunch of “Aaaaaaa!!! *shriek*shdyjrjybgfb dghrjtmujnbdgfv sf vbdgbh!!!! I LOVE THIS BOOK IT’S SOOOOOO CUTE AND MADE ME SO HAPPY!!!!!” doesn’t mean that review isn’t “critical,” it just means that the reviewer is using a different form of “evidence” (i.e. emotional evidence) to support their claim of “This book is great.”
All in all, regardless of our opinions of different types of reviews, I think we would all benefit from not treating one style of review as “better” or as more “intellectual” and from not being suspicious of people who give out a lot of four and five star ratings (although on that last part I gotta admit my bias: I give out mostly four and five star ratings and it’s just because, at age 25, I know my reading tastes really well and, because I view reading as a hobby first, I don’t see the point in subjecting myself to a book I’m going to dislike. But that’s a totally different tangent for another time…). The truth is that “better” and “intellectual” both happen to be incredibly subjective labels and we need to stop acting like our subjective viewpoints are definitive markers of things like “good,” “bad,” “intellectual,” and “unintelligent.” We all read for different things because we’ve lived different lives shaped by many different factors and nuances which have affected us in different ways. And you know what? That’s okay! But we need to stop acting like one opinion—or even a handful of opinions—shape a mold that we all should to fit into.
Anyhow, fellow bookworms, I think that’s enough from me for today, I’ve ranted for too long already haha! I hope that I’ve helped give you some good food for thought or at least given you a good read! I am going to go make myself a good ol’ cup of chai now and then go relax. Until next time, friends!
✵.* • : ★ .•
SPILL THE BEANS, FRIENDS!
- What do you think? Is there such a thing as “non-critical” reviews?
- Do you prefer reviews that present more quantitative (technical) based evidence or qualitative (emotional) based evidence?
- Why do you think we periodically recycle this debate in the book community? Do you think we ever reach any productive conclusions?