Emotional Reactions in Reviews

My Friend Amy wrote a great piece the other day about the validity of emotional reactions to art, and the appropriateness of including this in reviews, which perhaps should be based on more objective factors, such as the quality of the writing and the originality of the piece. Here's an short excerpt to give you an idea, but click through for the whole piece:

'A couple of weeks ago, one of the TV journalists I follow on Twitter mentioned how they find it strange that people equate their emotional reaction to a film with the film's objective quality. I wish I had screen capped the tweet as I cannot remember who said it, but it forced me to start thinking about how we determine the worth of art.

I would say the reason we have professional critics is so that we have people who are supposed to evaluate a film, book, TV show, album, etc. based on what are considered to be the more objective qualities of a piece of work, to evaluate if they accomplish what they set forth to do, and if they take new risks. To do this, though, a professional critic must deny their emotional reaction to a piece of work and I wonder if that's entirely possible. The way we take in and perceive art will always be colored by our own understandings and limitations so while I do think professional critics strive to do this in a way the casual consumer of art does not, it is still just that...very limited.'

This got me thinking about the way I include my own emotional reactions in reviews, and whether this is the right thing to be doing in order to give the book or film a fair deal. Like anyone else, I have things I know are derivative nonsense that move me (some silly, weepy films  immediately spring to mind) and things that I know are 'great' or 'ground-breaking' but leave me entirely cold. When speaking about them on this platform, because I've always thought people want to hear what I think, I will gush about the ones that move me, and I will be cool about the ones that leave me cool, whilst adding caveats for objective factors like quality of writing and originality etc.

Up until now, I've never considered that a different approach might be a better, or fairer, one, or that this lack of emotional content might be the thing that make newspaper print reviews seem colder and more mercenary than review on blogs. Thinking about it, they do stick to the facts much more, sometimes just printed a glorified version of the blurb on the back of a book. 

I think I personally include so much emotional content in my book reviews for a number of reasons: the first one being that if people wanted a purely factual assessment, they might not wander into the world of book blogging in the first place, as this is a place of personalities with niche tastes, who will trumpet something that grabs them whilst ignoring whole areas of books that sell. I wasn't interested in being the only non-devisive blogger out there with vanilla tastes and zero credibility. Hostile marketing is definitely 'a thing'. Also, when I started out blogging, I was quite taken with the idea that your audience might want to get to know you as a person, so they can trust your reviews like they might a friend's, if they feel that yours and their tastes align. The easiest way to let someone get to know you as a person, online or off, is to give information about yourself away freely and be vulnerable to a degree, so this is what I've always tried to do, even though it was a struggle in the beginning. And I think it stands up - a number of bloggers whose posts I've liked have ended up becoming proper online friends across a number of platforms, and I was right in thinking that they might be like-minded individuals who share the same interests and taste choices as me. By getting to know their emotional reactions to things, we've built up a relationship of trust.

On the other hand though, taking this down to a purely personal level, I get fewer comments and shares on my book reviews than I generally do on my other posts - they don't seem to have the same shareable appeal, although they are the ones that Google tends to cling to. StumbleUpon is rarely interested in review posts, but brings me the most traffic of any platform for my more general writing-themed and miscellaneous posts. Thinking about this further, one of the biggest (if not the biggest) book blogs in the UK is a site called 'Reading Matters', and I indeed have an email subscription in place so I receive a notification of every post. She gets a tonne of traffic and comments, but her reviews are mainly factual, sometimes giving away the entire plot of a book. I like reading it as it means I have a general idea of the landscape of contemporary fiction, as I don't read a huge amount of it, but do like to know what's going on. Because of my attitude towards them, it is very clear to me how share-able her posts might be - if you want to know a book, you can read a post of hers and never need to read the book at all. Obviously, that's useful to more people than just me. Rarely do I buy any of the books she talks about though, which is not true of other chattier sites, which often lead me to click through, but there aren't many of these, I suppose, as before I trust a reviewer, I have to be able to see them as a potential friend.

So, maybe that's my conclusion: emotional reactions are totally appropriate on blogs, as we go there to form a relationship, rather than just get information, whereas the TV journalist mentioned in the original quote from My Friend Amy is right in that reviewers on a platform that is not their own, such as an online mag or in a newspaper, should be more objective in order to give the art/book the fairest shout. A guess it's the classic dichotomy of niche over mainstream: emotional reviewing makes you Apple, objective reviewing makes you Microsoft. Again, it's a case of choosing you want to aim yourself towards and what you want your audience to be.

Do you think this a reasonable conclusion to come to? What do you think?



  1. Emotional reactions in reviews have divided the critics for centuries.

    This now spills over into the blogging community whereby some prefer to state the facts, and others get to the heart of the emotional impact the book will have on a reader.

    Many of us have read a number of books in which we can admire the skill of the author, but the story itself does not resonate or emotionally engage us. It is these latter books where the reviewer will often resort to simply stating the facts.

    If a reviewer includes the emotional content of the work in their review, and it is someone whose judgement you trust, it can very well be the factor which pulls you into the fiction.

    Fortunately 'Tolstoy is my Cat' is such a brilliantly constructed and written blog, that the voice of the blogger pulls the reader to their site, again, and again.

    1. So, do you think that reviewers state the facts largely when they don't have an emotional reaction to a book? I suppose it might make sense that a forgettable book might beget a forgettable review, but that doesn't really tally with more objective reviewing, unless you suppose they never connect with any of the books.

      I agree, as above, that it is often the emotional content of a review, so the emotional reaction of a reviewer, that can be the thing that compels you to buy a book: I guess if you want to replicate an emotional reaction that you've read about, you need to read the book, whereas if you're just told facts, there is no need to go find them out anew for yourself...

      And thanks for the compliments, btw :)

    2. Stating the facts of a book in a review can happen in two instances.

      1) Blogger has no emotional connection to the work, and does not feel compelled to share this information because there are so many determining factors to being emotionally engaged. A reader's state of mind, mood, time and place, can all alter their view of a book. One of the many reasons that some enjoy a book the second time they read it, but not the first.

      2) Journalists have so many to review that they simply skim the facts of the book and throw in a few quotes for good measure. They didn't have time to gestate on the emotional message of the fiction.

      As readers we all connect to certain stories. And more often than not, it is those stories we emotionally feel a connection to, regardless of the quality of its writing.

    3. Absolutely, totally agree. In my very personal case, if I had no emotional connection to the work, I'd still rant quite idiosyncratically about it, whilst adding facts, of course. But I can absolutely see that as an approach.

      Yes to journalists, too. I often get the feeling, from their reviews, that they barely even care about reading books in depth, when the facts will suffice. Exceptions of course are feature length reviews, but still...

    4. The often impassive voice of Journalists in book reviews, is one of the main reasons readers and the authors themselves are turning to bloggers for their reviews. We now live in an online community where the reviews from bloggers who are passionate about books shines through to make them the only emotional reviews you will see on the web.

  2. Can I frame the problem in a different way?

    You can write about an object, a book, or you can write about yourself, with the book as a pretext (or you can blend the poles in any combination).

    In both cases, the writer is telling a story or making an argument. In the first, the story is about the book, in the second, about the writer.

    Both poles can lead to good writing. Both can be more or less emotional, both more or less objective.

    Have you seen Rohan Maitzen's new piece on Virginia Woolf's criticism? Woolf was not a rigorous critic, but was still a great one. She wrote about the book, but with a strong, enthusiastic, "subjective" voice.

    Personally, I cannot imagine writing too much about myself. Not so interesting. And anyway, I do not write book reviews.

    1. What a great article - no, I hadn't seen it.

      An excellent point about writing about the book vs. writing about yourself, via the context of the book. I do that a lot, although I'd never thought of it in that way. It is definitely when people write about themselves, via the book, that I am compelled to buy, so maybe what I'm actually doing is buying an emotional reaction that I feel will in some way align me with the reviewer I respect and maybe wish to emulate. I read that article and want to read George Eliot, Jane Austen etc. anew because Virginia Woolf has recently talked to me about them, and I trust and respect her opinion. What an interesting thought. We could extend that outward to celebrity endorsement and the whole idea of branding yourself to be someone that people use as a yardstick for who they want to be, which again is hostile marketing! We seem to have come full circle via another route.

      It's interesting to say that you don't do book reviews, particularly as you are one of the ones that I base my buying around. What would you call what you do? Is a commentary on your reading habits, perhaps? Personally, I think you're all over your blog, personality, idiosyncracy and all...and that's why I listen - I don't think I generally believe an assertion unless I can see the person behind it, throwing their weight into the argument and nailing their colours to the mast. And you definitely do that!

      I'm glad of another reason to love Virginia Woolf, and for you bringing me to this quote, which endorses my view of emotional reviewing wholeheartedly,

      '[Arnold Bennett] can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in. There is not so much as a draught between the frames of the windows, or a crack in the boards. And yet — if life should refuse to live there?'

      so Tom, thanks! After all, isn't the point of reading another's experience is that we are moved?

    2. I constantly violate all sorts of good-practice book review rules. I skip or mangle the plot summary, ignore the main characters, ignore what the book is about. I spent three days writing about Dracula while barely mentioning that it contained a vampire. Mostly wrote about typing.

      So I often, especially with famous books, just assume a reader knows the basics about a book and move on to whatever I think will be interesting to write about. With newer or less famous books my writing becomes more review-like.

      The reason this fooforaw can still inspire you to buy something is that rather than give a general impression of a book or reaction to it, I usually pick out a few specific scenes or sentences or ideas and say something like "Pretty good, huh?" And if you think "Hey that does sound pretty good" you might want to read the book.

      I like to think my writing is not about how I feel about a book but what I found in it.

    3. Mmm, I agree that your reviews give an excellent overall sense of the book. I didn't mean to imply that you were doing anything with reviews that you didn't mean to be.

      And you're right to assume that people know the basics - everyone knows Dracula is about a vampire (yawn), but very few people, myself included, know anything about the typing! That kind of off-key discussion piques my interest far more than a rehashed blurb.

      I have a review coming up of Oliver Twist, which I had nothing to say about because everyone already knows how they feel about Oliver Twist, as they've either read it or watched the film version themselves. I ended up telling the story of how I came by the book instead. Probably not very interesting for anyone else, but far more interesting for me :)


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