There’s no such thing as an objective review

COMMENT: However much reviewers may try otherwise, you cannot eliminate subjectivity from a review. We should learn to embrace it instead.

One of the topics of discussion that’s been cropping up frequently ever since @NICritics took to Twitter is the concept of an “objective review” as opposed to a “subjective review”. As with many debates, this can mean different things to different people, but probably this can be summed up by the idea that a subjective review is just somebody’s opinion, but an objective view is immune to personal biases. And on the face of it, surely you’d want the latter? Why take the opinion of just anyone when you can have someone who’s considered all the facts?

To some extent, this is worthy thing to strive for. Anyone can write a review of “It’s good cos I like it” or “It’s bad cos I don’t like it”, but that’s not terribly helpful. Some reviews digress into personal opinions all the time. That’s not automatically a bad thing – bloggers are at liberty to write whatever they like and everyone else is free to read or not read the review. This can even happen in professional publications; Charlie Brooker, for instance, did this all the time when he wrote Screen Burn for the Guardian, but he got away with because he had a strong personal reputation for being insightful and entertaining, and anyway, Charlie Brooker is right about everything. However, that’s an exception, and in general you expect a certain amount of professionalism from the reviewer – if one reads a review from ThreeWeeks or BroadwayBaby, one expects it to be about the play, not the reviewer.

There are certainly some basic steps you can take to help this this. Any fringe publication worth its salt has editorial guidelines to make sure that there should be a similar experience whoever does the review. Reviewers ought to vetted to have at least some experience of watching plays so they know what standard to expect and aren’t blown away just because that slap was done so convincingly (of course it was, it’s a standard technique taught to actors). After that it starts going downhill. One thing that helps both professionalism and objectivity is explaining what you did or didn’t like about the play – and not just soundbites like “the acting was good but the staging was poor” but something the performers would actually find useful. You might think this would be standard, but for some reason, many reviews are bad at this, particularly newspaper reviews.

Then further complications arise. Should you refrain from using the word “I” in a review? There are two schools of thought here. One is that this is a good idea, because it forces you to think about the play objectively rather than just give your own subjective opinion. The other is that it’s a bad idea, because all it does is change subjective opinions from first person to third person. (This piece, for instance, hasn’t used that word outside of quotation marks so far, but it is entirely my own subjective opinion.) Should a reviewer rubbish a play because he or she personally found the material objectionable? Or if the reviewer fully agreed with the sentiments in the play, should that be written about in the review if that’s what the author wants? I’ve so far uprated one piece and downrated another piece set where I grew up for good and poor understanding of the local area respectively – but that’s just my perspective. Is it fair for this to influence my review when most people will neither know nor care about that? How about plays where the reviewer has personal connection to the themes concerned? The list goes on.

Most or all of these problems, I believe, can be addressed by editorial policies to give some sort of consistency and objectivity, even if different publications might say that other publications’ ideas of objectivity are subjective. But there is one big problem that there’s no getting round, and that is that ultimately the verdict comes down to whether the reviewer enjoyed the play. And you only have to look at the range of star rating from different reviews of the same play to see how much that varies. It never ceases to surprise me how reviews can note exactly the same things about the writing, the acting or the staging and outright contradict each other on whether they were good or bad things. Or they can agree on the good and bad points but disagree wildly on whether the good points outweighed the bad. They can’t all be objectively right. Either something has to be wrong, or they have to all be valid from different subjective perspective. I suppose some people might like to believe that the professionals who review for the printed press have the qualifications needed for the definitive objective review, but if you’d like to claim that The Scotsman’s 2* review of Boris: World King is correct and all the praise from everyone else is wrong, be my guest.

I suppose someone could one day attempt to devise an objective system that assessed enjoyability of the play from a sample of a play’s audience, and best of luck to anyone who wants to attempt that, but I’ll believe there’s such a workable system when I see it. Until then, I think it’s just better to abandon pretences of objectivity. Yes, be fair, be informed, be professional, try your best to disregard your personal biases, but it’s no use pretending your personal enjoyment of the play is anything other than subjective. The mentality that a review is better if it’s “objective” is dangerous. Firstly, it makes it very easy to dismiss anyone who disagrees with the review as a subjective interpretation that’s incorrect against the proper objective one. Secondly, even if you don’t have that kind of superiority complex over your own objective analysis, there’s a danger of “herding”: what I mean by that is the fear that your review might be different from the others – most unbecoming of an objective reviewer. Far safer to convince yourself that you have the same verdict as you expect your peers to have. (I don’t think either of these things happen much in theatre, but I suspect it happens more in fine arts. And there’s nothing more depressing than people regurgitating other arts critics’ views as their own to try to fit in.)

So, if we instead view all reviews as unashamedly subjective, what does it mean? Well, if you’re a punter, I’ve long maintained that no-one’s review should be treated as authoritative, from Michael Billington from the Guardian who’s a cultural institution to Tarquin from Oxford Brookes who’s done almost two terms of English Lit. What you should be doing instead is getting as wide a range of opinions as possible – and don’t just stop at reviews. Word of mouth recommendations are just as valid. Give more weight to reviewers if you like, but give most credence of all to people who have earned your trust – that could be reviewers whose previous reviews of plays you’ve seen made sense to you, or it could be friends or family who you trust to identify what you’ll like. But don’t put all your faith in the authoritative objective review because there isn’t one.

How about performers? Again, be aware that no-one’s review is authoritative. If you are getting consistently good reviews or consistently bad reviews, that’s a fairly reliable sign you’re doing something right or wrong respectively, assuming that they’re also being consistent on what they do or don’t like. (One important caveat: consistently good reviews locally could be down to locality bias.) If you get a mixture reviews, so be it, you’ve got a Marmite play – it’s better to have a play that some people love than lots of people find okay. One particularly tough call to make is when you get a single negative review of a play. That could be a single reviewer who missed the point, a minority opinion, or the first of many mainstream responses feeling the same way. Sometimes it’s best to heed it, sometimes it’s best to ignore it, but there’s no easy way to know which it is. But the worst thing you can do is assume that someone’s praise or criticism can’t be wrong because “it’s objective”, no matter how prestigious the reviewer or publication is.

And if you’re a reviewer? Well, regarding use of the word “I”, do whatever works for you provided you realise an opinion expressed in third person is still an opinion. Apart from that, be open that you’re expressing your own opinion. And under no account feel under any obligation to fit in with other reviewers. As soon as you worry you’re not being objective enough because other reviewers think something different to you, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t be afraid to say “Well I liked it” when other people didn’t; don’t be afraid to say “How the hell is that getting five stars?” when other people give that. Reviewers (especially theatre bloggers) don’t have to be accountable to anyone, but if you must be accountable to someone, make it your readers. As soon as critics make themselves accountable to no-one but each other, the whole thing becomes meaningless. So be fair, be unbiased, be professional, but above all, be proudly and shamelessly subjective. Embrace your inner subjectiveness now.

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