META: The Problem of Subjectivity

Martin Phipps martinphipps2 at
Wed Mar 12 09:11:09 PDT 2008

Reviews tend to be subjective and not objective.  Thus, most reviews
are not constructive.  Consider reviews of Spiderman 3.  Some people
didn't like it.  This is a subjective opinion.  People then try to
justify their opinion.  They believe that a subjective opinion can
become objective if it can be justified.  Some people say Spiderman 3
had too many villains, specifically Harry Osborn, Sandman and Venom
(which is either three villains or four depending whether or not you
consider Venom as one villain or two).  Well, Superman II had four
villains (Zon, Non, Ursa and Luthor -- six if you include Otis and
Teschmacher) and yet that worked.  The original Batman movie with Adam
West also had four villains (Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the
Riddler) and yet that (arguably) worked.

It would appear that there is no way justifying a subjective opinion
can make it objective.  Thus anyone who presents an opinion and then
tries to justify it is mistaken if he thinks he is offering
constructive criticism.  Not all criticism needs to be constructive:
sometimes you just want to know what people think.  The problem comes
about when people insist that their subjective opinions constitute
constructive criticism.  The fact is that when a person looking for
constructive criticism gets nothing but opinion it can be extremely
frustrating.  Constructive criticism can be very useful so wading
through subjective opinion may sometimes seem like a waste of time.
At worst, it can even be taken as insulting.

The question then is "What _does_ constitute objective / constructive
criticism?"  Off the top of my head, I can think of a few categories
of mistakes that authors can make: BLATANT ERRORS, INTERNAL

One example of a blatant error might be refering to President George
W. Bush as "George Bush Junior" or claiming that the Apollo 11
moonlanding was in 1967 and not 1969.  Spelling and grammar errors
would also be blatant errors.  Some exception may be made for
grammatical errors made in dialogue as not everybody uses correct
grammar.  It's also possible for a story to be set in an alternate
reality where some historical facts differ (such as having Nixon be
President during the Watchman series).

Blatant errors could be science mistakes.  In the first appearance of
Electro in the Lee-Ditko Amazing Spiderman run, Spiderman wrapped a
wire around his leg in order to "siphon off" the electricity that
Electro was throwing at him.  Thing is, this is exactly what Spiderman
should _not_ have done as he was grounding himself and thereby making
himself an excellent conductor of electricity.

On the other hand, you can't claim that a Dr. Strange writer is making
a mistake if he has Dr. Strange perform a spell similar to one done on
the Charmed TV series and the spells work differently: one fictional
reality does not have to be consistent with another fictional
reality.  Even if one believes that magic exists in the real world one
would have to conceed that there wouldn't eb a lot of logic to it:
that's why it is magic and not science.

On the other hand, a writer is making a mistake if there is internal
inconsistancy in a story or between stories in a series.  If Doctor
Strange performs the same spell and gets two different results on two
different occasions and no further explanation is given then this
could be considered a mistake.  A more obvious example would be
changing somebody's name or marital status or actually reducing
somebody's age as a series progresses.

An obvious question is whether or not characterisation needs to be
consistent, seeing as how the same person can react differently under
different circumstances and can even learn from previous mistakes.
Unfortunately, the onus is on the writer to make it clear to readers
why the character would behave differently at different times: it is
not good enough to claim that human behaviour is "random".  For one
thing, human behaviour is _not_ random: the more you know a person the
better you can predict how they will behave.  For another thing, if
the author decides that his characters are going to behave randomly
then he never has to worry about providing any explanation for why
they behave the way they do and that is just lazy writing.

Another instance of lazy writing is faulty logic.  Suppose you have a
murder mystery which ends with a husband being revealed as the killer
of his wife over a jealous rage because she had had an affair with
another man.  Some questions might be
"How did he find out?" and "Why didn't he just confront her?"  The
logic is faulty because there are missing steps left out of the
explanation: hence the expression "leap of logic".

A logical contradiction is even worse than a leap in logic.  A lot of
mistakes can be considered logical contradictions: if you claim that
your story is set in the present day, real world and yet Al Gore is
president then you have a contradiction.  The worst kind of logical
contradiction is one in which a single sentence, paragraph or scene
makes no sense as a result of a logical contradiction.

You've probably heard of logical contradictions if you've studied
either college level mathematics or philosophy.  Some examples of
logical contradictions can be "I'm only happy when I am sad", "I am so
proud to feel ashamed", "What I am saying right now is a lie" (which
can only be true if it isn't) and "I love all my children except the
ones I don't".

Of course, some supposed logical contradictions are not contractions
at all.  Sometimes IRONY is involved: when Winston Churchill said
"Democracy is the worst possible political system... except for all
the rest" he was being deliberately ironic.  Irony is a good thing
when it makes people think.  Another possibility is a paradox: the
idea that light can be both a particle and a wave seems paradoxical
but it actually makes sense.  You might have to trust me on this
point. :)

I'm not saying that reviewers shouldn't give their opinions.  What I
_am_ saying is that reviewers shouldn't pretend that in trying to
justify their opinions that their opinions are any less subjective.
Reviewers should realize that subjective opinions don't mean much when
all is said and done: why should one reader's opinion trump the
opinion of the author who presumably thought the story was just fine
when he wrote it?  If a reviewer wants to be seen as objective and
constructive then he / she needs to point out actual mistakes the
author made.  If a reviewer just offers an opinion and is completely
incapable of baking it up with anything constructive then he is just
wasting everybody's time.


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