Every once in a while I’ll see someone talk about how they don’t trust certain reviewers because they think their reviews are probably biased. I’ve thought a lot about this. What does it mean to be biased, and can we really ever claim not to be biased in our reviews? After all, biases can’t be helped. Even if we did absolutely everything we could to avoid conscious biases, what about subconscious biases?
Lately I’ve been thinking more about my own biases and how they affect my reviews. As you all know, I don’t include negative reviews on my blog anymore. It’s just too much of a conflict of interest when I’m on submission with my own book. If I don’t like a book, I just quietly set the book aside and never mention it. If it’s a review book, I’ll put a few quick thoughts on Goodreads with no star rating and try to focus on the positives.
But even when it comes to books I love, am I truly unbiased? I doubt it. I can vow to be honest in my reviews but not unbiased. I’m guessing that even professional reviewers have some biases that affect them, even if they try not to allow those things to slip in.
Biases that could affect my reviews
(consciously or subconsciously):
- Seeing an author at an event in person – I’ve realized that I’m more apt to look forward to a book if I’ve met the author in person and heard them talk about it. Does this affect my excitement about the book when I actually read it? There’s a good chance it does. I might even be more excited about a book just knowing that I’m going to meet the author soon after I’ve read it.
- Interacting with an author via social media – Likewise, interactions on social media can increase (or decrease) my excitement about a book. I’ve thought about this with other authors from the Author Mentor Match program as well because I’ve interacted with them a lot. I’ve made an effort to pick up their books recently. Will I be more apt to enjoy them? If I’m being honest with myself, probably.
- An author you’ve read before and loved – I’ve found that this can work both ways. I can either give a little more grace to an author I love OR be more disappointed when I don’t absolutely adore a book by a favorite author.
- Books your friends loved and recommended – Of course I want to love a book that someone has specifically raved about and recommended to me. Not loving that book almost feels like letting your friend down!
- Reading many similar books in quick succession – I found this with my judging for the Cybils Awards. I read over 60 middle grade spec fiction books, and it was hard not to let my feelings about one book affect how I viewed other similar books (especially when I was specifically judging them against each other). If I read an amazing book, and then the next book was very similar and just not quite as good, those comparisons might change how I felt about the books overall.
- Receiving a book for review – Of course, this is the bias that most people are worried about. I try my best not to let the fact that I’ve received a book for review affect my impression of it, but can I be absolutely sure that no bias has crept in? When a shiny ARC shows up on my doorstep, aren’t I likely to be excited about it? Does that affect my excitement while reading? Who knows?
- Authors you know IRL – This is the one I struggle with the most. I will include an indication in my review if I actually know an author because in this case, I can’t even pretend to be unbiased. If a friend writes a book, I’m inclined to like it.
Again, there’s a difference between having biases and being dishonest. I have definitely read books that I’ve received for review and just plain not liked them. I won’t be singing their praises on the blog. Likewise, if I read a book by someone I know in real life and I wasn’t a fan, I would just never mention the book at all, anywhere, and hope no one ever knows I read it. (Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet. But it’s bound to at some point, right?)
So, I guess I just don’t really believe that anyone writes completely “unbiased” reviews, and I’m okay with that. Reviews are subjective and no one lives in a vacuum. Feel free to tell me your biases in your reviews (if you know them). I won’t judge you!
Do you think reviews can be truly unbiased? Do you ever worry about biases in your own reviews? I want to know!
I’m sure all my reviews are biased as well. 🙂 Our taste in books is a subjective matter. Granted, there are some books that are poorly written or badly organized, etc. Those things can be objective, but our overall “I liked it or didn’t like it” is so individualized.
I quietly put aside books I don’t like as well, instead of dissing them on my blog. I’m concerned the author would catch my bad review; why make them feel bad? Silence is my bad review. 🙂
Right, there are definitely some objectively bad books. Some are just poorly written. But once you get past that objective level, those biases can’t help but creep in.
I’ve had the multiple similar books one come up a lot. Atm I’m reading two books about Aliens coming to earth teaching people things without our consent, ofc I keep comparing them and finding I like one better than the other.
I worry about subconscious biases a lot. I’ve started paying more attention to reading diversly (until 2-3 years ago my reading was overwhelmingly white male) and I worry about not doing justice to a book because of gaps in my knowledge or unrecognised assumptions. Or simply meaning well but perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
Oh, you bring up a really good point here that I didn’t think of. Yes, I have absolutely worried that my internalized racial or social biases have affected my reading of a book. And I honestly even think that can go both ways as well. Sometimes I might not connect with a book because of gaps in my knowledge or experiences, but also I might be more apt to go into reading an #OwnVoices book really wanting to love it. Both things could potentially affect my enjoyment in the end.
I definitely feel your “biases” list. When I was in grad school and working in publishing, pretty much everyone I knew was an author. I never reviewed their books on Goodreads because I didn’t want to put myself in an awkward situation. I’m a picky reader. I didn’t want to lie, and I didn’t want to piss off the people I had to see every day, so I just didn’t review the books. I also understand the “too many similar books” problem. I read a true crime book last week that was exceedingly average. I don’t know if that’s the book’s fault or if I just consume way too much true crime.
Yes, now that I “know” a lot more authors (some in person, and some just via various social media), I definitely don’t want to go shouting out my negative reviews. I’ve always been okay with that but when it comes to the positive reviews, I feel like it’s harder. I used to constantly try to evaluate if I was being influenced by subconscious feelings about the author when I evaluate a book. That’s when I started thinking about all these OTHER things that can affect my opinions too, and I decided the best thing I can do is just point out my biases when I can. (If it’s an author I know personally, I’ll always mention it, and I also usually mention if I think there might be something else that makes me more or less apt to enjoy a book.)
I think any opinion, in general, comes with some bias, even if we are not aware of it. One that I don’t think affects me is the fact that I have a book for review. If I don’t like them, I don’t feature them, but I don’t think I give them any more leeway than a book I bought or got from the library. Comparing books is something I may be guilty of. I think you are really onto something with the similar book thing. Even if it’s not intentional, I probably hold them side by side and award a higher or lower rating based on that comparison every now and then.
I don’t think I have any biases when it comes to digital ARCs really, but I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m affected by getting a pretty physical copy in the mail. Don’t get me wrong, if I don’t like those books, I still treat them just like any other book I don’t like, but I definitely love to get books in the mail—does that subconsciously give them a boost with a positive impression when I start to read? I’m not honestly sure.
I think so. An example is if you find books specifically of your own interest that no one else is reading. Right now, I’m trying to read books about Canadian History for self-education purposes, so I’m on my own when it comes to finding the right books. I don’t ask anyone’s opinions, but just purely research on my own.
You make a good point—unbiased reviews are certainly possible in some situations. If you find the book yourself, have no preconceived notions based on the author, genre, etc, and are just reading for pleasure, there might be very little that even subconsciously affects your opinions.
Agreed, all of our reading is biased! That’s one of the things I worried about back when I was doing beta reads for friends… would I be able to critique enough to be an actual help when I really wanted to love the book because a friend wrote it?
Oh, this can be really tough, I agree! I’ve definitely been in that situation.
I talk to my students a LOT about what they want to read and what they have read, and go into every book thinking “Who will read this book?” If I can’t think of any of my students who will enjoy a book, what’s the point of buying it? I try to be positive and constructive in my reviews, by we all have biases. You have an excellent that we should know what they are.
I really enjoy your reviews, and I actually often specifically seek them out on Goodreads. I’m always interested to see your section at the end about whether or not you’ll buy the book for your classroom library and why. I think it’s a great perspective on what kids are actually reading, in your experience.
Great post. No opinion can be totally unbiased, it is all based on your education and life experience. When I feel it is needed, I do explain how my experience influenced my review, as far as I am aware
Yes, that is key for me – I know I can’t get rid of my biases, so the next best thing is mentioning them.
Very good discussion. And yes, I think everyone is biased in some way – whether we realize it or not. We can try and be more conscious of it, which is always a good thing just in general. But in general, reviews are always going to be somewhat subjective – even if the reviewer tries really hard to be objective. That’s one thing I like about people doing things they did and did not like in a book review, or sharing why they DNFed. They are aware what they didn’t like might be something someone else doesn’t care about or might even LIKE in a book.
That’s so true. I don’t include the negatives in my reviews anymore, but I appreciate seeing them in other people’s for this very reason.
Reading and reviewing are both subjective. Tastes vary. Our experiences and where we are in the moment play a part in how we perceive what we are a reading. I don’t believe reviewing a book without bias is possible. The closest we can come is to be aware of such biases and take that into consideration with reading and reviewing (and in other aspects of our lives).
You make many good points here, Nicole, and I would agree with the areas you list as impacting your opinion.
I think too often bias is mistaken for dishonesty, while the two are completely different things.
Yes, there’s a big difference between dishonesty and bias. I feel like a lot of people just equate the two, but we all have biases.
Great post! And so true. I have to say that I had a friend who wrote and self published, and I definitely rated her books probably higher than I would have if I didn’t know her. Because honestly, one or two of them I might not have even read or finished reading if I didn’t know her. I know that there are authors that I have loved all their books, and it is so hard to not give them high ratings, even when I don’t love their books as much as past ones because I have met them or interact with them online. And then there are review books. I’m working so hard to be honest, and like you, I rarely if even review a book I don’t enjoy. I am now doing DNF reviews, where I will go back and give a sentence or two about why I didn’t finish, but I know that there are other people who might love those books, so I don’t want to give them a bad rating just because I didn’t like them. Again, so much to think about with this post1 Great discussion starter!
“An author you’ve read before and loved – I’ve found that this can work both ways. I can either give a little more grace to an author I love OR be more disappointed when I don’t absolutely adore a book by a favorite author.”
That’s very true, and in my case, the second thing happens more often. When an author sets very high standards, it’s hard to make do with less.
Argh, review books. I find it especially difficult to write lukewarm reviews/give “average” ratings for/to those that come from the authors themselves (especially when I have requested them!). Thank goodness we have NetGalley and Edelweiss – I hardly request books from publishers anymore (only from those I’ve worked with a few times), and never from authors.
“Again, there’s a difference between having biases and being dishonest.”
Anyhow, I’m not particularly concerned about bias in reviews. Maybe because, when a book catches my eye, I read the bad ones first LOL (which could be biased too, though in the very opposite way – but usually, hate-reviews are easy to spot LOL).
Great post, and I love the reactions and conversation in the comment section.
I’ve not seen anyone calling out another blogger to be biased, luckily. I think, if that happened to me, I would feel really bad!! I totally agree on what you said about no one ever being totally unbiased.
I know I love SJM, so when I pick up a new series by her, I will probably think: I loved her before, this is going to be great.
It works the same way around for an author you didn’t like.
I sometimes feel a bit guilty for authors sending me their book and me not liking it, or DNF-ing it. But I will always try to find pros and cons in every book and make sure an author does walk away with compliments and feedback!
Everyone has bias but it may be that someone is less biased because of their background. I’m an author and when I read I use my storytelling skills to pick apart books and analyze them. This makes me more critical, for sure. Someone who is not an author is less likely to be as critical about the storytelling, so their background is less biased. Personally, I love to see the wide range of reviews and opinions about a book. It shows how certain subjects can be interpreted in different ways. Oftentimes, it also means that the review says more about the reviewer than it does about the book.
Of course your reviews are biased, and by reading them over time I come to know if your biases are the same as mine–which means I can trust your judgment about a book. Part of the trick is realizing what your biases are and whether they are related to the book or to people, and if people, disclosing the bias at least a little–I’m so excited that my friend “Sue”‘s book XYX is going to be published next week and she sent me a review copy, Thanks to NetGalley for providing a complimentary review copy etc.
As far as negative reviews, I’m not an author and I do write them. http://rannthisthat.blogspot.com/2013/08/book-blogger-hop_9.html gives an idea of when/why.
This is such a great post, I love it. I agree that our reviews, whether we realize it or not, might be a little biaised every now and then. I especially get the whole “reading many similar books” thing… because then I know I’ll end up comparing them to each other every now and then and my rating and review will be affected by that, too.
Personally, you can’t really write an unbiased review, because your worldview, your life, your experiences, and your personal taste all come into your like or dislike of any book. That means you’re naturally biased. On the other hand, you can be FAIR in your review, and note that your bias has influenced your opinion of the book. That’s something else altogether!
First, this post is awesome. Second, nope. I am with you. SO many things influence us. Like, our expectations will influence us regardless. Or, even not hearing about the thing is an influence in itself. So yeah, I think you nailed it- we’ll be honest, but we can’t help it we have some kind of bias, because we ALL have bias. It’s just like, part of the human condition!
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I love this post so much. I personally am fully aware that I am biased when I review. Not just for the reasons you mentioned, but I am also a mood reader. So if I read a book at just the right time, I will end up loving that book, and I have always wondered if I were to read a book when I’m not really in the mood for it or for that particular genre or type of storytelling would I still enjoy it the same way? I also think that the moment we start talking about how we experienced reading that book is the moment we give a subjective review. Unless we’re writing literary analysis, breaking down the themes from the book in a very academic way, I don’t see how reviews can be unbiased. Especially when most of the reviewers I follow talk about how they felt while reading a particular book, which again, is all based on each individual’s experience with that book. Amazing post!
I love your list of different ways bias may affect your reviews! I think it’s impossible to write a truly objective or unbiased review. There are reviewers who acknowledge their biases or limitations, but I also think there are book bloggers who don’t realize the many ways they may be ‘biased’ when writing a review. In particular, I’m thinking of the disclaimers that say something like ‘I received a free copy from the author but this did not impact my opinions’…!