How You Can Take Advantage of Art's Subjectivity

Why Somebody Is Certain to Hate Your Book–and How You Can Deal With It

Anyone who doubts the subjective nature of art need look for persuasion no farther than Amazon’s review pages. For instance, Stephen R. Lawhead’s Hood received opinions varying from the effusive

Lawhead at his best.

and

Rip-roaring good story.

to the insistent

No real plot, resolution, or drama.

and

Slow, uninspired and pointless.

How could the same piece of writing inspire such wildly differing reactions? You have to wonder if these reviewers were even reading the same book!

The Subjectivity of Art

For better or worse, art (like life) is subjective. Not one of us looks at a story, a painting, a movie, or a concert in the same way. We each see the same structure; we each read the same words; but we all take something individual, and therefore indefinably precious, away from the encounter.

Experiencing art is like watching clouds. Two people can lie on the same grassy hill, watching the same cloud formations. But how they interpret the shapes of the clouds is an entirely individual experience. You may see a poodle on a leash, while in the same cloud, I see a drag race.

Part of the magic of the artistic experience is its endless evolution. It is never static. Even once the writer has put the final touch on his piece, it continues to live and morph and grow through the experiences of the reader. When we hand our writing over to others, we’re unavoidably surrendering our control over it. We can’t sit at the reader’s shoulder and dictate how he envisions our characters or how he reacts to the themes.

If we could, it would largely defeat the point of art, not to mention the enjoyment.

Why Writers Don’t Always Like the Subjectivity of Art

Art’s subjectivity is sometimes a hard notion to accept. Because we’re limited by our own visions of the world, it isn’t automatic for us to realize other visions are not only out there but, in fact, they are everywhere. It’s a natural human reaction for us to suppose our own reactions and beliefs should be shared by everyone. As a result, it can sometimes be quite a shock to realize everyone isn’t going to view our writing the same way we do.

Despite its universalism, this is a truth that few of us manage to grasp right off. However, it’s important we do grasp it. Until we do, we’ll never be able to take advantage of it.

4 Reasons It’s Kinda Awesome That Someone Might Hate Your Book

Once you embrace the subjectivity of art, you can:

1. Accept that the painful rejection of our work by some of your readers is inevitable and even warranted, given the wide range of personalities who will read it.

2. Realize that bad reviews aren’t necessarily reflective on the quality of your work. Everyone and his mother’s uncle is entitled to his opinion. And no two people’s opinions are going to be exactly alike. If one person adores your work, then you can expect that someone else will hate it with equal fervency. Your work can’t speak to everyone. The sooner you accept this fact, the easier it will be to brush away the sting of negativity.

3. Open your eyes to the fact that differing opinions give you the opportunity to widen your scope and deepen your work. Occasionally (and sometimes more than occasionally) your negative reviewers may just have a point or two. If you can handle the negativity, you may just gain more from reading your bad reviews than you do from your good reviews. The varying vantage points of other people can help you see yourself, your writing, and your flaws more clearly.

4. Embrace the wide variety of humanity. If everyone in the world shared your opinions down to the last dot, it would be a ridiculously dull place. Despite the drawbacks and occasional nicks of pride, subjectivity is the only reason art is worth pursuing. It allows us all a broader canvas on which to paint, experiment, fail, and succeed.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How you feel about the idea that one reader might hate your book and another reader might love it? Tell me in the comments?

How You Can Take Advantage of Art's Subjectivity

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I so agree with this, and it is a fact I hold on to dearly every time I get a rejection letter–whether it be for my novel or a short story. One editor finds my pacing wrong and the subject matter tired. Another–regarding the same story–raves about the descriptive language and originality and selects the story for publication. My most recent rejection was on a short story, and the editor failed to see the forest for the trees–but it was his perspective. Another will see it from an entirely different angle and love it as much as I do!

  2. Subjectivity is also the deciding factor in what we usually refer to as the “rules.” We all concede that there is good writing and there is bad writing. But the truth is that there is no definite line between the two. So much is dependent on perspective and opinion.

    At the same time, I always find it a delicate balancing act between deciding whether someone “not getting” a piece is due merely to perspective or because I could have written it better.

  3. Putting our writing on the chopping block requires us to step back, watch the chips fly and then gather them up into our arms for examination.

  4. GREAT metaphor, Shaddy! I may have to borrow that one sometime. 😉

  5. Your poll essentially asks a much deeper question: can there be any such thing as universal art?

    I take that to mean “can there be anything which is universally (that is, objectively) appreciated as artistic by all observers?”

    IMHO, no. Every kind of art I know of is more appreciated–that is, considered to have greater artistic merit–by people who are studied in that medium.

    A poet best appreciates a poem. A painter best appreciates a watercolor. A programmer best appreciates an elegant algorithm.

    While a non-poet might enjoy a poem, while a non-painter might enjoy a painting, and while a non-programmer might (once it is sufficiently explained) see the cleverness in an elegant algorithm, none of those observers will appreciate those works as well as someone who is actually skilled in the art (no pun intended) of creating them.

    All people bring to the observation a different set of skills, backgrounds, and personal affinities. There is no craft, no type of art, no medium of expression, for which all people are equally well versed.

    In the strictest logical sense, it does not follow from this that there could not be such a medium of expression. Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence. Nevertheless, I believe that to be so. I can’t think of an example, nor can I construct a hypothetical example which fits the bill. Maybe you can, and prove me wrong.

    But until someone cleverer than I can find an example, I hold that there can be no art that is universally appreciated by all, and that as all art is inherently subjective, subjectivity must therefore be vital to the nature of art itself.

  6. It’s interesting (and slightly ironic) that artists perforce see art in a slightly different light from others. I wonder sometimes if we can ever see our work in the same light as those who aren’t creators but merely experiencers of art. Does that put us at an advantage or a disadvantage? It’s also probably a good explanation for why those who deeply experience art are drawn to create it themselves.

  7. So very true. I wrote something similar on my blog the other day. The best thing a writer may could do is not to read reviews, unless they are prepared to handle whatever may come.

  8. If curiosity kills the cat, then I’m definitely a cat. :p I can’t help myself from reading reviews, even when they’re negative. And, in the end, I think I learn just as much from the negative reviews – once I get done screaming, of course.

  9. You make some excellent points. It is impossible to please everyone and not everyone is going to get you or your book.

  10. Of course, we always hope that *most* people will get it (‘cuz otherwise we’ll be out of a job!), but understanding that not everyone *has* to get it is very freeing.

  11. Great post – and something that is especially good to remember while querying!

  12. It’s also something I try very hard to remember in viewing and judging others’ writing. Just because it doesn’t float my boat doesn’t mean it’s necessarily worthless.

  13. [1:41:16 PM] Belle: My mom has this saying that she tells us from time to time, “You can please some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Good post.

  14. Was it Abraham Lincoln who originally said that, I think? Very true!

  15. Love this post! We certainly can’t please all of our readers. I also think that a small percentage of reviewers have an agenda. For example, with my most recent book, Avoid Social Media Time Suck, a reader attacked the editing of my book. That amused me because I hired two editors and the copy was clean. So my only thought was that this guy must have been an editor. So I laughed when I saw the review. I think that when reviews are negative, they still add to the energy and buzz around a book.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, there’s a definite difference between a “bad” review in which someone simply didn’t like the book because it didn’t resonate with them–and a review in which someone is actively angry or antagonistic. The latter reviews are usually, at their heart, about something entirely different from the book itself.

      • I had the latter with one of my books on Amazon — to the extent the reviewer detailed THE ENTIRE PLOT, including all spoilers. Essentially ruining the book for anyone who read his review. I could *not* get Amazon to edit his review to remove the spoilers. I respect the fact that the man did not enjoy the book. He’s entitled to his opinion. But revealing every plot twist and detail was nothing less than vindictive. Clearly, the subject matter triggered a strong response in him (the book, as with all my books, is designed to make you think, to stretch your mind in new directions) and he responded angrily and more than a little viciously. If only we authors had a bit more control over what gets published as a “review.”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s rough! But ultimately, there’s a good reason we *aren’t* allowed to have control over the reviews, since, of course, some authors would inevitably abuse the privilege. At the end of the day, the quickest way to a stress-free writer’s life is not to read reviews. :p

  16. What’s difficult and challenging is finding the right audience for your book, like, how do you know who to market to (and where to spend your advertising dollars) based on who you THINK will like your book? And maybe who you THINK will like your book is off by a few degrees. It’s very frustrating!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear you! It *is* one of the most difficult aspects of writing. But I like to think of my audience like this: it’s made up of people like me. I’m trying to write the kind of book I would want to read, so I’m ultimately writing to audience made up of people who’s literary tastes are just like mine.

  17. Joe Long says:

    I do believe this is why many in the arts (music, acting, writing) dislike capitalism, as their ability to make a living is dependent on enough people appreciating their art. We, naturally, think our work is splendid, and who are these people, this system, keeping me from being successful?

    Of the parts of my story that I’ve published online, the most common rating was 8 of 10, followed by 9, then 10. That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, but there’s also a handful of 3, 2, 1 – what is wrong with those people?

    I am open to reasoned criticism, and have learned quite a bit from Katie (thank you!). Instead of finishing chapter 7 I’m doing big edits of chapter 1, which last year I thought was well done.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think that’s extremely true. When we try to turn art into a money-making proposition (not that there’s a thing wrong with that), we inevitably start qualifying the worth of our work based on the cumulative “yeas” and “nays” of others–when, really, that’s not ever going to be the only (or even truest) bottom line on the worthiness of something creative.

  18. True, we just NEED to learn to handle negativity because it´s unavoidable. Unless you do nothing. And even then.

    So is true that sometimes negative reviews have a point. So we can take what´s useful and forget what´s not 🙂

    Thanks for the post! I´m eagerly waiting for Storming!

    M.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My favorite aspect of the whole idea of the subjectivity of the art is the realization that just because someone doesn’t like our writing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a *negative* reaction. It’s not about negativity; it’s just about people all having their own opinions, just as we have our opinions.

  19. Michelle Bolanger says:

    This article is spot on. I’ve been an artist to one degree or another all my life, and this truth is absolutely universal. I am not only a writer, but also a photographer and a vocalist. Some people love my photography, and others don’t. Some enjoy hearing me sing and some would rather the sound tech turn my mic off. I have to accept the fact that my book will garner the same kind of response.

    I think what makes it hard for authors is that we actually see and read the reviews. They are posted for all the world to see for as long as the reviewer chooses to leave them up. Good or bad. We can’t get away from them. Preparing ourselves ahead of time to say, “Eh, I’ll get them next time.” or “They have a great point.” will help take some of the sting out of the painful ones.

    Great article. Thank you for the reminder!
    Michelle

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I know many authors who deliberately choose to avoid their reviews. I haven’t been able to make that leap myself (in part, because as a independent publisher I need to monitor anything that might indicate a technical issue with the book). But even though my experience with reviews has been almost overwhelmingly positive, I have to say I think it would be entirely healthy to be able to avoid the reviews altogether–both the good and the bad–if at all possible.

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