The Problem of Subjectivity

God Writing

When it comes to reading preferences–both distastes and pleasures–there’s an undeniable measure of subjectivity. After all, who hasn’t received a glowing book recommendation from a friend, only to read the book and wonder what sparked such enthusiasm? Or vice versa? What entertains and compels one reader may leave another entirely disinterested.

For writers, published and unpublished, this can prove a challenge. Several recent events–including an author’s explosion on a book reviewer’s blog–have highlighted to me the importance of properly evaluating and handling both praise and criticism. While it isn’t common to see authors bashing reviewers for their negative remarks, even writers who conduct themselves professionally  still feel the impact of a variety of reader and peer reviews–some full of praise, others rife with criticism or outright attacks. For unpublished writers, the feedback takes place on a private level, from critique partners, beta readers, or contest judges, but there’s still the element of learning to sort through the volumes of reader responses, sometimes conflicting.

When I entered a writing contest (years ago), I received a bewildering array of opinion from the judges. The very sections one praised, another would condemn. I gleaned nuggets of useful information, but in many areas, the judges had completely different perspectives, which caused a great deal of confusion initially. That was my first major brush with the problem of subjectivity.

The first thing that helped me was recognizing that all writers grapple with the subjectivity of reader responses. Even masters of the craft received opposing and varied feedback,  as JRR Tolkien shares in this foreword to an old version of The Fellowship of the Ring:

“The Lord of the Rings has been read by many people since it finally appeared in print ten years ago; and I should like to say something here with reference to the many opinions or guesses that I have received or have read concerning the motives and meaning of this tale. The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some how have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, or to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemished are all by others specially approved…”

If you write, you’re bound to face this dilemma at some point. So after you recognize it, how do you handle it? As an unpublished writer, I receive and benefit from the input of critique partners and anticipate one day working with editors and watching my books grow stronger as I implement their feedback. However, I’ve come to realize that the opinions of others, which can change from day to day and reader to reader, can’t measure ultimate worth.

There is a higher standard, as novelist Athol Dickson recently noted. In a post at Novel Journey, he spoke of an objective standard for beauty and truth in fiction, positing that excellence must be measured against the standard God sets forth:

“Beauty and excellence are how God appears. In other words, God Himself is the constant against which these higher things are measured…contrary to popular opinion, the beauty and excellence of a novel are not determined by popular opinion. If any novel is beautiful or excellent, it is so because of the author’s heart—the motivation—not because of outward appearances. Does this mean that anyone who loves God can write a novel and it will be beautiful and excellent? Does it mean that even mediocre novels are still beautiful and excellent in God’s eyes if the author writes them with the proper spiritual attitude?

The answer in both cases is no, of course not.

God doesn’t give the same gifts to everyone. Only writers with God-given talent can produce novels of beauty and excellence. No matter how much someone may want to see his name on a published novel, if the talent isn’t there life will be much more pleasantly spent differently.

And it is impossible for mediocrity to arise from a proper spiritual attitude, because such an attitude means we will be completely willing to work within the gifts God has given, submitting to His plan, and we will use what He has given to the utmost, and whatever our area of giftedness, we will always, always, always produce beautiful and excellent results.”

In this sense, as Christian writers, we have an objective measurement. Certainly, part of the pursuit of excellence is soliciting the instruction of those with wisdom and experience in craft, editors, agents, and even long-time readers, but it removes the sting of subjectivity when you see writing as a pursuit for beauty and excellence in partnership with God. Not everyone has the same measure of gift or ability, but we can make the choice to craft works that reflect our best and continue to grow and learn so that our best constantly improves. We can maintain a teachable and humble spirit but not be swayed by the current of outside opinion, and we can learn to discern wise counsel from subjective preferences.

For me, recognizing all writers face the issue of subjectivity, learning to differentiate between input that makes the story stronger and individual preference, and finding the element of objectivity in storytelling, which pertains to the unchanging nature of God, freed me to pursue joyful excellence in partnership with God and not allow differing opinions to cause confusion. I’m sure that public review provides its own set of challenges, but I hope the same tools will serve me as well then as they do now.

What about you? Have you experienced confusion related to conflicting views of your work? How do you deal with the problem of subjectivity?

Image credit: *Chris.King*


  • Athol
    April 6, 2011 - 12:01 pm · Reply

    This post should be very helpful for writers facing negative reviews or critiques, Sarah, especially this line: “…it removes the sting of subjectivity when you see writing as a pursuit for beauty and excellence in partnership with God.” That has been true for me. I’m glad you’re finding it’s also true for you. And it’s nice to be quoted alongside Tolkien, so thanks for that. 🙂

    One thing I tried to say in that Novel Journey post, but which may not have come across as strongly as I wished, is that some people who want to be published authors simply were not given the necessary gifts. Some are in it because they read fiction and want to write it, or to garner respect from friends and family, or for the personal satisfaction of seeing their words and name in print. But they are usually miserable, because they’re trying to force a square peg (themselves) into a round hole (writing).

    If such people would only be humble enough to acknowledge that they are insisting on their plan instead of submitting to God’s plan, that their true area of giftedness lies elsewhere, and if they would then move into that area, then they would find real creative joy in producing something of true excellence and beauty. Regardless of one’s occupation, excellence and beauty are the inevitable result of a life lived in humble submission to God’s will. One need not write or paint or sculpt or compose or dance in order to express the creative urge inherent in being made in the image and likeness of the Creator. A life lived in harmony with God is the highest form of art.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 8, 2011 - 2:05 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Athol, and for your words of encouragement!

      I think our culture encourages people to hold the perception that they can be anything they want, regardless of God-given talent or ability, but as you pointed out, pursuing a vocation outside of God’s purpose ultimately leads to frustration and discouragement.

      However, I do believe that some people may find meaning in writing not for publication. Perhaps they chronicle family histories with significance to grandparents and other relatives, or they write memoirs that God uses to help them process events in their lives–more as a journal and dialogue with God than a book intended to reach a wide audience. There’s value in that, but I think the difficulty comes when people universally feel they must seek publication, just because they’ve written a book. Or when people pursue writing in search of external validation of some sort, rather than pursuing it as a natural outflow of relationship with God and the creative abilities He’s placed in them.

      With respect to this…

      Regardless of one’s occupation, excellence and beauty are the inevitable result of a life lived in humble submission to God’s will. One need not write or paint or sculpt or compose or dance in order to express the creative urge inherent in being made in the image and likeness of the Creator. A life lived in harmony with God is the highest form of art.

      …I totally agree!

  • Timothy Hicks
    April 7, 2011 - 1:47 pm · Reply

    Your post struck home with me. Not everyone reads or even likes the same genres. I’ve spoken with people who question just how Christian a Christian fantasy or science-fiction story might be.

    Thanks for the encouraging words.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 8, 2011 - 2:06 pm · Reply

      Timothy, thanks for letting me know this post resonated with you. I’m glad it provided some encouragement.

      I haven’t personally run into the crowd that believes Christians can’t write speculative fiction–that it is all somehow evil–but I know a number of writers hurt by this perspective. I’m happy to hear you haven’t let it stop you from writing the books of your heart!

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