Objectivity and subjectivity are terms that get used in so many different ways and with so many different agendas that one is tempted to give up on them. But I think there’s still some goodie left in these terms: they can be especially helpful for a writer trying to figure out what to write next, as we’ll see in a minute. But first, a preface and some definitions.
To speak of objective facts is to appeal to realities that exist outside our own heads. Reality, as I have often said before in this space, is that which continues to exist whether you believe it or not. But as every sophomore has learned, all human knowledge is filtered through the individual’s subjective experience. That is to say, your perception, understanding, and interpretation of reality is unavoidably different in some degree from my perception, understanding, and interpretation of reality. In its least nuanced, most sophomoric formulation, this idea is stated thus: “All truth (or, perhaps, morality) is subjective (or, perhaps, relative).”
Our understanding of subjectivity is complicated and corrupted by the fact that “subjectivity” is often used to mean “the quality of being based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.” I know because I just googled “define subjectivity,” and that was the first definition that came up. That being the case, every statement about subjectivity can start to sound like a version of “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” That adage is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as a lot of people seem to think it does.
We tend to speak as if objectivity and subjectivity are two mutually exclusive ways of viewing reality, employed by two different kinds of people: old-fashioned people who believe in objective truth, and moral relativists who are forever announcing that all truth is subjective. But we all believe in reality that exists independently of our perception of it (don’t we?) and surely we can all agree that different people experience the same reality differently.
Now I will conclude this lengthy preface with a couple of working definitions that I hope will free the terms objectivity and subjectivity from some of the baggage that has attached to them, and so make them more useful categories for writers like you. Objectivity, as I have already said, is concerned with realities that exist outside our own heads. As for subjectivity, let’s drop (for our purposes) the language of “personal feelings, tastes, or opinions” and instead think in terms of how an individual experiences reality. There’s nothing contradictory or mutually exclusive about these ways of talking about reality.
Questions of objectivity ask, “What are the facts here?” Questions of subjectivity ask, “What is it like to experience those facts?” Both of those questions are exceedingly important for a writer. You’ve got to get your facts straight. But the facts probably aren’t going to be enough. What readers find compelling is experience.
Historical fiction perfectly illustrates the interplay between objectivity and subjectivity that I’m talking about. The writer of historical fiction becomes a subject-matter expert in the facts of a given place and time. But those facts aren’t the story. The story answers the question, “What would it be like to be a person for whom those ‘historical’ facts are the facts of everyday life?” The subjective experience of the characters makes the objective facts more relevant, not less. I’ve read a few disappointing pieces of historical fiction in which the historical setting just felt like a backdrop for a story that could have just as easily taken place in a different time and place. That failure to integrate the objective with the subjective is a major narrative failure.
In my first novel, The Bark of the Bog Owl, a few chapters take place in an underground cavern. When I wrote those chapters, I had never been in an underground cavern, so I did a lot of research on caves. I love that kind of thing—so many new and interesting facts. But the cave chapters took shape when I made the switch from “Here are some fascinating facts about caves” to “What would it be like to experience these things first-hand?” The move was from objectivity to subjectivity. That is not to say, however, that only the subjective experience matters in that story. Without the objective facts, the subjective experience wouldn’t have been especially interesting.
This move from the objective to the subjective can be just as important in nonfiction as in fiction. A piece of persuasive writing is not just a collection of facts. It will be more persuasive if it addresses the question of what it feels like to experience these facts. And a main difference between “creative nonfiction” and more “traditional” nonfiction, I suggested in a Tuesday letter last year, is the fact that creative nonfiction makes that move more decisively toward the subjective:
Creative nonfiction is not a sub-genre distinct from, say, journalism or biography or persuasive essays. Journalists, biographers, and essayists always have the option of using the techniques of creative nonfiction in their work.
Rather than thinking in terms of genre and sub-genre, think in terms of objective fact vs. subjective experience. (Stay with me: by using the term “subjective experience” I’m not talking about throwing away facts or truth; rather, I’m talking about the way we experience facts and truth.) Traditional journalism, textbooks, op-ed columns, biographies, etc., derive their authority from the marshaling of objective facts. It is true, of course, that this “traditional” kind of nonfiction might have an emotional impact on readers. This should come as no surprise, since we have emotional responses to objective facts all day every day. But for the writer of a textbook, the goal is to stand outside the scene at a healthy objective distance; any emotional impact is a byproduct.
Fiction, on the other hand, has no recourse to objective facts. When we say that a novel is “convincing” or “believable,” we don’t mean that it actually convinced us that its people, places, and events exist or existed in the world God made. We mean that it drew us into its scenes. Instead of providing us with objective detachment, fiction draws the reader closer to the content and says, “If these things had really happened, this is what they would feel like.”
That’s how creative nonfiction works. It takes something that actually has happened and says “Come closer. Step into this scene. This is what it would have felt like if you had been there.”
For a lot of reasons, objectivity and subjectivity are fraught terms. But if we can un-fraught them a little, they can still be pretty useful.