The Fault in My Stars (or, why I don’t use a ratings system)

If you’ve read any of my book reviews — well, first of all, thank you!

But as I was saying, if you’ve read my reviews, you’ll notice something missing that seems to be almost standard on book blogs — a ratings system. And that’s a deliberate choice, not just an oversight or poor planning.

I’ve debated adding in a ratings system off and on since I started blogging. And I always come back to the same conclusion — stars or their like just don’t really work for me.

Let’s look at Goodreads: The ratings system on Goodreads does actually have an official set of definitions:

1-star: Did not like it
2-stars: It was ok
3-stars: Liked it
4-stars: Really liked it
5-stars: It was amazing

That’s kind of vague, isn’t it? How do you differentiate between “it was ok” and “liked it”? If all I can say about a book is that I liked it, then that probably means that it was okay. Hmm. *scratching head in befuddlement*

So are the stars meants to be a comparison? A 5-star book should be the best ever, a 3-star book would be average among all books read, and a 1-star book would be the bottom of the barrel. But compared to what? Here’s where I get completely mixed up.

If I read a YA novel by a new writer and I think it was really good, I’ll give it four stars. Fine.

But then what does that mean in terms of well established, truly excellent writers? Is a 4-star debut YA novel equivalent in quality to, say, The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien? Of course not. Yet by the Goodreads ratings scale definitions, I’d give The Two Towers four stars because, while I really liked it, I wouldn’t call it amazing.

And then I fall into the same-author-relativity trap. I love Stephen King, but I love some of his books more than others. My absolute favorites get 5 stars, without a doubt. But when I read a Stephen King book that doesn’t appeal to me as much, do I give it 3 stars because relative to other SK books, I only liked it? Or would I say that in the grand scheme of all books ever, any SK book should be at least 4 or 5 stars simply because even at his less-stellar, he outwrites a good percentage of other writers?

Argh. I’m overthinking things, I know. And on Goodreads, I play along and assign stars. I try to have some level of consistency, and reserve 5-stars only for books that stand out as the best of the best. But below that, it gets murky. I tend to give 4-stars to any book that I like a lot, but wouldn’t consider the very tip-top. Three stars tend to be my “fine” books — you know, the book was fine, but I wouldn’t write home about it or anything. Two-stars are already in the realm of not liking. My two-star books aren’t “okay” (as Goodreads would have us think) — they’re books that I didn’t care for. And one-star? Hated. That’s all, plain and simple. (For the sake of fairness, I don’t give any rating to DNF books, since I don’t have enough information to assess the overall quality — unless I quit because the writing was atrocious, in which case, 1-star!)

How does that relate to what I do here on my blog? It’s the same thing, really. When I read a book, I have so many feels. Did it make me laugh? Did I tear up just a bit? Maybe I gave an unladylike snort over a particularly snarky passage, or I shook my head in bewilderment over some bone-headed plot twist. Did I like the characters but thought their actions were silly? Did I think it was well-written, but something about it just didn’t really appeal to me? Was it a foray into a genre I don’t typically read, and therefore I don’t feel well-equipped to judge its success?

How do I boil all that down to a quantitative rating, whether it’s stars, happy faces, or dancing bears?

Generally speaking, I can’t. I can tell you if I enjoyed reading a book, and if so, what I especially liked about it. I can tell you when I have mixed feelings about a book, and what are the different factors that play into my reaction. If I think some people might enjoy a book, but not others, I’ll say so. And on and on and on. So much goes into reacting to a book, and for me, I need to write it all out.

On the flip side, I do sometimes appreciate it when I’m visiting other book blogs and see a review for a book I’m curious about. Especially if it’s one I still plan to read, I’d rather not know much about it ahead of time, but I do want to know if the blogger liked it or not. So seeing someone else giving a book 5-stars or 3-stars or 1-star is helpful in that case — a quick and easy summary of the person’s opinion that I can get at a glance without reading through the details.

If anything, I could see myself using a report card style of ratings. I think I know what an A+ means, relative to a C or a D-. If I graded the books I read, rather than tried to assign stars, I think I could achieve a greater level of consistency in terms of what the grade means.

Of course, there’s still the Stephen King problem. Is second-tier Stephen King (or Tolkien or Austen or whoever you consider top of the heap) still better than some other writer’s absolutely best work? Is it fair to grade everyone relative to the best? Are there different standards for different genres, different topics, different levels of comedy and tragedy?

I keep coming back to the same old conclusion: For me, as a reviewer, I need words to express my thoughts, not stars. (Or smiley faces. Or dancing bears.) I don’t seem to be capable of assigning a number — which I think of as objective, definite, and purely quantitative — to something that is essentially subjective, personal, and qualitative.

What do you think? As a reviewer, do you like using ratings or do you feel boxed in by them? When you read reviews, do you prefer the written word or to see a grade or star-rating?

Please share your thoughts!

32 thoughts on “The Fault in My Stars (or, why I don’t use a ratings system)

  1. Sometimes I also want to refrain from using stars or ratings system. Sometimes, I just really have to. But what’s really important is – as long as I felt great and I learned something from a book, it’s enough that I have read and enjoyed it..

  2. SO with you on this! Agree with everything, and another thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I may think a book’s 5 star immediately after finishing it, but on reflection I might reconsider. Also, 3 stars looks mean, for a decent book!

    • Very true, I often have an immediate response, but may feel a bit differently if I wait a while. And I agree, 3 stars looks very half-hearted, so if I truly like a book, I’d tend to go with 4.

  3. You make some really good points and I definitely agree with you. Instead of rating a book out of five stars, I rate them out of ten. I think it gives me more room to be flexible. I would like to think that people read a whole review and don’t just go to the star rating, but I rate books anyway for a quick and easy guide as to whether I’d recommend the book or not. Loved reading your thoughts!

    • Thank you so much! I can definitely see how having a 1 – 10 ratings scale would allow for a lot more flexibility and degrees of liking than just 1 -5. I’m glad you’ve found a system that works for you!

  4. I have noticed that you didn’t use a rating system and wasn’t sure if it was an oversight, or intentional. –Good to know! I like using stars I guess because I don’t think about it as much as you do, lol! And I have a rating system on my blog if anyone is REALLY bored and wants to check it out. But, I do like to see a rating and a written review, because I’m a blogger. However, that could just be the blogger in me!

  5. For me, in the end i cant use the same logic for authors where I’ve read multiples of their work. In the end i compare books to each other. If i like book A more than book B regardless of the author, then A would get an extra star. Frankly they should allow half star ratings.

  6. My rating scale is ENTIRELY subjective, which means I’m not doing all that comparison stuff you’ve agonized over. If I absolutely loved it, 5 stars. If it was just okay, maybe 3 stars. Doesn’t matter who the author is or any other books they wrote or are in that genre. I subjectively rate each book on its own. Does that make any sense?

    • Yes, absolutely! I think if I worried less about comparisons, it might be easier for me to settle on my Goodreads stars… but then when I look at my end-of-year report and see the groupings of 5-star books, I often can’t believe the books I’ve given the same rating to!

  7. I totally get what you are saying….but I still like using a star system! In fact, I use the same as the Goodreads scale on my blog for the sake of consistency. For me, the rating is all about my own personal experience and reaction to a book though and I use my review/mini-review whatever I’m writing to explain why I felt that way to give it that rating. I don’t think so much about #ALLTHEBOOKS when I assign a rating – it’s all about how I felt while reading and sometimes a rating will change over time depending on whether or not a book stuck with me. And I do think it’s helpful to people who read my blog or reviews to see at a glance if I liked it or not if they don’t want all the details — especially because I do this myself all the time! Sometimes I decide whether or not to read a review based on the rating. There are just so many books out there, that sometimes I want to skip over some reviews, but if I see a trusted blogging friend absolutely loved a book, 5-starred it, or however their system works, I will go ahead and read the review to see what’s got her so excited. If I’m on the fence about learning more about the book in the first place and see she’s 1- 2- or 3-starred it, I might take a pass on that one.

    • What you’re saying makes total sense, and I agree that thinking about #ALLTHEBOOKS (LOL) can make a person (me) crazy. 🙂 I do need to give the issue more thought, I suppose. I still prefer not to use a scale, but I’m hearing that people appreciate it when they read other bloggers’ review, so I guess I should consider it.

  8. agree but also wonder how anyone can rate a book 1 star? If I didn’t like a book that much, I’d just stop reading it. It’s also an insult to the author. Sort of like leaving a penny tip for your server. If you could stay with the story to the end, then it deserves at least 2 stars.

    • Hmmm, I’m not so sure. I’ve stuck with a few books, usually books that have generated a lot of buzz, even though I’ve hated them. In one case I can think of, I read all the way through to the end to see if maybe something would change or go in a different direction, so I’d feel like the book redeemed itself somehow, but it just never happened. I hated it as much at the end as I did at the middle, so that was a 1-star book for me. But in general, yes, if I stick with a book until I”m finished, there’s usually at least something I liked about it.

  9. I can see what you mean but at the same time, using a quick 1-5 star rating system on my blog forces me to decide how much I really enjoyed the book…And its easier to see how much other people enjoyed the book when I visit other book blogs. But then at the same time, it’s hard to give a book 5 stars when I think of a book that was really good and really deserves 5 stars…and its definitely better than the book I’m considering giving 5 stars…! I guess I might be overthinking this a bit…. 😛

    • Welcome to my world 🙂 — I’m clearly overthinking this whole business! That’s why I wrote this post,actually, because I was feeling conflicted in a way. I mean, I know that for me and how I think about the books I read, I’m better off without a ratings scale, but at the same time I see the value, especially for people who visit a lot of blogs and want to kind of swoop in and out quickly without necessarily taking the time to read a purely narrative review. Clearly, I need to give this some more thought!

      • Well I think by writing out your thoughts, considering your options and publishing a post where people can comment and share their ideas – you’re doing a pretty good job of working through your conflicting thoughts on this topic 🙂

  10. I agree with most of the things that you said here. I am totally not in favour of rating books in stars/numbers , though I do it just on Goodreads. But, only I know the difference between my 3/4/5 stars. I might have given 5 star to two books and i would not want to re-read one and might want to read the other one many more times!!
    It’s so much personalized! I prefer words.. the more the better!
    I prefer to like/dislike different things in book.. the plot, the style, character development and much more. How is one supposed to reflect that in stars??

    • Thank you for saying what’s been on my mind! 🙂 I really started thinking about this issue when I started comparing my 5-star and 4-star books on my year-end report from Goodreads, and realized how arbitrary it all was. I love how you put it: “I prefer words — the more the better!” It’s comforting (and validating) to hear from someone else who prefers written expression rather than a number system.

  11. It is so funny that you wrote this post. I actually wrote something about this very topic on my blog today. I use a rating of 1-5, like Amazon or Goodreads, but lately I am thinking that the system is extremely limiting. And like you said, it is very subjective. I am giving way too much thought about what number I should give the book on my blog so I am thinking about just skipping it altogether.

  12. I’ve been totally curious about your lack of a rating system so now I know! Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    I find ratings to be quite useful. For me a 3 star book is one I liked but I wouldn’t read it again/I had some issues with it. I’ve started breaking my reviews down by section (the rating gets broken down too), to make it a bit more clear about what I liked and what I didn’t (I also really love half stars lol) I have thought about making up a page to explain the way I rate things, because I know for some people a 3 star book isn’t great, whereas my interpretation is that it’s fine but not anything special.

    It can all get very confusing from blog to blog!

    • So true, everyone has their own twist on what their stars mean — so if you’re using them, it probably does make sense to explain your own point system! I guess I am in the minority in not using a ratings system, but it seems to work best for me this way. I think my 3-stars on Goodreads are probably along the same lines as your use of 3-stars — the books were okay, but I have nothing in particular to say about them and they’re not books I’d go out of my way to recommend (or read again). Breaking your reviews down by section is a great idea. Do you do separate stars for writing style, plot, characters, etc? I’ll go take a look and see! Thanks for your input!

  13. Well, looks like what I’m going to say will be totally unpopular on this thread, but I think the 5 star rating (as well as any rating based on numbers) is completely useless, that’s why I don’t use it on my blog and I won’t use it.

    When I see a book is rated 3 start on average, what do I know about the book? Nothing. If I want to know something about the book, including making up my idea whether I want to read it or not, I need to read the reviews, and many of them, because the start-system is often duped. If I read the reviews, I can sort out what reviews are genuine and what are just friends giving support to the author (I’m talking big online stores here).

    On a reviewer’s blog it may be more helpful, if I get to know the reviewer well enough. But then, if I know the reviewer well enough is because I often read him/her, and if I read the reviewer because I like him/her, I’ll want to read the review, not just to see a rate.

    So, even as a reader, I don’t much care for ratings. I prefer to read actual reviews.

    • Great input! It does seem as though the majority of book bloggers use ratings, and seeing that I don’t, I wanted to explore the pros and cons a bit more. But I do feel that a number doesn’t tell much if you don’t know the reviewer’s tastes, overall likes and dislikes, etc. I do prefer to read reviews, actually, then just glance at a number — as you said, just because you gave a book 3 or 4 stars, do I know anything at all about the strengths and weaknesses of that book? A lot of what matters to me is that I started blogging in the first place in order to share my opinions and ideas beyond the Goodreads framework, and so the narrative style seems to suit that goal best. I’m happy to read your thoughts, which are really helpful! Thanks so much.

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