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!