Monday, 22 April 2013

The Fault in Our Star Ratings


This past week, I had the pleasure of handing out two five star ratings on Goodreads. That doesn’t happen very often. I try to reserve my five star ratings for books that are the whole package deal: great plot, setting, and character development, engaging prose, plus that extra something that just blows me away. For me, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green both met those criteria. I know, I know. I’m pretty much running behind the bandwagon on that second one, but I held off on reading it because I knew it would hit a little too close to home. Despite the amount of Kleenex I used, I ended up loving it. I can practically hear all the John Green fans snorting “I told you so” from here.

ANYway…

Star ratings and reviews are tricky for me. As an aspiring author, I feel the need to be careful how I respond to what others have written. Agents warn against giving negative reviews if you hope to be published one day, and to me that makes a lot of sense. I wouldn’t want to spoil my chances of representation or publication because of something I said in a review. I know some other writers feel differently on this issue, and that’s okay with me. I also think there are plenty of people out there giving honest and fair reviews. Lately, I’ve found myself on a number of blogs dedicated to book reviews, and I’ve enjoyed hearing what others have to say about books I’ve read or would like to read. Based on some of these reviews, my TBR list has had another huge growth spurt. Reviewing is one of those to-each-his-own issues for me, as long as people are being respectful.

On my blog, you’ll only ever see reviews for books I enjoyed. That’s partly due to the reason stated above and partly because of the time factor. As far as star ratings on Goodreads, if I don’t like a book, I just don’t rate it. And I’m not gonna lie. I’ve read a few duds this year. There are also other reasons I might not rate a book. If a novel has certain things in common with my manuscript, I steer clear. Obviously, I’m biased toward my own book and feel it’s best not to venture into that territory. While I occasionally read middle grade, I try to bear in mind that as an adult, I’m not the intended audience, so unless it’s particularly noteworthy, I usually don’t rate it.

Then there are books that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t boil down to a handful of stars. It’s like attempting to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Maybe the character development was amazing, but the plot was lacking. Or perhaps the prose was awkward, even though the story was entertaining enough. Maybe it was technically well-written, but not my cup of tea and so I can’t justify giving it a crummy rating. Many times I’ve wished you could give out half stars on Goodreads, or that books were measured on a scale of one to ten instead. There are many factors that make a book good, or bad, or even mediocre, and often times five stars doesn’t seem precise enough to take everything into account. 


Something my sister and I have discussed is that book ratings almost need to be more like figure skating. Not that I watch a lot of figure skating, but aside from the gaudy spandex, I think the comparison works. In skating, judges pass out marks based on technical merit, required elements, and presentation. With books, it could be a two-pronged approach that considers both creativity and the technical aspects of the writing. We could call it, the Chazz Michael Michaels Approach. Just Kidding. Couldn’t resist some Blades of Glory humour.

So tell me, do you have any policies for reviewing or rating books? What’s your process for determining a rating? Are you stingy with your stars? I’d love to hear what you think!

28 comments:

  1. I am the same way as you, while I would love my own book to be rated positively I also want honesty. When I'm reviewing I only talk about books I like. I guess it would be different if my job was to review, but I want to write novels. Nice post.

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    1. I think I would approach reviews differently too if that was my primary focus. As you pointed out here, it's a matter of what job you're trying to accomplish. Since writing is the priority, I feel it's best for me to be cautious what I say about the work of others. Glad you agree!

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  2. I haven't attempted reviews yet. Only once, and I ended up giving the complete story. I get your point of rating only the books you have enjoyed. After all, authors put in a lot of effort in them. Great post.

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    1. Yeah, sometimes it's really hard to review a book without giving any spoilers, especially if there were a lot of surprising plot twists. When I post reviews, I'm always worried I'll accidentally give something away. :)

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  3. I'm like you. I only rate books I enjoy or review books on my blog that I review. I agree that there are plenty of book review bloggers (which I enjoy reading too) that will rate the books they don't like negatively. As a writer, I don't feel like as an author I need to review the books I don't like. Love reading those blogs too.

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    1. It's hard enough to squeeze in time to write, so I figure if I do a review it had better be on a book I enjoyed. And you never know who you'll come into contact with in writing circles, so I'd prefer to know I haven't been too tough on any fellow writers. :)

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  4. I personally dislike the star rating system and variations. Everyone has their own way of rating the book rather than a standardized method so it really has no value to me. I don't use them when I review a book either. I'll used the alphabet grading system and give the reasons they got that grade. Stars are biased.

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    1. It's hard to boil a book down to five stars or less when the majority of books are more complex than that. I think it serves its purpose to a degree, but it's definitely not ideal. That's an interesting idea to use the alphabet grading system instead. I can see how that might be a more thorough way to rate books.

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  5. I don't review books, but if I did, I would have a hard time not giving a review if I took the time to read it. If a book is lacking in something, I don't think is necessarily bad to say so. In fact, if I ever have the pleasure of having anyone actually read my books, I want to know an honest opinion so I can improve. I don't want to read anything nasty, but honest, yes.

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    1. You bring up an interesting point. Reviews can help authors understand how their books are perceived by their audience, assuming those reviews are fair and honest. For me, it's a matter of being cautious what I say about the work of people I could potentially encounter in writing circles. Occasionally, I'll mention a minor concern about a book if I have one, but only in the context of an overall positive review. I just feel more comfortable with that.

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  6. Reviewing is a difficult thing, something I'm just starting to dip my toe into. I have the problem that though I can notice problems in plot and character, I enjoy 95% of the books I read. I'm the same way with movies. When I read, I'm doing it for the enjoyment of it, so I will find something about the book that I enjoy and hold onto that until I get to the conclusion. And that makes writing reviews difficult, because I usually have only positive things to say. What I'm trying now is to just write how I am personally impacted by the book or things I thought about as I was reading. Who knows how long that will last. I am currently using the 5 star rating system at the end of my reviews, but I agree with you, that system isn't very accurate. I might have to start going outside the box and rate them in a way that feels more accurate to me. Thanks for helping me think about that more critically!

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    1. I definitely think the five star rating system works better when it's accompanied by an actual written review. Then you can explain why you chose that particular star rating. It's much more thorough that way. I've seen people assign half stars in the comments on Goodreads, and I think that helps clarify the rating too. I like the approach you've been taking in focusing on aspects of a book that impacted you. I guess that's partly why I don't like to give negative reviews. Even if I didn't enjoy a book as a whole, there's usually at least one good thing I can take from it.

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  7. Well, you know I feel the same way about this. Sometimes I really want to write what I thought about a book—warts and all—but I keep most of those negative thoughts to myself (or I just tell you). Sometimes I might mention one teensy thing that I thought could have been better or I'll even put a disclaimer on the odd book (ex. THE DIVINERS and animal stuff), but mostly I stick to books I have nice things to say about.

    I agree that the star approach is lacking. There are so many thing that factor into rating a book. I'm thinking of one book in particular that I really enjoyed, but the prose was fairly rough for the whole first portion of the book. It didn't stop me from liking the book, but I know others would get hung up on that. How do you rate a book like that? I'm all for the Chad Michael Michaels approach. Just sayin'... :P

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    1. Yeah, I don't always find it easy to zip up my opinions on certain books either. Good thing we can rant to each other. :)

      You and I have discussed before how it's easier to forgive the flaws in a book if you really enjoy a particular aspect like the characters. Then rating gets really tricky. I also find the Goodreads star ratings a bit deceiving at first glance. A three star rating doesn't look great, because it's sitting right in the middle, but it actually means "I liked it". I don't give out anything lower than three stars, but visually three stars still looks low to me. Glad you're on board with the Chazz Michael Michaels approach. Not sure I'll be implementing it on my blog though. ;)

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  8. I rate with stars on Goodreads but not when reviewing on my blog. On there I rate with a comment because I hate to rate a trashy beach read that I LOVED the same thing as a superbly written literary novel. I quickly put a book aside that I don't enjoy so I don't have any low ratings anyway...if I didn't like it then I didn't finish it.

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    1. That's exactly it! How do you compare a fluffy book you read just for some light entertainment to something with a complex plot or beautifully written prose? The fact is, we read books for different purposes and assuming those books fulfill those purposes then they each deserve a good rating, no matter how different they are. I'm getting better at putting aside books that I'm not enjoying too, and that certainly helps with the low ratings issue.

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  9. I've always thought books should be on the one to ten scale.
    I only review the ones I like because I usually don't finish ones I don't. And I don't think it's fair to review something I didn't complete. I just quietly mark those as read on Goodreads and move on.

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    1. I used to feel guilty when I didn't finish books, but once I got serious about writing I realized I don't have time to get bogged down by stories that don't holding my interest. Occasionally, I keep reading with hopes that a book will improve and end up disappointed anyway. Like you, I wouldn't rate or review a book I didn't finish, so that helps weed out some of the culprits.

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  10. It is so funny you posted this because I just decided to ditch my star rating system because I feel it never reflects exactly how I felt about a book..sometimes a 4 star I love and sometimes I just enjoyed it..it's really difficult and I want to be fair..so I am trying to do it more through my comments and audio discussions alone.

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    1. That is really funny! I've read and listened to a bunch of your reviews and they're very thorough, so I can see how you'd feel the star rating system wasn't adequate. Plus your graphic novel style reviews take a much more creative approach. Unless my feelings about a book are really clear cut, I always find myself stewing over how many stars to hand out.

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  11. Sigh...I just posted my first (and probably only) negative review. It's not like I've never been critical in a review before, but I only write about them if I feel like I can recommend them despite their flaws. I wound up not assigning stars for this recent review because I didn't want to bring down its Goodreads average when really I just felt like it was a terrible match FOR ME. It wasn't bad writing, and loads of people have loved the book (including the first-round Cybils panelists) so I tried to explain what didn't work *for me*. Writing about it was complicated slightly by the fact that, in addition to not loving the story, I also disagree vehemently with how one plot point was handled. But since I committed to posting about the seven Cybils finalists, I ultimately decided to break my "positive reviews only" rule and write about it.

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    1. That's a tough situation when you have to review a book and it's not a good match for you. Disagreeing with how the author handled certain issues sure complicates matters too. I like your policy of only reviewing a book if you can recommend it despite its flaws. That seems like a fair rule. I read your review and although I couldn't see the spoiler (Blogger wouldn't let me view it for some weird reason) I can see why you chose not to gloss over the fact that you didn't care for the book.

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  12. I try not to give negative reviews, either. Mostly because as a writer i know how hard it is to write a book, however good or bad it is. I have too much respect for the writer. Plus, there's enough negativity out there as it is. So, I adhere to the Thumper Rule and leave it at that.

    I'm so glad you liked Out of the Easy. This has been my favorite book of the year so far, and I've read some great books this year (and duds, too, like you have). Have you read Between Shades of Gray? It was great, too.

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    1. This is exactly how I feel, Thumper Rule and all. I haven't gotten to Between Shades of Gray yet, but it's on my TBR list. I'm glad you recommended Out of the Easy on your blog, because that's what prompted me to read it. The writing felt so authentic to me that it was like reading a classic. Ruta Sepetys is one of those authors that gives you a handful of details about a character and you can construct an entire back story in your imagination.

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  13. I've been reviewing books (and records and films) on Amazon since 2004, and used to have a book reviews section on my old Angelfire site. I've never held back from giving a 1-3 star rating when I really didn't like the book, found it mediocre, or felt it really overrated. Certainly, the usual suspects give "not helpful" votes to reviews that didn't squee all over their favorite books and declare the books and their writers the best things ever. For example, I hate Ernest Hemingway and find him very boring and overrated, and I'm not going to lie about that just to avoid getting nasty comments and a lot of "not helpful" reviews. When reading reviews, I actually like to read the 1-3 star reviews first, so I have all opinions, not just the gushing reviews that start to sound all the same after awhile. Sometimes a well-written 1-star review gives me a better perspective than a 5-star review that feels like canned praise.

    There's a certainly massively overrated book in my historical genre that I haven't yet written a review for, though I certainly was brutally honest in writing my reaction to it for my YA Lit class last semester. Just thinking about that obnoxious, gimmicky narrator and his constant parade of newsflash spoilers makes me angry, and makes me wonder what in the world so many people see in this poorly-written exercise in tedium and giving away the ending. I'm prepared to get tons of "not helpful" votes and angry comments should I ever review that book.

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    1. You make a good point here. If people are going to give fair and honest reviews, then those who read those reviews need to be fair in their reception of them, whether they agree or not.

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  14. I read this post earlier today and have been thinking about it all day. See I mostly post reviews on books that really affect me in some way, whether it's for the good or the bad. I won't post an outright 'this book sucks' review. ever. And for ages I thought I shouldn't post reviews at all, but when I was traveling having one review a week seemed like such a great way to keep up the blog while I was on the road.

    But now I'm nervous. Do you think by posting the occasional review that is 1-3 stars that it may impact someones chances of getting published? Do you think it's better to not provide a balance in the reviews rather than sticking to only good reviews? It's a hard line to navigate I find...

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    1. This is a really tricky topic. I know some agents have discouraged aspiring writers from posting reviews, so I decided to err on the side of caution. That way I don't need to worry that I've said anything with the potential to offend another writer, an agent, or a publisher. I honestly don't know the likelihood of a negative review counting against someone who's trying to get published, but I don't want to take my chances. My dream is to have a book published, so I'll gladly give up writing negative reviews if that in any way contributes to that dream. Ultimately, I think good reviews are fair and honest, or as you said balanced, but that could still mean stating some negatives. I'm not going to say I've never mentioned a couple small things that didn't appeal to me, but I keep it very minimal. I think this is something all writers have to decide for themselves though, and I often enjoy fair reviews posted by other writers who don't have the same policy I do. You're right that it's a hard line to navigate. I guess you just have to figure out what you're comfortable with. :)

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