Books · Reviews

Star Quality

Those of you who know me will probably also know that, when it comes to my hatred of the star rating system on sites such as Amazon and Goodreads, I’m pretty humourless. I just can’t help it, you know. I try to see the funny side, I really do. The problem is that I loathe having to decide how many stars I think a book merits, not least because it’s such an unsophisticated system. How, after all, can something as complex as your reaction to a book be summed up by a row of asterisks?

StarsOh well. I keep on assigning stars, partly because sites such as Amazon demand it, and partly because other people (not least authors) expect it. Unfortunately, deciding on how many stars to give a book is, to me, no easy matter.

I rarely, if ever, give a book less than 3 stars, simply because, even if the book in question didn’t do it for me personally, I kind of know what the author went through in creating it, and I respect that. If I can’t truthfully give a book at least 3 stars (a pretty good rating, in my opinion), I probably won’t review it at all. However, the question of what makes the difference between 3 and 4 stars, and between 4 and 5 stars, can be a fraught one.

There was a time when I only ever assigned a mighty 5-star rating to books that I thought might be considered “great literature”. Then, gradually, it began to occur to me that this was a bit of a mean-minded approach. Consider, for example, a standard thriller or jolly chick lit romp. These may not be immortal works of literature, and probably make no claims to be such. However, they do what they’re intended to do, and they do it well. Isn’t it a bit unfair to mark them down on the basis of what they’re not, rather than what they are? Besides, and as someone else rightly pointed out to me, posterity will be the judge of what may be considered great literature.

These stars, at least, do not need to be adjusted. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons
These stars, at least, do not need to be adjusted. Image: public domain | Wikimedia Commons

But then again . . . anyone looking at my Goodreads shelf would see a large number of those “good but not great” books sharing a 5-star rating with the likes of War and Peace. It’s no insult to say that many of these books are not on a par with War and Peace; frankly, very little is. Do we need a special 6-star rating for things that are more than just (just?!) very good? Wouldn’t that 6-star rating quickly become just as devalued as the 5-star rating has?

And herein lies another problem with the star rating system: it’s pretty much an invitation to corruption. When you see glowing 5-star reviews for a book, it’s all too easy to think, “Ha! Somebody’s friends and family members have been busy!” And that, of course, is vastly unfair, because many of those ratings were no doubt sincerely given and honestly earned. On the other hand, it’s a fair bet that at least some of the damning 1-star reviews you see were written by someone with a personal score to settle, or by an author trying to scupper his or her rivals, or by someone who was simply having a bad day.

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s time we stopped worrying about stars, and just concentrated on writing considered, detailed reviews. What do people think?

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9 thoughts on “Star Quality

  1. It is a vexed question, Mari; it is hard to give a star rating to something so subjective as fiction. Like you, I almost never give lower than three star ratings (I’m a softy really); I even gave one to that dreadful Victorian romance, ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles Garvice, because it was so bad it was good. Then again, I was hooked on the penny dreadful ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ so I gave it a four star rating as it succeeded in the author’s aim – to give the reader a stirring tale with Gothic overtones. I think if you have to keep reading then the author’s done a great job, even if it’s only skim reading (not as if I’d give a book a star rating on such a sketchy reading, I hasten to say).
    I suppose if a work of fiction succeeds in what it’s meant to do, then it deserves a high star rating, and that’s how I try and judge them, even if I dislike the genre, but even then we only know how far it succeeds for us. I may personally not generally like romances in the narrow modern sense of the world, for reasons I have often bored on about, but I have writer friends who think otherwise and write ’em, and if they do a good job at it and it at least depicts a heroine retaining some element of independence, it seems fair enough to give them a five star. As you say, many works don’t pretend to have any literary aspirations.
    But when it comes to the more serious stuff – now that’s a minefield, particularly when it’s a translation.
    I admired the grand vision of ‘War and Peace’ but I didn’t like the way the author lectured the reader on his personal notions about women and the impossibilities of social reform and then became ridiculously upset at the misfortunes of Nicolai’s selfish mother’s companion, who is forced to give him up and work as nursemaid to his growing brood with that princess, while Natasha completely loses her personality after her marriage to Pierre. I’ve never rated it. I re-read a few of Steinbeck’s short stories recently, and was lost in admiration for his style, but oh dear, that misogyny…How to rate the book? In the end, I gave it three stars,but steam burst out of my ears about one that seemed to suggest that a bit of wife beating can sort out marital problems. What do you do about books that are morally reprehensible but brilliantly written?
    The historical context isn’t always an excuse; not everyone had bigoted ideas.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lucinda. My own opinion tallies with yours, more or less, in that I’ve really begun to think that if something does what it’s meant to do, and does it with some style, then it probably deserves 5 stars. But then again, and as you say, ‘we only know how far it succeeds for us.’ And therein lies a large part of the problem: we’re all trapped in the prison of our own subjectivity. Which leads to a larger problem, I suppose: is it even possible to give a fair, balanced review?

      As regards the question of morality, I’ve always tended to the opinion that we should perhaps judge authors as authors, and not on the basis of their moral beliefs or attitudes. We probably all have a few skeletons rattling around in our closets, after all. That’s easy to say, however, until someone writes something that sends you into a tooth-gnashing frenzy of rage…

  2. I have given one and two star reviews. To me, the stars represent my overall, personal reaction to a book. They are not a clinical scale, and my four isn’t equivalent to your four. Further, the four I assign Book A isn’t even identical to the four I assign Book B. Star ratings are personal, emotionally charged, and solipsistic. I think we all implicitly inuit this about star ratings of art, which is why we trust friends or a few, select reviewers more than the star rating aggregate of the mob.

    I am toying with writing a post about writing reviews, and why/how I give low ratings on occasion.

    I value your written reviews, Mari. The stars matter less to me than what you have to say. I would love a rating-less review site, and now I know I may not be alone in that!

    -aniko

    1. Hello Aniko, and thanks for commenting. I absolutely agree: an individual’s reaction to a book is probably (and probably inescapably) solipsistic. I don’t think we can really get around that. I’ve read books that I couldn’t stand, and that other people loved; recently, someone whose tastes and opinions I respect told me that, in his opinion, one of my favourite books was ‘pretentious codswallop’, which left me stunned!

      We don’t tend to give ratings on the Eclectic Electric review site (http://authorselectricreviews.blogspot.com/), but then again we usually only review books we feel positive about. I think we try to give an overview of why we think a book is worth reading, rather than just blandly assigning so many stars.

      1. It never fails to amaze me when I find out someone I respect doesn’t admire the same books I do! It makes things interesting. And a little uncomfortable – in a good way. Discomfort is the mother of discourse. I enjoy the Eclectic Electric reviews I’ve discovered via links from you on Twitter. You all are doing excellent work.

        -aniko

  3. I freely admit that I am often sucked into the black hole of star ratings when looking for a new book to read. And the few times that I have walked into a bookstore without pre-planning my purchase based on ratings? I have ended up purchasing some books that I have enjoyed most in my life. The thing is, the “quality” of a book, to me at least, is so subjective based upon your needs, experiences, and expectations. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

    Will I look at reviews despite my previous comments? Probably, yes. It’s like any other form of social media. It can be addicting – likes, follows, tweets, and stars. I think we all need to take it with a grain of salt and use it as a guideline rather than a rule for what we consume.

    Thanks Mari, I love the discussion – thanks for sharing!

    1. Hello Dave, and thanks for commenting. Yes, one person’s trash really is another person’s treasure – a precept that may actually strike right at the heart of reviewing in general, not just the star rating system. Then again, I tend to take notice of people whose opinions I respect, and have found some amazing books as a result. And, I have to say, a handful of bad reviews don’t necessarily put me off. In some cases, they actually manage to make the book in question sound more interesting!

  4. My biggest issue with the star rating system is that five rating levels aren’t enough. I don’t rate books on Amazon very frequently, but when I do I almost always want to go 3.5 or 4.5 or something like that. I would prefer a system with ten rating levels if there has to be a star system.

    1. Hello Kingmidget, and thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s a very crude method. And perhaps a 10-star scale would allow for a little more nuance. Despite my dislike of the star system in general, I quite like the idea of being able to give a book 7.5 stars!

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