With the exception of my local library’s holdings (online and off) and the catalogs of certain publishers, almost any list of book titles is accompanied by that ominous set of five stars. I say ominous because as a hopeful fiction writer, those stars seem to be the source of both exhilaration and despair.
I spend more time than is constructive poring over reviews for my favorite books, books I’m browsing, books I’m curious about, books that have won awards—you get the idea. As with anything that tries to make sense of public opinion and taste, this five-star review system isn’t exactly the best guide for choosing a good book. Unfortunately, it has achieved a strong influence over not just the books people read but also the foods, appliances, clothes, and whatever else they buy for their everyday lives.
All writers want commentary on their work. I certainly do even though I know my stories won’t be embraced by everyone. Still, those one-star reviews are going to hurt. And when I first started rating and reviewing books, it was painful to give a star rating at all, especially when I was giving less than a 5 and the book hadn’t had many ratings or reviews yet. That was my codependency talking, I suppose. Or maybe it was some kind of twisted sense of “do unto others” now that I’m hoping to be a published writer. Assigning a rating used to give me serious angst, but I also like doing it for myself and for an author.
So finally I sat down one day to figure out why and get a system for rating books that felt both comfortable and fair. Often you see reviewers say something like, “I reserve 5 stars for works of great literature such as those by Hemingway, etc. so I have to give most books less than 5.” I was an English minor, and I’m familiar with “the canon”—exceptional novels selected by learned people and held up as shining literary examples for our awe and devotion. Of course they’re great books. But I have trouble using the classics as a measuring stick for every book I read. And to never give out a 5-star rating? I’m too enthusiastic of a reader for that.
If you mouse over the little stars nestled among the titles at Goodreads, you can see exactly what each one means:
1, did not like it
2, it was ok
3, liked it
4, really liked it
5, it was amazing
Seems manageable, right? But how to decide? Compare it with the classics? Compare it with the book or books I read before? Rank it somehow among all of the other books I’ve read and given star ratings? I thought about the kinds of books that get 5 stars from me. They’re well written, they engage me and keep me immersed (no paging back because I can’t keep the characters or the plot straight or something doesn’t make sense), and I enjoyed reading them. So that has become my core criteria. Forget comparison with the rest of my book list or the classics or The Great Gatsby. The five stars, to me, are a scale that applies to that book alone the moment I finish it.
So I guess I mostly rate books in a vacuum, settling on the number of stars by deciding what the book earned during the experience of reading that book—as if it’s the only book I’ve ever read in my life. And that leaves plenty of leeway to find a number that’s comfortable. So those books that kept me turning pages despite their plot holes, over-the-top twists that dropped me out of the story, a few sections that dragged, or dialogue that was a bit on the nose still get three stars, sometimes four if I’m rounding up. So what if they look a little shabby next to Jane Eyre? As a writer, I think I’d be content with three stars, too, especially if the review gave some gentle critique that might help me improve my craft in a future work.
I like most books that I read. I’m also a reader who’s easy to please. I’ve given many a 5-star rating to a book that’s averaging right around 3 stars. I’d also give some of the classics less than five stars despite their literary greatness simply because the enjoyment of reading wasn’t high. (Middlemarch comes to mind. And Faulkner. Sorry!)
I never downgrade a book simply because the subject matter wasn’t my cup of tea, the story depicted things I dislike (wearing fur and eating meat, for example), or the content was more violent than I expected. I see people giving one star because the characters cursed. (These readers must have 1-star lives as well because it’s hard to get away from cursing and in many cases, those words are both delightful and the most appropriate.) But these matters of taste—and perhaps accuracy (given that some loathsome human practices were at one time common)—aren’t part of my star ratings. Anything can be over the top, of course, and I might consider mentioning these elements in a review even if they weren’t (because as a sensitive reader, I might like a bit of forewarning as well), but I won’t remove stars for them. I focus on the author’s delivery of the ideas rather than judge the ideas themselves.
So that’s my take on star reviews. I try to read a lot, and I enjoy giving thoughtful ratings on my book choices. I hope my readers will do the same for me using whatever method feels comfortable and fair for them.