Star ratings are expected, by readers and by sites like Goodreads. They might not convey much information in and of themselves, but they are a necessary party of the review process. They should attract the attention of the reader and convey enough information to give them a general idea of whether or not they are interested in the book.
But they aren’t the only part of the process.
I was recently involved in a Facebook discussion regarding star ratings, reviews and the correlation thereof. The genesis of the discussion was a three-star review proclaiming a book was “great and loads of fun.”
Ignoring the fact that a star rating should bear some correlation to the actual review, which is clearly not the case here, there are several points I want to make about star ratings.
Firstly – ratings are simply shorthand. While my readers can use star ratings to get an idea what I think of the book, the reality is that I want the in-depth review to be read. I want to share my thoughts about a book, I want to get the reader as excited as I am about something good, I want to warn them about something that disappointed me, or that could potentially contain content that might be objectionable. Don’t just rely on the star rating – read why I gave it that rating.
Secondly, ratings can be overly simple, or overly complicated. Siskel and Ebert revolutionized movie reviews with their “thumbs-up”/ “thumbs down” reviews, a simple way of saying “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”. But when Ebert wrote his reviews for the Chicago Sun Times, he used star ratings, although again, the draw wasn’t his rating, it was the review.
At the opposite end is Pitchfork, which uses a 10-point scale, or perhaps a 100-point scale adapted to a 1-10 scale. So you end up with ratings like 6.4 or 7.3. That means nothing, so is ultimately useless. Pitchfork does supplement it’s incomprehensible ratings with exhaustive reviews, so there is some value, but because it represents such a variety of voices, the reviews are less valuable — there is no standard behind them.
I’ve seen some reviewers that develop algortithms, where books are have a variety of categories and can gain and lose points with these to determine its overall worth. I find this unnecessarily complicated.
I also think that constant five-star reviews are equally suspect – every bit as meaningless as that “great” three-star review. If everything is five stars, then you are not engaging the book on more than a superficial level. It is entertaining you, and that is good, and I respect your wanting to share that enthusiasm with the world, but if everything is great, then I can’t judge it.
Amazon reviews tend to have this problem – they’re either five-stars or one-star and there’s no analysis.
Now, I’m not looking for Umberto Eco or Harold Bloom in my analysis, but I’d like more than “I liked it, you should read it too.” Tell my why! Otherwise it’s little more than a P.R. blurb.
One of the best suggestions I’ve seen was from Sam Sykes. He said that “Yes”, “No” and “Yes, but” were sufficient. I like that idea, and that is ultimate the basis for my system. I’ve expanded it a little though. I tend towards the simple, but I also like nuance.
And because context is critical to understand a rating system, I’m sharing my criteria so my (few) readers understand. I spent ten years reviewing music so I have a well-defined idea of what each star means. So here is my breakdown of what each rating stands for:
★★★★★ — Indispensible. Dark Side of the Moon. Dune. The Godfather. These are attainable, but they should be rare. I’ve read a lot of great books this year, but only three books released in 2014 have earned the elusive five stars. And one was an anthology. I expect that several of the classic books that I review in between current titles will hit this mark though; there’s a reason they are classics.
★★★★ — Great. I enjoyed this book and didn’t have any significant issues with it. Honestly this will likely be where most books land. I know what I like, I read to my tastes and I don’t pretend to be comprehensive in my coverage. If I’m not interested or it’s not required, I’m probably not going to read it.
★★★ — Good. I like this book, but… There was either a flaw or something that made me uncomfortable. Perhaps it is something outside of my normal tastes that I enjoyed, but I wouldn’t give an unqualified recommendation. Or, as I’ve noticed several times, part of a series that doesn’t measure up to the rest of the series.
★★ — Not good. I didn’t like this book. There might have been something about it that engaged me, but I would not recommend it. Because of my natural prejudices, I do not expect to give many of these – it might be something that caught my eye, or I had read other recommendations, but was left cold by. Generally if I don’t like something I won’t bother with it.
★ — Awful. Avoid at all costs. There is no reason to waste your time on this, and I wish I could have the time back that I spent on this P.O.S. These reviews serve one purpose – for me to attempt to be funny, drop f-bombs and (hopefully) entertain my reader. They’re catharsis.
So the ratings translate to A+, A, B, C, F. Or, using Sam’s scale as a basis: “Hell Yes!”, “Yes”, “Yes, but”, “Maybe not” and “Fuck No!”
Also: My Site – My Rules.
I’m not going to review everything that comes my way. If something unsolicited catches my eye, I MIGHT investigate further. But by in large, I know what I want to read for the next three months.
And if I don’t like something that doesn’t have any sort of buzz or publicity behind it, I’ll probably not bother. Why should I take the piss out of something that no one has heard of and no one is going to read? It’s not fair to the writer, it’s a waste of the reader’s time and it’s only rhetorical masturbation on my part.
Finally, I reserve the right to change my mind on any review. With music it is easy to give multiple listens to an album before dissecting, with books I don’t have the leisure to reread, especially if I’m writing on a deadline. I have already looked at one of my reviews that didn’t quite match these ratings and adjusted it accordingly, and I also revisited another after reading comments from the author.
And I ask you, the reader, to keep me honest. If you don’t feel the rating matches the rhetoric – let me know. I’ll take a look, and if I feel my rating is justified, I’ll explain why. And if I change it, I’ll explain why as well.
We’re all in this together.