Amazon demands it of us. Goodreads nudges us to do it and then touts our responses across their site and our social media accounts. It leaves writers on tenterhooks and readers scratching their heads. Is there that big of a difference between a four-star “really liked it” and five-star “loved it!” review? The reader giving the four stars would likely say no, while the writer…
I do not use the star system to rate books on this site. If you take a look at the same review posted on Amazon, Goodreads or Barnes & Noble, you will see stars assigned. Amazon doesn’t give reviewers a choice. I’m not so sure about the other sites, but as all sites average the total ratings a book receives and lists that average in the book’s listing, not rating the book harms it. I don’t like harming books or writers.
But that doesn’t mean I have to carry over this arbitrary and often misapplied rating system to my own site. If you visit this blog, I assume it’s because you are interested in knowing what I think about the books I’m reading. My philosophy is a simple one. Good writers read. They read widely. They read critically. This brings me to number five on my list of reasons why the star system is a lousy way to rate books.
5. The star system rewards lazy reading and fuzzy thinking.
Too often a review on one of the major retail sites consists of a star ranking and the minimum number of words required to post the review. I love Twitter, but it’s difficult to write a good–that means USEFUL–review in 146 characters or Amazon’s twenty-word minimum. But people do it. All the time.
It was good. I liked the writing. It deserved every star I gave it. Wonder if they’ll be a sequel with Jeremy.
This book sucked. The writer calls herself an AUTHOR? Good thing it was free or I’d be asking for my money back.
Readers browsing for their next literary love affair will usually click on the five-star and the one-star ratings. If all they find is the above types of non-reviews, their purchasing decision will fall back on the ratings, which are themselves supported by the non-reviews. How utterly useless. No help to the reader. No help to the writer, who may want to know why someone didn’t like her book, so she can work on improvements.
4. The star system mistakes the shorthand for the message.
Too often the first and last critical word on a book boils down to its average star rating. This underestimates readers and it short-changes authors, who deserve to have the work they’ve slaved over, sometimes for years, framed as more than a four-star mystery or two-star YA paranormal. Is the mystery a fabulous puzzle with engaging characters, but it lost a star due to an unpopular ending? Would the two-star paranormal rate five stars if the author bothered to get it professionally edited?
In the end, the star rating for a book is like the I.Q. of a human being–it very rarely means anything in the real world and yet can do a hell of a lot of damage to the person (or book) saddled with it.
3. The star system helps trolls turn reviews into weapons of career destruction.
On their own, the criticisms I’ve presented above might not have a huge impact one way or another on readers, books or writers. So what if some people give the written equivalent of a caveman’s grunt as a review? Who cares if a three-star book might really be an under-appreciated five-star gem?
Besides being annoying to people like me? Maybe not much.
But in the hands of someone with an ax to grind, star shorthand combined with minimal length/quality requirements for reviews can tank a book before it’s even born. Sounds unreal? Hang out on Goodreads for a while. Pick a couple of books at random and start skimming the reviews/ratings. The vitriol will reveal itself through a stench of sour grapes and the overabundance of grammatical errors. One-star reviews coupled with accusations of plagarism, of the purchasing of good reviews, and all manner of literary skulduggery. One writer I know of suffered this BEFORE her book was even published. She’d only announced the upcoming release and WHAAM! It broke her. She never released the book. I don’t know if she’s even still writing.
And, yes, this nonsense can work in reverse. Five-star reviews planted by friends and family with little if any substance to back them up. But it’s the system itself that makes these abuses possible.
2. The star system does not provide a truly standardized means of rating books.
There is no agreed upon, universally adopted criteria for assigning a given book a particular number of stars. Of course not, you say, opinions are subjective. My five-star masterpiece of global literature is your two-star pretentious clap trap fit only to be put thorough the shredder and used for hamster bedding. Fair enough. But what that means is that the stars cannot be taken at face value. The information they communicate must be evaluated with the supporting comments–the actual written reviews. By sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Goodreads not coupling these assessments (stars with their reviews) more rigorously, we allow the sort of abuse and gaming of the system discussed above. Just try and get a troll review removed off of your Goodreads or Amazon listing. Difficult if not impossible.
You’ll notice I’m limiting my critique to the big sites and retailers. Individual book bloggers who use the star system have their (usually quite extensive) reviews to back up their ratings. You may not agree with their assessment, but you sure know how they arrived at it.
This leads me to the number one reason why I hate the star system and won’t use it here:
1. The star system can make good book reviewers into liars.
It’s certainly made me into a liar. Many times. I read EVERYTHING. Literary fiction. Romance. Steampunk. Mystery. Dystopian Angel Family Sagas. Work by independent writers. Work by bestselling masters of their genre. If it’s in print and doesn’t include the graphic abuse of children or animals, I will read it. And, as each book is different, each has to be evaluated individually. Who wrote it? What were her goals? Where did she succeed? Where did she fall down? How has this book changed me? Those questions come first. Only then will I compare the book to others like it.
This approach of mine can lead to strange star assignments. Make me cry and you’ll get five stars. I don’t care if you’ve got typos on every other page. A new writer taking ambitious risks with form or plot…and failing miserably…can end up with four stars. I like writers with balls. A technically perfect narrative that doesn’t move me one way or another? Three stars. A piece of erotica consisting of great sex scenes but a thin plot might get four stars, while an erotic mystery where the tightly conceived action is interrupted every other chapter for a multi-orgasmic boink fest gets only three.
Readers choosing a book based on my five-star review and finding that typo-riddled tearjerker might rightly call me a liar. So would someone reading that technically beautiful novel that just failed to move me. It’s all so subjective.
That’s why, on this blog, there are no stars.
Reading is personal. Why even pretend to be objective?