Monday, August 14, 2017

The Fault in My Stars: My Problematic Book-Rating System

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
Cassius, Julius Caesar, (I, ii, 140-141)
William Shakespeare


I've been reviewing books online since 2011. In the last six years, I've read and reviewed over 1,200 books on Goodreads, writing short assessments and assigning star ratings for most of them.

I do have a system for assigning stars - though, admittedly, a subjective one. Since writing is both art and science, there's simply no way to assess a book objectively. However, I try my best to be straightforward.

Below in bold, you'll see how the star ratings are explained in the Goodreads system. Beneath is my explanation for how I assign them.

1 star - "I didn't like it." 

I don't use this rating very often, mostly because if I don't like a book, I don't finish it. If I do give one star, though, I explain why; but my reviews aren't mean or vindictive. They're an honest assessment of my reaction to the book: the story, the development, the writing, the dialogue, or some combination of those elements.

2 stars - "It was ok." 

For the most part, the books that I assign two stars aren't horrible: they're just not for me. Though some authors might be insulted by a 2-star review, I don't think they should be. Two stars means I actually read your whole book even though nothing about it particularly gripped me. So even though I clearly wasn't in the book's target demographic, you must have done something right.

3 stars - "I liked it." 


Good news! A three-star review means I stayed fully engaged the whole time. More than that, I got into it. I stressed over the characters or laughed out loud or genuinely learned new things. A three-star book is one I'll recommended - both generally online and specifically to friends and fellow readers who I know will appreciate it.


4 stars - "I really liked it." 

A four-star book offers more than just an enjoyable reading experience. It also has something that sets it apart: at least one element that the author does extremely well. Either the plot's perfect, the development exquisite, or the dialogue just killer. Whatever the reason, these books are clearly a cut above. If the writer has any other books out, I will track them down and read them. And I'll do more than just recommend these books: I'll actually pick up extra copies at used book stores and keep them on hand to loan out.

5 stars - "It was amazing."
Five-star books are better than great. They're rock-my-world amazing. Five-star reads not only do everything right and have standout elements, but they go further. They transcended genre and set a new bar for future reading experiences. I believe that any reader, regardless of taste or usual reading choices, would enjoy these. They're the books I'll come back to again and again. And I will do more than just recommend these and keep extras on hand. I'll buy multiple copies and pass them out unsolicited to friends, family, and fellow readers.

No Stars

Occasionally I don't assign a star rating. In some cases, it's because I have a personal connection to the author (we either know each other, share an editor, or write for the same publisher). In such cases, anything less than a 5-star review might offend; and yet unless those stars are truly earned, I would feel dishonest giving them (since I know that quite a few followers base their book selections around my reviews). Sidestepping the pressure, I write some honest thoughts about the book (although not all my thoughts) and post the review with no stars.

In other cases, I don't assign stars because I recognize that my personal response to the book has been unreasonably negative. Whether I take issue with the plot or the writer's underlying worldview, I dislike the book -- yet I recognize that my reaction is disproportionate, so I refrain.

My Turn's Coming

With my first books set to release this fall, I'm curious to see how my reaction to my books' online reviews will temper how I write them. Because that's bound to happen.

To keep up with my reading, feel free to follow me on Goodreads

See you over there!

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