It occurred to me that, if I’m going to be making reviews about books, it might be good to share my thoughts on rating them. I’m always surprised when I learn that someone else’s rating system is very different from mine because I always assume mine is the obvious, natural method. I mean, logically I know it’s not. But sometimes I forget. Then I’ll come across someone who considers 3 stars a low rating or someone else who practically never gives 5 stars. I am neither of those people.
So firstly, I try to stick to the Goodreads rating system as closely as possible.
★★★★★ It was amazing
★★★★☆ Really liked it
★★★☆☆ Liked it
★★☆☆☆ It was OK
★☆☆☆☆ Did not like it
An aside: Despite the fact that in my reviews I might specify a half star rating sometimes, I’m actually not in support of official GR half star ratings. I like that whole stars force me to decide which general category a book fits into. It’s simple and it (generally)* works for me.
This system is inherently very subjective. However, I want my reviews to be useful to as many people as possible as well as a documentation of my own thoughts on the books I’ve read. So, which rating is more valuable, a subjective one or an objective one? Naturally, it will be subjective because I am human, I have a certain perspective, I am affected by my experiences, so complete objectivity is impossible. Not much can be done about that. But I would like to support my opinions with as much evidence and explanation as possible so people reading it can understand my rating, my praises and my complaints. I also want to be fair to the book. I try to give some leeway if I was expecting something different that the book never intended to do. The book shouldn’t have its ratings lowered just because I expected Harry Potter to be a civil rights memoir and it didn’t involve enough of that content. You see what I’m saying?
If I don’t immediately have a star rating in my head, having my thoughts unfolded before me sometimes helps me to decide. A while ago climbthestacks (Ashley Riordan) posted a video on booktube about reviewing books which I think is a great guide for constructing a really helpful and interesting review for someone who might want to read the book (or discuss it after reading) as well as for uncovering your thoughts on what you’ve just read for yourself. It also helps to compare the book with other similar(ish) books I’ve read: “Is HG Wells’ The Invisible Man really on the same level as his The Island of Dr Moreau??” (No. The answer is no. It isn’t.)
Obviously some 5 star ratings are different from others. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back have both earned 5 star reviews from me, but they are very different books with very different 5 star ratings to suit their very different content and intentions. We can’t judge everything by the same bar. This is why kindergarteners don’t sit college exams. The books have different aims and should be judged by how successfully they’ve achieved what they intended.
It isn’t always so clear cut, though. Certain types of books always leave me conflicted about how to rate them. Those are books that I might think are good or even needed, but I wouldn’t say I “liked” them. Or disliked them! I’m just overall indifferent emotionally. I’m never sure what to rate these. This dilemma happens most often with non-fiction and with memoir in particular. It’s sort of like rating something that almost must necessarily be rated primarily subjectively. (I don’t know how true that is, but that’s how it feels.) Especially if I think a book is important and like it would benefit people to be aware of it, I want to rate it higher (like 4 stars)! But if I also didn’t feel personally moved by it or already was aware of much of what it was saying, I sometimes feel a mid rating (which, for me, is probably a 2 stars: “It was OK” or maybe a 3: “I liked it (but didn’t love it)”), is more true to how I felt about it.
OK. But do star ratings even matter anyway?
Yes, I think so.
Because people use them to determine whether a book is worth reading.* Because people use them to determine whether other people’s book opinions are in line with theirs and, therefore, to know how much to take on the reviewer’s recommendation (or opposition) for that book. Because people spend time thinking about how to wrap up the worth of a literary work in the most concise way possible for someone to understand at a glance. Because they are more easily averaged to get a general, wordless consensus about a book than reading (literally!) tens of thousands of reviews. Because star ratings often work as quick pre-review/overall opinions. Because it’s good when you’re navigating reviews to be able to immediately pick out the negative ones so you don’t have to trawl through loads of praise before uncovering the major criticisms. And for all sorts of other reasons!
*Mercy discusses in a recent booktube video how she tends not to read anything with less than a 3.6 rating. At first I thought “this seems kind of harsh” but then I went through my books and, by chance, my favourite (or even just well-liked) books don’t tend to have a rating lower than 3.6 even though I don’t intentionally take notice of specific average rating numbers on GR. In fact, only two books that I really enjoyed have ratings lower than 3.6 and, even then, they were only a little lower at 3.4 and 3.43.
And, for many of the same reasons as previously listed, if you don’t have any opinion about a book or you do have an opinion but have decided for whatever reason you don’t want to influence the book’s overall rating, you shouldn’t feel pressured to participate in the star rating system (either just for that book or in general – whichever you choose!). And, of course, that’s fine too.
I trust I’m not the only one who thinks this deeply into what/why I’m rating a book and the implications of that rating… (The implications, of course, being ridiculously trivial.) I’m not obsessive or anything…! I just have reasons for doing the things I do. There’s method to my madness!