On Reviews and Ratings

Sometimes, people come here and say, “oh, you do reviews. Well, I wrote a novel, and I have a blog. Why don’t we swap reviews?” It’s true that reviews are the life blood of any indie writer (have you reviewed Carrier yet?), but I write reviews here because, in addition to being an author, I’m also a reader. And sometimes, a good story gets me so hot that I have to tell people about it. I’m human. It’s only natural.

Generally speaking, my reviews are favorable. It isn’t anything political. It’s just that I don’t see a point in spreading negativity, even if my area of influence here is relatively nano. Spitting vitriol is also just not good for your heart. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If I haven’t reviewed your book, it isn’t necessarily that I didn’t have anything good to say about it. It could be that I just haven’t had the time. Or I got caught up in something else. Or I haven’t read it yet.

I’ve got a fair bit lined up with more on the way, and no I haven’t read those Hemingway novels yet. Shut up.

It also could be that I’m frankly just not interested in it, and you shouldn’t be offended by that. As a reader, I’m looking for specific works that suit my taste, and there are very few authors who have captured me so completely that I read everything they write. You’re probably the same way, so I assume you understand.

Anyway, I came here meaning to write something simple about how I review and rate stuff. I’m active on Goodreads, and it occurred to me when I went there to leave a rating for Armada by Ernest Cline today that my five star system may differ from other people’s.

First, a note on critical analysis: There are far too many people who approach stories without a frame of reference. Anytime you read a review of  Judd Apatow movie where the critic panned it for the poop and dick jokes, they had no frame of reference. In the same vein, anyone who’s ever criticized a Twilight novel (guilty) probably without actually reading it (guilty) for being super cheesy and melodramatic (guilty) had no frame of reference.

More specifically, it’s imperative that we, as readers and audience members, understand the goals of a particular piece before we can gauge its success. Every work has an ambition, and no two works are the same in this regard. So if we’re going to critically analyze something, it’s important that we understand the world in which that thing lives.

After all, if you’re going to walk into Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and criticize Wolverine for his lack of high-tea protocol knowledge, that’s sort of on you, isn’t it? Wolverine doesn’t care about high tea. He has retractable razor-blade fingers that spring out of his forearm.

Maybe I’ll write more about this in the future, but let me just shred this epic digression by telling you that, when we analyze a piece of art, we can’t put every piece of art on the same scale. We should judge every work on its own merits, and we do that by first trying to understand what kind of work it is before we consume, digest, and excrete our own ideas about it.

Which brings me to the five-star scale. I know a lot of other readers who use their five-star powers differently. There are people who will give a book five stars if they liked it. There are people who generally give everything one star unless it’s by their favorite author, which also happens to be themself, and they’re totally going to publish that epic novel one day, just as soon as it’s up to their own standards. There are people who generally give three stars to everything. There are people who generally give four stars to everything.

And all of it means something unique to them.

Put enough ratings together, and the law of averages dictates that we can get a pretty good picture of a work’s quality, as judged by the general public. I’m not here to debate the effectiveness of the five-star scale. I’m here to tell you what it means to me.

So without further ado, here’s how I use the five-star scale.

Five stars—This book changed my life. It’s about as perfect as anything I’ve ever read. I will be coming back to it for years, and I will treasure it for the rest of my life. These are pretty high standards, so I rarely rate anything five stars (which puts me in a weird spot with other indie writers who generally expect me to give them five stars for being indie writers, which is maybe another topic I’ll get into in the future, but honestly, I probably won’t). I’m definitely passionate about such a book that I will write a review about it. Five-star books discourage me from writing because I will never be this good.

Four stars—I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. I found it thoroughly entertaining and meaningful. I might have had a few issues with it, but all in all, I felt it hit all of the targets it was aiming for. It rarely faltered in the conventions of storytelling, and it was clearly a polished work. I may or may not be passionate enough about a four-star book. Four-star books inspire me because it’s the best I can ever hope to be. I am honored if you think anything I’ve written is worth five stars.

Three stars—I enjoyed it, but I don’t necessarily recommend it. In general, I find value in three-star books (because I think it’s much more worthwhile to look for things to like rather than things to dislike), but I also find them leaving me unfulfilled. Three-star books have obvious flaws that aren’t quite balanced out by their strengths.

Two stars—I really didn’t like it and definitely can’t recommend it. Two-stars is probably the rarest rating I’ll ever give because, generally speaking, with the Internet and the fact that there are so many books I’m excited about, I just don’t take big risks on books these days. Two-star books are unenjoyable and hugely flawed. They don’t accomplish their own goals, and they offer little value. I struggled to finish them.

One star—I hated it so much that I couldn’t finish it. As much as I would rather not give a negative rating, one-star ratings are actually more common for me than two-star ratings, and it’s because, for whatever reason, I sometimes find a highly recommended book that I just couldn’t finish because I found it so poorly done. And you know what? I’ve given plenty of classics and critically acclaimed books one star, but that only further serves the point that everyone is looking for so many different things that it is silly to have a rating scale.

I want to leave this post with this idea: The thing that makes being a fan of anything great is being able to share your passion. It’s great to say you loved something (or hated it), but it’s important to think about why. What, exactly, did you like? What did you dislike? Why? What did those things do for your experience? How did they affect the work?

It’s been decades since these questions started bouncing around in my own head, but I’ve found, through the act of loving (or hating) something and asking myself why, I’ve not only become a better critic, but I’ve also become a better writer. Writing isn’t about finding the things you like and emulating them. It’s about finding the things you like, understanding why, and putting those thoughts into a tool chest to use later. Something swoops in, sparks a fire in your chest, and instead of giggling and letting it burn you, you stoke it and watch it grow, and then you keep it safe with you there until that fire is ready to show to someone else.

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