Since joining NetGalley and getting my first set of approvals for ARCs, I’ve been giving more thought to how I rate the books I’ve read. I’ve been rating books since I joined Goodreads in the summer of 2012, but I haven’t given them starred ratings here on my blog until this month. Why the discrepancy? I have no idea. I consider myself to be a mostly rational person, but I don’t know why I did this.
According to my Goodreads profile, I have rated 909 titles in the past six years, with an average rating of 3.46 stars. This is, apparently, a below-average average. I think it’s higher than it might have been, given that I quickly DNF books I don’t like and don’t rate them unless I’ve read a significant portion. If I pushed through and then rated every book I’ve ever picked up, my average rating would be a lot lower.
Go ahead. Call me a book snob. I don’t care.
There are just too many good books out there for me to waste my time on books I hate. And let’s face it: on average, most books are average. That’s why it’s called an average. If a single reader somehow read a hundred thousand books, or a million books across the spectrum of genres, age level, and topic, their average rating on a five star scale would be roughly in the middle. A three-star average.
And let’s be honest here. Even Goodreads, whose rating scale skews toward favorable opinions of any book, lists three stars as, “I liked it”. So why, when we’re looking at overall ratings, do we seem to say, “That book only has a 3.67 with 10,986 ratings. I wonder what’s wrong with it?” I’d say that it’s probably just fine. 3.67 means that a lot of people have rated it highly, and there were some others who either didn’t care for it, or had issues with one element or another. On the whole, a 3.67 rating is slightly above average. Now, if it were a 2.67, I would guess that the book has some problems. But three or more– at least to me– signals that it’s probably a pretty good book.
Personally, I think the five-star rating is used a bit too liberally. To paraphrase Thomas from the BookTube channel, SFF180, ‘Everything is getting five stars these days, and a five star rating doesn’t mean anything if it’s all over the place. It’s like the gold in Smaug’s hoard in the Hobbit movie– there’s so much of it that it loses its value’. Thomas has been rating books for seventeen years and produced more than 700 reviews. In all that time he’s given out fewer than 30 five-star ratings. This tells me that, if he gives something five stars, then I should probably check it out. It’s going to be an amazing story.
Now, I don’t know how many books I’ve given five-star ratings on Goodreads (I could look it up, but I’m lazy), but I doubt it’s a huge number. I reserve five stars for books that have deeply affected me, such as The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien or Frank Herbert’s Dune. These are books that stay with me years after I’ve read them. They are books that I can return to year after year and find something new every time. They’ve helped me shape my view of the world and taught me valuable lessons about my own strengths and weaknesses. This doesn’t happen with every book, and I don’t expect it to. Not every book is destined for greatness.
Four star books are wonderful, too! These include titles like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. They are wonderfully written with characters I love, but they’re probably not books I will read repeatedly. I will recommend them to just about anyone, though, with the (perhaps overly optimistic) certainty that they will enjoy them, too.
Three star books were enjoyable, but probably had some element that bugged me whether it was a character that fell flat, clunky writing, or some plot holes. Whatever the issue, though, it was not bothersome enough ruin my entire experience. Whatever it was was merely annoying. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers was a three star read- I mostly enjoyed it, but it wasn’t the book I was hoping for and it had some plot elements I found aggravating, but liked the story well enough to quickly finish it.
Two star books are where I get into the realm of actively disliking something. Throne of Glass and Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas, for example. In both cases, I disliked the majority of the characters, found the plot to be full of holes and tropes, and otherwise couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes through a large chunk of the book. In books like these, I will fixate on the basic story structure because the characters aren’t interesting enough to distract me from lousy prose, errors, or poor word choice.
Then there are the one star reviews. Now, according Goodreads, if you give something one star, it just means, ‘I didn’t like it’. This drastically understates the situation, in my opinion. For example, I don’t like edamame, but if it’s offered to me at dinner I will say “No, thank you” and carry on with my day. I won’t feel an urge to grab the bowl and throw it across the room. That is the feeling I reserve for one star books. These are titles I actively hate– things like the Twilight books or City of Bones, which romanticize abusive relationships, or the Philippa Gregory novels I’ve read, which claim to be ‘feminist’ stories from history but misrepresent the actual historical events and people, and portray many of the women as either scheming, power-hungry witches who sleep their way to the throne, or as innocent but rather stupid women.
I’m getting rather worked up just by talking about those, so on we go.
Obviously, no two people are going to agree on everything. I can talk it up until I’m blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean that one of my best friends– a librarian– is going to fall in love with Dune. While she and I have very similar tastes in books, they are not identical. And that’s okay. We bounce our opinions of books off of each other and have deep discussions and recommend titles to each other with the surety that our friendship won’t be torn apart if I don’t like her favorite book and vice versa. Our opinions– like ratings– represent our own views and will of course be different.
But at the same time, if we hope to improve the quality of future works, I think we need to look at how we as readers and reviewers rate books. If a books has obvious problems, is it really worthy of four- or five-stars just because it has a cute couple or an interesting magic system? Does a favorite author’s new book really deserve five stars simply because they’re a favorite?
There is nothing wrong with giving a book five stars (or hearts or smileys or whatever). There is also nothing wrong with giving an average book an average rating. And if everything is wrong with a book, then it deserves a low rating. Things become valuable when they are rare, and if we truly want a five star review to mean something, we need to be more discerning in our ratings.
What do you think about rating systems? Love them? Hate them? Don’t bother with them? Let me know in the comments!