Rating Systems and You: Why I Don’t Like Them and Why I’ll Add One, Anyway

Welcome back to this book blog, where I mostly review books and sometimes rate them on whimsical, inconsistent scales either vaguely by “I’ll keep this” or “don’t read this” or “read this if you like…” or “just read this,” or by giving a non-committal out-of-ten score.

I know, I know. It’s not really that useful.

I didn’t commit right away to rating things or using a particular scale on this blog because, for me, the purpose of this blog was to talk about books. And the way that I talk about books is filtered through years and years of creative writing workshops and essay writing. Whether or not I liked or hated something or thought it was good or not is irrelevant; it’s all about what worked or didn’t work, or about the settings, themes, characters, and style of a work. What I feel (and the author’s intentions, for that matter) are secondary to what’s going on in the book.

And I don’t think that’s actually a horrible approach to bring to reviewing! But it’s not that useful for readers at a glance. For those people who just want to know whether or not something is worth their time, or who would prefer to read reviews by someone they’ll generally agree with, it’s way easier to see that I have given a book a thumbs-up or a 10/10 or five stars. (I was recently reminded of this by one of my favourite TV reviewers, just in time to feel mega-guilty that I don’t use ratings on this blog. He made an argument that the five-star rating system is the best, which is pretty compelling and part of why I’ll adopt it.)

There’s also the matter of personality. I have a tendency to get caught up in trying to be more objective in the way that I’m reviewing. Which is also not a horrible way to approach reviewing books! But Internet book blogging is not journalism, and let’s be real, even professional reviewers come to what they’re reading with biases. (I’ve even admitted to some of mine.) A consistent rating system gives readers a better idea of what my preferences are—and more reason to care about what I’ll think of a book, because they’ll know me better.

So why don’t I like rating systems? Similar reasons to Van Der Werff (the guy I linked above), actually. I’ll put it this way: I don’t like them because of relativity. If you give two books the same rating of three stars, those books can be directly compared in the mind of a reader. And once you’ve been reviewing for a while, the spectrum of things that can get a three out of five stars can become dizzying. (Just go back through Roger Ebert’s archives if you don’t believe me.) I think it’s natural to try to draw equivalences between things that are similarly rated and to wonder what makes them both good (or bad) enough for the esteem they’ve earned. I’ve definitely done it! But I think there’s also the danger of the discussion of the thing getting obscured in favour of the discussion of what makes something a one- or five-star thing.

Three Wolf Moon shirt

Some five-star works of art are obvious.

The truth is, no one can have an entirely objective rubric for what makes up their star ratings. (Or maybe they can, but I have a sneaking suspicion it would make their reviews really boring.) As much as you might know the technicalities of an art and what can work in the structure of a piece, some things are just boring, even if the style is lovely. Some are messy but interesting. And some genres, story patterns, or character types might just be tired to you—or they might remind you of your childhood, your favourite movie, your best friend. We can try to ignore these emotional connections to art when we’re talking about it, but I don’t think we can remove the effect it has on how we engage with a work in the moment. (Or if we can, I don’t want to.)

So with all that said, and understanding that using a rating system will be subjective and get stranger as I go anyway, I’m going to start trying to use a five-star rating system in my reviews. (I’m definitely going to use half stars, though. I need those, Goodreads, come on.) For the sake of me not overthinking it too much, I’ll stick with a psuedo-Goodreads/Netflix system:

Nope:
Okay:
Goodish:
Good!:
READ IT:

So that’s what you can expect around here in the upcoming weeks, ratings-wise. Hopefully it’ll help you determine whether or not a book is worth your time, or if my thoughts dovetail with yours on a book or books in general, or if I’m the nega-reader version of you. I’ve been exploring BookTube more recently, and I have the sneaking suspicion that I am basically “dictura hates books” in comparison to a lot of the YA readers on the Internet, because I’m negative about as often as I’m positive about what I’ve read, and fairly meh another portion of the time. (Also, although Goodreads is totally dogging me in terms of those half stars, my average rating over there is 2.61 right now, which really suggests I haven’t quite liked most of what I’ve read this year. Oy.)

In any case, my new five-star ratings and I will see you Monday for the next Weekly Reads. Until then!

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