#SecondThoughts: Star Ratings

I’ve been pondering the subject of star ratings for a year or two now, but it jumped back up to the top of my list after a recent discussion with David. Mentioning he’d read books 1 & 2 of Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird trilogy and was looking forward to the final part, he added the throwaway comment “but I know it’s not your thing”.  That brought me up short, for I didn’t remember not liking it. 

Looking back, I’d given 3 stars to the first book. Naturally we went on to discuss it, during which I stated I’d probably stand by that rating, while admitting the story had stayed with me longer than I’d expected it to at the time – not something I can always say about a book I’d given 3 stars.  

Broadly speaking, I apply stars on the following principle – I liked it (3 stars), I liked it very much (4 stars) I absolutely loved it (5 stars). For me, 2 stars equates only an OK read, and would include a disappointing offering from an established author, while 1 star would indicate that I really didn’t like it. Most of what I read appears in the middle category and it can range from a decent read (enjoyable with a well-put together story line) to a good read (well-written, well-crafted and absorbing) – all of which makes it a pretty wide spectrum. I’ve always felt hampered by the inability to give this particular category more depth and, for a long while, believed what I’d really like is to have 10 stars at my disposal. But I’ve since had a bit of a re-think.

The problem is we all hand out ratings in different ways. I’m pretty tough in that I hand out 5 stars to very few books. I’m a bit (but only a bit) more generous with handing out the 4th star, yet I know others take a different approach. I recently felt moved to tell a distraught writer on Twitter that I believe a 3 star rating isn’t anything to doom & gloom over. Indeed, should I receive 3 star ratings when I have something published, I’d be entirely satisfied, and put it down as a job well done. Don’t get me wrong, as a writer I’d love a 4 or 5 star rating, but I’d expect them to be rare, because as a reader I only rarely hand them out.

But to return to Rotherweird as it’s a good example of how the star rating system can fail. Fantasy is not my preferred genre. I dip in and out of it as a change of pace from my usual fare (literary fiction). I admire the world-building skills involved, as well as the feats of imagination, but it would be rare for a work of fantasy to receive the top rating from me. And that’s OK, for I’m not the author’s ideal audience – while David is. Therefore, his review and his rating would be a far better reflection of the book to fellow fantasy fiction readers. Unfortunately, no-one appears yet to have found an algorithm which successfully applies such a nuanced weighting.   

Indeed, although I use Goodreads to keep a record of my reading, I find their recommendations absolutely useless. It took a while, but I’ve now hunted out a couple of readers whose preference is literary fiction, and where there is a decent overlap in past books read and reviews/ratings given. As a result, I give considerable weight to their opinion, and always read their reviews with great interest.  

For star ratings are simply a method of categorising reviews and building a buzz. Just because someone who absolutely loves fantasy or science fiction gives a book 5 stars, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a 5 star read for a literary fiction fan like me – and the reverse applies equally.

In reading, as in much else – finding your tribe is to be recommended.  

© Debra Carey, 2020


#SecondThoughts: Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

 there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV

Every now and again, Debs and I find the time to have a chat about the state of our joint project(s). We set up Fiction Can Be Fun a few years ago to get into a writing practice, and to encourage people to have a go at writing themselves. In both regards we’ve met with mixed success. Squeezing in writing around day jobs and all the other distractions remains as challenging as ever, and a regular routine remains elusive; we’ve made some great friends through a shared love of writing, but we’ve not reached the hoped for numbers joining in with the monthly writing prompts.

When we had our last catch up, one of the things we talked about was how to catch people’s attention – what blogger doesn’t dream of a post going viral? By far and away the post that has had the most number of reads is one that Debs wrote on the fact and fiction of The Eagle Has Landed. I know, with reasonable confidence, when the film has been on somewhere in the world, because there is a spike in hits on the site: when I check the details, it’s always that post that has been looked at. Even so, it’s not a viral post as most people would understand it.

A lot of people who’ve had posts go viral talk about their five-year overnight success, or about being in the right place at the right time. Can you ever really plan a viral post? Sometimes the advice is to write about something controversial, something divisive: we’ve all seen the kind of posts that have lots of comments for and against.

But all of that said, it’s not really our style – we’re not so fussed about chasing the numbers that we’re going to write to be objectionable. Our aim is a muscular, moderate position, which avoids the splinters of sitting on the fence by finding a positive place between the extremes.

Cancel culture has been on my mind recently. I had a post in mind to write, but in mulling it over I decided that it would be jumping on the band wagon and not particularly helpful. The conversation with Debs, and particularly the point about trying to avoid extremes put me on a new track though. For a start, Cancel Culture is not new, it’s just a new name for people turning on others. It’s not even that the social aspect is new, although social media does provide a new dimension. (By social, I mean that there is an aspect that goes beyond simple community pressures). One only has to look at the McCarthy Witch-hunts to see how mass media exacerbates issues. The particular problem with social media is that it is difficult to have a nuanced discussion.

It’s easy to wish that complex moral questions simply boil down to some kind of binary answer: right/wrong; yes/no; up/down; left/right; black/white… Opponents of complexity point to grey as being morally ambiguous, neither one thing nor the other: there is suspicion of those who promote neutrality. In the UK, perhaps we are burdened with the failure of Neville Chamberlain and the spectre of Appeasement. Appeasement is one of the worst aspects of neutrality. But perhaps we should be suspicious of grey. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be part of our palette, but there are a lot of other colours out there to choose from too. 254 shades of grey between black and white may give a richness to grey-scale pictures, but there are thousands of colours to choose from.

A year ago I wrote a #SecondThoughts piece where I discussed the problem of trying to deconvolute the things that we find admirable in our heroes (I use the term in a broad sense, encompassing artists, writers, friends, colleagues) with the things that we find objectionable. (You can find that article here). Where we have to be careful is in vilifying someone who has expressed an opinion that we find objectionable – in modern parlance, ‘cancelling them’. It perhaps requires greater subtlety than can be achieved by social media, but surely one of the great things about being human is that we have the wherewithall to interrogate complex issues.

In my day job, I have been known to ask students which is more important: Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or the General Theory. My argument is that it is the General Theory: the special theory can only deal with a very specific case. When I roll out this example I’m usually trying to encourage my students to think about the limitations of the work they have done so far, and what needs to be done to make their work more widely applicable. The reverse of this, is that even the most objectionable people are not wrong all the time.

I’m in a very difficult position. There is a book sitting by my bedside, that I think I’m going to return unread to the person who loaned it to me. There are multiple reasons for this, but the key one is that the author has said something objectionable, and I’m trying to disentangle from their work. I can’t unread the stuff that I’ve already ready, but I don’t have to read any more. That said, the author has been subjected to an unjustified level of vitriol. There is a debate to be had…no, that’s not quite right. At the heart of so many issues, there is a truth. The problem is the layers of obfuscation and the unwarranted certainty of the truth. The world would be a happier place if people took the time to reflect and engage in a dialogue to find the boundaries around an issue. Latching on to an extreme example should not set the tone for the whole dialogue, and it should not lead to a single answer.

Writers can find themselves in a difficult position: we are reflecting on what we see around us, and perhaps presenting an exaggeration for the benefit of a story. Midsomer, St Mary Mead, and other homes to famous detectives are notorious for their unrealistically high rates of murder. Is the writer advocating crime? No, this is just what the reader wants…but if the murderer is following a particular agenda, particularly a controversial one, then the question might be asked “why is the author giving this opinion air time?”

It’s easy to suggest that perhaps we should just not read authors who air unsavoury opinions in public, or even just opinions that we don’t agree with. The danger with that is that we end up in an echo chamber, only reading the things that we agree with, and failing to understand why people hold the views they do. Those views don’t exist in isolation, there will be something that has led to them. Right or wrong, the holder of those views is a person and we should be spare the time to see what their views, and our reaction to them, mean for our lives. Just ignoring them won’t make them go away, and reacting aggressively will just make the person become more entrenched. And if they’re a writer, you’ll probably end up as an unflattering cameo.

Scapegoats come and go: there is nothing new under the sun. But as responsible readers, perhaps we need to engage more, but less vociferously, with what we are reading and the community that builds up around the books we read.

(C) David Jesson, 2020

#FF Photo prompt: the stories

This month’s photoprompt…

Bad day for Bunny

The train was pulling in just as he’d reached the platform. Thinking he’d finally caught a break, Seth hopped on the end carriage. The rest of the platform was absolutely rammed – he could see them pushing and shoving to get through the doors. He didn’t have a seat, but he did have a pole to hang on to – for there were some pretty mean bends on the long run to the next stop.

Deep in thought, Seth had mused how it had not only been one of those days, but a right pig of a day. He’d slept through his alarm, the milk in the fridge had gone off ahead of it’s best before date and, as he hated drinking black coffee, he’d arrived at work in the foulest of moods. Work had been it’s usual demanding and miserable self and, just before going home time, Morty had rung. Knowing he needed the money, Morty had persuaded him into an after-hours gig – some teen’s birthday bash where the waiting staff were required to be in costume. Deciding on the rabbit costume as his safest bet – as no-one could see his face – he’d rapidly come to regret it.

For some reason, those girls went wild for him. Whenever they wanted drinks, they’d call out in chorus “here bunny, bunny, bunny …” and they’d pulled on his fluffy tail so much, it had come off. He was run ragged while the rest of the waiting staff stood round chatting. It had really been the cream on the rubbish cake of his day when his take home pay had been no more than theirs.

So when he’d discovered his peg empty, he’d made quite the scene truth be told – but it was his work suit, and he didn’t have the sort of money to replace it easily. In the end, one of the girls had sheepishly slid into the room, handed him a bag, and mumbled some sort of apology. Checking everything was there, he’d had to dash before changing, for he was close to missing the last train. He didn’t care if he got the odd stare, and the girl of his dreams wasn’t usually on the train this late.

Sure enough, he’d got the stares – considerably more than he’d expected. People on the last train were usually too drunk or too sleepy to pay much attention, that or their heads were bowed reading a newpaper or a book so wouldn’t notice if an alien walked by. But, tonight – there were not only stares, but mutters. Seth had decided he wasn’t going to rise to it, so he’d kept his gaze down in an attempt to ignore them.

Even more surprising, had been a mass exodus at the next stop. As Seth had moved to take one of the empty seats, he’d noticed the photo on the front page of a discarded newspaper. Someone in a rabbit costume – worryingly like the one he had on – except the rabbit in the photo carried some serious hardware. As he’d sunk into a seat, Seth read the headline – “cop killer on the loose”.

That’s when he’d heard her voice enquiring if he was OK. What had he said to himself about the girls of his dreams? Yup – it was her. She was looking at him with a decided twitch at one side of her mouth and he’d briefly wondered if she was about to have some sort of fit. Then she’d smiled – and it had been as gorgeous as he’d remembered. She’d checked first his bag, then her watch, then instructed him to strip. She’d handed him items of clothing from his bag – in the right order – so at least he was dressed when they’d come for him.

For they did – they’d burst in through the doors at the next stop. She’d also instructed him to stand and put his hands behind his head, so there’d been no doubt he was giving himself up. Last, she’d tucked a piece of paper into his top pocket as she’d watched – with that gorgeous smile – as they’d taken him away in handcuffs.

Those days in the cells had been rough, but eventually they’d caught the right guy. First thing he’d done on being released was ring that number she’d slipped into his top pocket. These days he told the story of that day as one of the best days in his life … as she looked on with that smile.

© Debra Carey, 2020

Life in the big city

Peter glanced at his watch for the third time as he shuffled along with crowds heading towards the platform. Warm air whuffed up the tunnel and there was as much of a surge as a shoal of sardines could manage in these confines as commuters sensed the imminent arrival of the train and tried to get to the platform. But there was no where for people to go, and as Boyle would tell you, increase the temperature and decrease the volume, and you were heading for some serious pressure. Still, this bunch were far from being an ideal gas.

He could hear irate voices coming up the tunnel. People were trying to get off the newly arrived train, onto a platform that was already fuller than could be imagined. Further pressure was generated, but eventually the mass of people in the tunnel made progress as people were able to exit and another tranche made their way into the carriages. Further delays ensued as another entitled jerk tried to force their way onto the train that was trying to depart, and wouldn’t accept that they and there expensive backpack were just fouling the doors. Peter wasn’t sure if the situation was resolved by the people on the train being made even more uncomfortable or whether Backpack had given up the struggle. Why didn’t they operate a one way system? The platforms, built at a time when the population was a tenth of what it was now, weren’t really designed for it, Peter supposed.

He’d managed to reach the top of the last flight of stairs down to the platform with the relief created by that last train, but it took him another 15 minutes to actually get into a carriage himself. His phone pinged in his pocket a couple of times, whilst he was in the crowd, but there was too much of a crush to even think of getting it out. Maybe, he should think about getting one of those new Google watches. Maybe not.

He was so tired. You’d think a giant rabbit would get more respect, but no, he was left standing, desperately trying not to fall asleep as he held on to the upright. Harvey had a lot to answer for. The flip side of having taken so long to get to the platform was that the passengers had thinned out a bit and there was actually room to breathe, and the air quality wasn’t quite as bad. It was pretty bad, but it could have been worse. Peter remembered his phone and pulled it out. Text messages. One from Alice, saying that she had a giant problem, one from his buddy – a photo, little more than a smile, suggesting that perhaps he’d got the cream, and one from a colleague letting him know that the boss was on the warpath and threatening physical violence. Same old, same old.

Peter checked his watch again, and sighed. There was no doubt about it. He was late. Late, late, late. Late, in fact, for a very important date. Life in the big city really wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

(C) David Jesson, 2020

Author’s note: clearly a pre-covid setting…

#IWSG: What does being a Working Writer look like to you?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. It’s an opportunity to talk about doubts and fears you have conquered. To discuss your struggles and triumphs and to offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling.

October 7 question: When you think of the term working writer, what does that look like to you? What do you think it is supposed to look like? Do you see yourself as a working writer or aspiring or hobbyist, and if latter two, what does that look like?

Aarrgghh! My first instinct was to say that a working writer is one who writes for a living, but when re-visiting the dictionary definition of “work”, it is simply an activity that is done to achieve a purpose or result – no mention whatsoever of monetary reward. So, if a working writing is one who writes for a purpose or to achieve an end result – I’m a working writer.

But …

I also know that I have two jobs. One I class as my day job because it pays the bills. The second being a developing business as an NLP Coach which I intend will become my primary income stream as soon as is possible. If I’m honest, the writing has to get fitted in around those two.

I’m also a hobbyist photographer. Now, I’ve no problem at all categorising myself as hobbyist there, because I don’t have any hope or expectation of earning a living via photography, so I do it simply for enjoyment. I don’t describe my writing thus, as I have a purpose in writing, which is to achieve both publication and receive a monetary reward. Of course I enjoy writing, but I also have dreams.

In truth, there’s no simple black & white about this question, for so much of it is down to the perception of not only the writer themselves, but of those around them, and of society in general. As always an interesting question – and I’m much looking forward to the responses of my fellow #IWSG members.

The awesome co-hosts for the October 7 posting of the IWSG are Jemima Pett, Beth Camp, Beverly Stowe McClure, and Gwen Gardner and I encourage you to take a moment to visit them.

While you’re here, can I tempt you with a #FlashFiction photo prompt? Every month, we run a different #FF prompt – sometimes a photo, sometimes a saying, sometimes just a word …

Just your ordinary everyday commuter …

If you’re inspired to give this a go, you can get full details here.

© Debra Carey, 2020

#FlashFiction – Photo Prompt

Just your ordinary everyday commuter …

black and white bunny on the underground

Although the photo does appear to lend itself to something creepy, feel free to select any style and any genre for your story, just nothing NSFW. Tell us your tale …

Word count: Anything you like up to 1,000 words
Deadline: 7am GMT on Sunday 11th October 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.