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