A five-star dilemma — are star ratings for books changing how you read?

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I get pop-ups and notifications all day asking for my views on websites, purchases, even deliveries. I try to ignore them but I find myself wondering. What’s the difference between a 4* and a 5* delivery? Surely a delivery is either okay or not okay. If the goods arrive intact and more or less on time, what more is there to say?

As I know from reading too much pop psychology, tell someone not to picture an elephant and they picture an elephant. It’s bad enough that we’re quantifying our every experience on behalf of marketers. Now I can’t stop rating books even as I read them

I decided when I started this blog that I would not include star ratings for books I review. People rate so differently I don’t think it’s helpful to have one individual’s ratings, though an average of many people’s can be useful. I do record all the books I read on Goodreads with a star rating, whether I’ve reviewed or not, and I give a star rating if I review on Amazon, which I usually do if I’ve had an ARC. 

I do have a sort-of system but it’s subject to inconsistencies. I give a book 4* if I enjoyed it. I only give it 5* if it’s exceptional — it stayed with me, it kept me up at night, I couldn’t wait to read another book by this author. I give it 3* if it was good but it had some flaws. I don’t often continue reading a book which I think is below a 3*, unless it’s an author I know or a much-hyped book. If I persevere and it really disappoints, I’ll give it 2*.

It seems straightforward, but it’s not. I might fall in love with a new author and it’s a gushing 5*, but by the time I’ve read their fourth or fifth book, they all feel a bit samey, so it’s 4*.  If I’d read their books in a different order, maybe I’d have rated them differently. And sometimes it’s about how I was feeling when I read the book. Did I mark down because I was tired and distracted? Or up because I read it on a sunny day in the garden? Sometimes I like a book more or less in hindsight than I did at the time. Should I go back and change my rating?

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In practice, nearly everything I read gets a 4*, so it doesn’t provide much insight at all and in no way justifies the amount of time I spend agonising about it. I know some people use half or even quarter intervals to add some specificity to this crude system, rounding up or down, or they apply different scores to different elements of the book, like figure skating.

Books move me in so many different ways. It makes no sense to compare books that are funny, dark, moving, boring, understated, bawdy, visceral, finely wrought, overwrought, intense, classic, dated, page-turny, zeitgeisty, dense, cliched, rich, overblown, astonishing, by awarding a simple score.

Still, just like social media and clickbait and all the other annoying things that colonise our brains and generate automatic responses, I’m struggling to unthink these ratings. Can I get back to appreciating books on their own terms?

Do you rate the books you read? Do you find ratings useful?

8 Comments

  1. Star ratings are so subjective. I would like to be able to use half stars on GR and Amazon. I do use them in my own reviews, but have to round up or down on those two popular websites.

    If I looked back over the years of reviewing I would probably re-rate some of the books that I have read, but that’s because we all change and develop out likes and dislikes as we go along.

    I like to give constructive feedback for a book which I give a low rating for because I feel that this is important. I also find that I’m giving less 5* ratings.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree about giving fewer 5* ratings. I think the more you read, the harder it is to be surprised or delighted. Which isn’t to say I’m jaded, but I want to save my appreciation for when I think a book’s really special.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love star ratings. Over time, they give a clear picture of the standard of an item. I find it really frustrating when reviews don’t star rate on blogs, to be honest – you can use half stars (I do!) – the 5 star system is SO limiting. For me, 5* means that I enjoyed the book all the way through, with virtually nothing I didn’t like – but I have to be able to say ‘I loved it’, rather than ‘I liked it’, which would be 4*…. or the 4.5 variation! I may then mark up on Amazon and down on Goodreads, to even it out.

    I also give 4* if it would have been only 3* for me, because of subject matter, but I can see that it is very good of its type, or if there were some terrific bits but some that were a bit 3*. I give 5 GOLD Stars on my blog if the book was exceptional. I agree that it’s hard to whittle books down to a ‘score’, but that is what the review itself is for, to comment on all that is funny, moving, boring, etc, surely?

    Having said all this, YES, most definitely they’ve changed the way I read. I’m thinking about it all the way through a book, and yes, it’s annoying!!! T

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s another interesting question – are you rating for yourself or for a wider audience? I often err on the side of generosity if it’s not really my genre/kind of book but it’s well written on its own terms.

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      1. For a wider audience, definitely. Which is why I get fed up with mutual back-scratching 5* givers! The review and the rating are for potential buyers, always – which is why I try to review objectively, always. Not always easy! But I try to reflect this in what I write. For instance, if it would have been 3* for me but it’s a good example of its type, I’ll say so in the review and give 4*

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not a fan of star ratings for books I’ve read and they don’t influence my decisions about what to read next either. But I do find discussions about them fascinating. Maybe because I like the *idea* of ordering and recording and tabulating, but a five-star scale (even with half-stars, which are available on Librarything, for those looking for a GR alternative) seems doomed. Once I heard a panel of writers discuss the fact that three-stars were actually the most useful because they could actually find constructive points in them; I’m not sure even that is so simple.

    Liked by 1 person

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