I’ve seen some discussion on the internet recently that focuses on that heinous and subjective little number we each choose to assign to the reviews of the books we read. I’ll be the first to admit that we here at The Novel Approach seem more prone to like than to dislike the books we choose to read and review, but that’s the law of probability—gamble on enough books, know thyself well enough, and the odds are going to be in favor of the reader a greater percentage of the time. Do we all have our favorite authors? Of course we do. Again, that’s the law of numbers—read enough authors and we’re bound to find a few who do it for us every time, sometimes to varying degrees of success, but success nonetheless. Have we each gambled and lost? Yep. That’s the risk of this biz—there’s always an unknown variable. Am I going to start selecting books to review on the basis that I’m fairly certain I won’t like them just so I can give lower ratings and, therefore, somehow up my credibility? Nope.
But, what about that heinous and subjective little number—the rating. If it were up to me, I’d do away with it. Why? Because we reviewers put quite a bit of thought into saying what we think and feel about the books we’ve read. And what does it ultimately come down to? The number. ::sighs:: Authors love the 5, and why shouldn’t they? It’s the penultimate and symbolic affirmation that the fruits of their labors are appreciated. Ah, but therein lies the rub: readers are skeptical of it. If a review site awards too many books 5 stars, are we being honest, or are we pandering to authors and publishers? You see the conundrum. The 5 has been stigmatized, and I don’t mind admitting that frustrates me on a variety of levels, mostly because it calls the reviewer’s integrity, and sometimes their intelligence, into question and, as far as I’m concerned, it gives that heinous and subjective little number far too much power. Please, I don’t think numbers have any more to do with reviews than letters have anything to do with math. But that’s another story altogether.
There are a variety of philosophies on ratings from one blog to the next, one reviewer to the next. Some reviewers are much stingier with a 5 star rating than I, or anyone else, might be. The opposite is also true, in that some reviewers are far more generous with their 5 star ratings than I, or anyone else, might be. Reading is, after all, a very personal experience and, as Edmund Wilson once stated so concisely, “No two persons ever read the same book.” That’s where the subjectivity comes into play, yes? We’re reading from different perspectives, and what we do and do not enjoy can be influenced by a variety of things, from life experience to educational background, so in some ways, for those readers who pay attention to reviews, it’s a case of perpendat itaque lector cave—let the reader beware (I hope Google translate got that right). We’ve all read that one book, haven’t we, the one everyone has raved about, only to read it ourselves and then scratch our heads in wonder that we didn’t seem to read the same book everyone else read? And therein lies the rub for authors—no author ever, in the history of literature, has written the perfect book. At least not to everyone who’s read it. What ought to matter is whether the book was perfect to someone.
I did a bit of an informal poll amongst the review team here at The Novel Approach yesterday, asking each reviewer to tell me what constitutes a 5 star book for them personally. For Taz it means the book has to have all the elements of a 4 star read—strong writing, a well-developed plot, relatable characters, emotive change from the beginning to the end—but it also has to have something that resonates deep within. Every aspect of the book needs to come together seamlessly. The author has to weave together the elements of the story in a way that makes the whole of it come together so the end doesn’t feel like that author simply had to tie the book up with a pretty bow.
For Rena, a lot of it has to do with uniqueness of vision. If a book’s technically well-written but still gives me the same old, same old in terms of plot and characterization, it’ll get no more than a 4-star rating from me. Prosperity, the Griffin and Whyborne series, and the Magpies series are perfect examples of books that break the mold and more than deserve their 5 stars, regardless of issues I might have with them.
For Sammy, a five star book must have characters that are fully fleshed out and that pull me into their story. Trite dialogue or snap decisions, unless accompanied by incredibly sharp and witty interchanges, rarely factor into the making of a five star read. I want to know those two main characters. I want to see them thinking, feeling and being genuine. Along with that, there must be a plot that has a clear direction and an occasional twist or turn.
Lynn, Jackie, Lana, Kim, Jules, Chris, Kathie all said one thing, and said it so well, which I’ll paraphrase—we all love books that make us feel, that haunt us, that stay with us long after we’re done reading; whether that’s through laughter or tears, the book needs to make an impact in some way that goes beyond simply being told a story.
So, there you go. Simple, right? (note: sarcasm) Maybe not simple, but a 5 star rating here at The Novel Approach is never going to be held out as the elusive carrot at the end of the stick, impossible to achieve; nor is a 5 star rating going to be handed out without our being able to articulate why the book earned those stars; nor is a 4 star rating in any way an indication that the book has failed us. In essence, all it means is that we’ve assigned a number to our feelings and observations, and I’m not sure there’s a way for any author to write their way around something that personal every time.
And that, dear authors and readers, is why the rating game vexes me greatly.