This post started out as a response of sorts from a Twitter reply I got from author Chris Bohjalian. Earlier that day I rated his newest novel, The Night Strangers, on Goodreads two stars. He was very polite and apologized for me not liking the book. As soon as I saw that, I had to reply back to say he had nothing to apologize for, because I knew many that enjoyed that book.
I mean, what kind of world do we live in when a writer feels he or she has to apologize to a reader that doesn’t completely enjoy a book and rates it on a murky spectrum of subjectivity and objectivity on a website?
Then, this morning, I read this article about a blow up turned flame war that engulfed writers, reviewers, agents, and worst, publishers and spread from Goodreads to Twitter and other social networks. It reminds me a lot about an incident I peripherally involved in a few years back involving the Twitter chat #Romfail and author Ray Garton, where I wrote a series of posts on the over all professionalism that such incidents lack.
While the Goodreads blow up and Chris Bojalian’s response to my rating are very different, they both still stem from a problem with in writing: A unhealthy obession with ratings and reviews.
Yes, they are helpful–to an extent. Case in point: At Anthocon, during the MFA Programs panel, the topic of epublishing and “gatekeepers” came up, myself and Kevin Lucia agreed the lack of gatekeepers in the e-publishing world. At the end of the panel when we were open to questions, a man mentioned that the gatekeepers for epublished works were the customer ratings and reviews. The good books will get good ratings and the bad will get bad. And I called bullshit.
Yes, they can be helpful, especially in tough economic times, to help choose what book to buy. But, even the less perceptive people in the world can see that many of those 1 and 5 star ratings are shames. As I told the man, “If see simply, ‘This book rocks!’ or ‘This book sucks!’ or similar one sentence reviews, they don’t count in my mind.” I will expand on that in saying that those kinds of reviews are typically written by 1.) Friends or family trying to help get a good word out about the book or assholes being asshole or 2.) People with no real practiced skill at reviewing that they are going on base Pleasure Principle reactions which are the most subjective, thus invalid, methods of of ranking objective quality of a thing. It is those reviews that are at least a paragraph long that you always look for, because you know there is a better chance that the person who wrote it took the time look at it in an objective way and will use that toolset give to us all in 4th grade: Compare and Contrast.
But somehow, anyone who just decides to write anything, from the insipid to the intellectual, are seen to be endowed with a world altering power to decide the fates of books. I’m calling bullshit, again. I know the only book I can influence is the one I write, promote, and sell. I can use tools like ratings and reviews to help speed things along, but if all book blogs and site shut down, I can still build an audience and a fan base.
I think we, as a society, like to rate things a in the extremes. We want black and white, because the shades of gray get depressing and boring after a while. I had a friend in college that would go on those “Hot or Not” sites and only rate 1 or 10. She said, “If you aren’t gorgeous and decide to put you pic on here, you better be ready for harsh critics.” It the same thing here. So I wanted to share how I rate things. It’s not perfect, and that’s because it is still subject to my personal tastes. But I try to be as objective as I can.
1 Star – This is the ones where I wonder how they even got published. It the home of the books I add to my First Chapter Fail Club. There are intrinsic problems in the book that are apparent from the beginning would be hard to rectify by the middle of the book.
2 Stars – This is low end of most books. Now, this is not to say it is a bad book. Just that within the story, there were recurring elements that I thought were either weak, unnecessary, or one of the few pet peeves of mine. And those elements were enough to throw me out of the story. Not bad books, just not up to par.
3 Stars – This is where every published book is that gets the job done. Have good characters, interesting story, keeps the action moving, with a satisfying ending. If you are published by any kind of press with an editor, you should be here at the very least.
4 Stars – This high end of most books. They do everything the 3 Stars due, but crank it up a notch. So by the time I finish reading I am glad I read it and I know I’ll go back to it again in my lifetime.
5 Stars – These are the elite of my books. Either from a objective point of view, like Ulysses, that is just a literary masterpiece; or a subjective one, like The Hellbound Heart, that affected me both as a writer and reader and resonated with me and my own writing.
See, even I can’t keep the 1 and 5 stars from being heavily influenced subjectively. And there, in a way, I think is the fault of any kind of rating system: It can never be objective if left to the whim of humanity.