If you have read any of the book reviews I publish on this blog, you will note that I do not give star ratings, marks out of ten or anything like that. I will recommend or not (usually the former – even if I have not enjoyed something, I will try to think about who might like it) and, particularly in the case of the children’s books I review, I will say what age group I think it’s appropriate for and any issues parents might like to be aware of. For example, books marketed for, say, 11-13 year olds might contain references to violence or death, which will be okay for some kids, but not if they’ve just lost a pet, grandparent or are on the sensitive side. Star ratings, on the other hand, are a blunt instrument.
I am a keen member of the Goodreads website and I write short reviews of most things I read (haven’t caught up on the back catalogue I listed when I joined, though!). I hate giving the star rating and find even my own ratings are inconsistent from one book to the next, so how on earth can a reader compare a 4-star rating one person has given to a 2-star rating from someone else? If you read the review, I guess that gives you the reader’s justification for their rating, but the trouble with star ratings is that you are immediately drawn to the high level score rather than the longer-form explanation.
(The erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey gets the same score of 3.66 on Goodreads as Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey! But are they comparable?)
What justifies a star-rating anyway? Is it how much you’ve enjoyed something? Or how GOOD you think it is? They are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I recently reviewed Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on this blog and on Goodreads, after I set it as the book for March on my Facebook Reading Challenge. I think it is fair to say that most people involved in the Challenge did not love the book, and yet it is one of the great classics of world literature. I loved it (but then I love the classics generally), but I cannot say, hand on heart, that I sat wrapt for every moment I was reading it. This 19th century novel was definitely hard work in places for a 21st century reader. Yet, there are plenty of books I’ve read recently which I could not put down. One that comes to mind is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, but you would probably not say it was a classic; it’s the sort of book you’ll find in the hospital League of Friends bookstall! The Goodreads rating for Madame Bovary is 3.65 and for The Secret Life of Bees is 4.02, but will the latter still be in print in 150 years time?
I’m not really sure what this very unscientific comparison tells us, except that readers’ tastes change all the time. I gave Madame Bovary 5 stars because I recognise it as a great book, and acknowledge its longevity and its place in world literature, but others who hated it will have given it 1 star. But my enjoyment of it was a different kind of pleasure to reading The Secret Life of Bees.
I recognise the inconsistencies in my own ratings too – I am more likely to give a book a higher rating if it has met my expectations or if it was appropriate for the time I was reading it. This would explain the 1 star I gave to George Saunders’s Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in The Bardo and the 4 stars I gave to Jo Cox: More in Common by Brendan Cox – the latter struck a political chord and moved me, but it’s not literary. And when I’m reviewing a children’s book, I try to rate it from the point of view of how much I think the target audience might enjoy it. But children’s tastes can be difficult to predict!
So, the answer really is to ignore the star rating and read the review – would you agree?
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