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I swear, this won’t become a bookish rant blog, but there’s something that needs discussing.
Reviewing books is an art.
For many, it’s an actual paying career. Library reviewers are employed to make critical and necessary decisions about what products they bring onto their shelves and how they should be advertised to patrons. Journalists are paid to write unbiased reviews that get printed and viewed by millions. And then of course we have reviewers who do this for fun or for the joy of it, and that’s fine (and also what I do), but, people, we need to stop handing out four and five-star ratings like it’s candy on Halloween.
Not every book is that good. And it’s okay to not agree with the hive-mind sometimes! In fact, it’s important.
E-commerce is taking the lead over brick-and-mortar shops and customers often rely on honest, constructive, and critical reviews of things – like books – before they buy. Throwing out four or five-star ratings because it’s easier than critically reading, and not because the book actually deserves it, isn’t beneficial to those who go to reviews to thoughtfully make a purchasing decision.
Sure, all art is subjective, and books fall into that category. But if I see a person’s profile and it’s chock-full of high reviews (without a meaningful and thought-out write up to accompany it), my initial assumptions about the book reader are:
- I will not take a book recommendation from them
- They read to check boxes of completion, not to really understand the writer or the text
- I will not take book recommendations from them — lol
Okay, so I studied literature in school. That much is obvious by this pretentious blog post, no? But I’m not saying all this to insult people, I’m saying that as “bookstagrammers” or book reviewers or “professional reviewers” we, as a collective, should give out four and five-star ratings quite sparingly.
Even one of the review sites that I’m a part of asks its reviewers to please, please don’t rush to throw on a high-star review and to critically analyze the book they’re reading. It’s actually better for the author as it helps them improve when they re-release editions! Or, for an ARC, it helps editors adjust according to reader suggestions.
There are a few trends I’ve seen in the 5-Star Review category that I want to address:
Just because a book has a set of diverse characters doesn’t make it deserving of five-stars.
Have a careful look at those characters. Are they tropes of the group they’re representing? Are they just background characters that the author slipped in to get a check off their diversity checklist? Have a look at the main character — still super white? Then really, all those secondary representations are meaningless to me.
If you wouldn’t consider re-reading a book, it isn’t deserving of five-stars.
I don’t care how many people you recommend this book to. If this doesn’t make it into your re-read pile it means it really wasn’t that incredible. And if you’re not a re-reader, consider if you were in a book club and forced to reread it; would you do it? If not, don’t give it five-stars.
Just because a book touches upon a difficult topic doesn’t mean it deserves five-stars.
Depression. Mental illness. Body dysmorphia. LGBTQ+ issues. Racism. Religious discrimination. I’m not sure what it is about the Goodreads community in particular, but just because a book touches upon one of these topics – or other difficult and traumatic subject matter – doesn’t mean it should automatically get a five-star review. You are not a bad person for giving it less. How it’s executed matters more than the subject matter.
Just because it’s an indie author doesn’t mean it deserves five-stars.
It is immensely prominent in the reviewing community that books by indie authors that are given low reviews, those reviewers are bullied. It’s exhausting. And if you’re giving high ratings to indie authors who could actually use some constructive feedback, just avoid reviewing it all together. Your concern is valid, but you’re doing more damage than good by inflating their ego and that of their fandom.
Just because it’s a memoir doesn’t mean it deserves five-stars.
Again, art is subjective. And if someone is sharing their life story in book format, they are releasing this art in the world to be judged. Just because it’s someone’s lived experience doesn’t mean you have to give the book a five-star rating. It’s still a book, it’s still about a critical analysis of its execution, and believe it or not, you’re allowed to make a judgment on it.
It’s very, very difficult for a book to get a five-star review from me. In fact, my entire reviewing criteria is pretty specific. Just this weekend, I finished book two of the Bridgerton series. Did I enjoy it? Yep. Did I fly through it? With ease. Did it keep me hooked? Oh yeah! Did it get even a four-star rating, despite this? Nope. I am very particular.
Here’s how my own rating system works (with examples based on my own reviews).
- I would re-read this book (likely multiple times).
- Its writing is executed with near perfection; every word has a place and matters, grammar and editing are almost perfect.
- It’s life-changing or transformative or has me reflecting on what really matters.
- It’s a book people will regard as a “classic” in fifty years.
- Life is better with this book in it. It will be one I remember for the rest of my life.
Example: The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
- If a book is not something I would reread, even if it was totally awesome, it immediately loses a star.
- The book was excellent.
- Some grammar, editing, or unnecessary pieces in the text but nothing too distracting.
- I would recommend this to others.
- It’s near-perfect but not a book anyone will be talking about in ten/twenty/fifty year’s time.
- Not life-changing, but kept me hooked and interested the whole way through.
- I’ll definitely read something else by this author.
- Good or great book.
- I would not reread it.
- Noticeable grammar or editing or repetitive errors throughout the text.
- Kept me interested the whole way through – a page-turner.
- It may have had a disappointing ending or was predictable.
- I’d recommend it to others but with the pretext that it won’t change their life or be the best book they’ve read, it will just be a fun read.
- I’m likely to continue reading items from this author.
- I didn’t like the book.
- Extensive grammar or editing issues, or boring and unnecessary text throughout.
- I will definitely not read anything else by this author.
- It wasn’t deserving of a lower rating because it had some redeemable elements and maybe kept me reading the whole way through.
- Some DNF books get two stars if I know they had potential.
- I wouldn’t recommend it to others.
Example: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
- I hated this book.
- Everything about the book was executed terribly.
- Extensive trope usage was exhausting.
- “SJW” vibes throughout the text left me rolling my eyes.
- The writing was terrible/character building was terrible/world-building was terrible.
- Most DNF books get one-stars from me.
- It just made me all kinds of mad and frustrated – how could I waste my time on this?!
Example: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
Again, reviewing is a subjective practice. But I do hope people will be more critical about the books they read. We don’t need to be nice all the time – you don’t get karma points by giving out four and five-star ratings to “just okay” books, I’m just letting you know.
We do this to help fellow readers be better informed. And if you’re just a speed reader who flies through books and throws out the stars, maybe it’s better to keep the ratings out of public spaces where people actually go to, to make informed purchasing and reading decisions. If you want to make a career out of this, part of that means being more careful, thorough, and critical. I can assure you that the companies that pay for reviews aren’t looking for the ones with a giant portfolio of high star ratings.
What about you? Are you a critical reviewer, or do you think you’re kind of lax? I’m not judging, I’m just curious!