Reading in Public No. 3
Why I'm breaking up with star ratings (again).
I’ve been in an on-again-off-again relationship with star ratings since I began reviewing books on my Instagram account 10 years ago. The five-star rating system for books is ubiquitous—it’s built into sites like Goodreads, Storygraph, and Amazon and used extensively by book reviewers across platforms. Star ratings are alluring to me because they serve as short hand for just how much I enjoyed a book. I like the idea that someone could look at my review and see at a glance that this book was a huge hit. Stars can also be helpful for the sake of comparison. If I consistently rate books similarly to another reader, I know to seek out the books they love most.
But for these same reasons, I also find star ratings to be something of a trap. They are so ubiquitous that we can begin to think they are standardized, when—in fact—they are completely personal. And I don’t just mean that the opinion of the book itself is personal, but the actual rating. I know reviewers who view 2.5/5 stars as average and others who would never rate a book under 3/5 stars unless they hated it. I appreciate the trend of reviewers explaining what their ratings mean, but I cannot be expected to remember everyone’s personalized rating conversion chart! I can’t even definitively settle on my own.
But if stars aren’t standardized, what are they for? What do they add to a review beyond what I can communicate in written form?
So after a few months of adding star ratings to my Instagram reviews, I’m once again abandoning the practice. While I can appreciate other reviewers use of them (or better yet, their own clearly delineated systems—see @welldonebooks), they are decidedly not for me. That realization got me thinking about the elements of my personality and my reading life that make star ratings so challenging.
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As an NFP…
Data and decision making are neither my strong-suits nor my interests. I am an extreme Intuitive, Feeling Perceiver in the world of Myers-Briggs indicators, and these traits make star ratings difficult to assign, and fairly useless to my own reflection process.
As an English Major…
I believe that some books are objectively better than others. However, those aren’t always the books I like best. I find the internal battle between my inner English major who wants to rate things “correctly” and my intuitive reader who wants to rate according to my preferences to be exhausting. In this vein, I do love Auden’s Five Verdicts, but those seem better-suited as a general framework for reviews than as a system for rating.
“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.” - W.H. Auden
As a teacher…
I hated grading. It is the thing I miss least about teaching and the thing that will likely keep me out of the classroom forever. I hated the tension between trying to be objective and knowing that sometimes a paper was an “A” just because if felt like an “A.” I hated defending grades to students. I hated feeling like I couldn’t give perfect scores because there’s always room for improvement when students think a perfect score is the starting place from which points are deducted. I hated agonizing over whether a paper was a 90 and thus an A- or an 89 and thus a B+. That single point made zero difference in the grade book but could wildly warp a student’s view of themselves. While using star ratings, all of these feelings came back and reviewing started to feel like grading. As soon as that clicked I knew it was time to stop.
As public reviewer…
I’m growing uncomfortable with the feeling that a writer poured so much of their time and effort into their book, only for me to distill my response into a numerical scale I don’t believe in. I still see the benefits of star ratings, and I know readers find them extremely useful. But I’ll be abandoning them for now in favor of the verbose style that comes more naturally to me.
Those are my over-thinker’s thoughts on star ratings, but I would love to know your opinion! Do you assign ratings to your books? Do you have a personal system you use? Does seeing another reader’s rating help you decide what to read next? Let’s chat!
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How do we get the Auden rating of books to become ubiquitous? Do we put it before the board for a vote?
All in favor say, “Aye.”
Ok I am a data driven person generally but my star ratings - which are for me and only me - are completely intuitive. I don’t agonise over them and I am ok with, for example, a book I rated 5 stars not ending up not on my best of list at the end of the year in favour of a 4 star book. That said, I do not review publicly (other than putting a star rating on GR) so there are very few people taking any interest in my ratings. But I also really don’t use other people’s star ratings to decide if I want to read something.