Clever humour of that title aside, where do you stand on the issue?
Up until six months ago, I was starring things without a lot of deep thought on the practice--books mostly, and usually on Goodreads. And then I read The Goldfinch. And then I read The Luminaries. Both are award-winning books that I really did not enjoy that much, and like unsatisfied readers everywhere, my first reaction was to find other unsatisfied readers to justify my opinion.
What I found eventually, after reading a lot of scathing reviews of both books, was a piece by Eleanor Catton in response to criticism that she is a writer of elitist fiction. On Literature and Elitism deals with a few interesting questions as to the relationship between reader/consumer/writer, but the one that really gave me pause was her questioning the habit of giving starred reviews to reading experiences.
I spent some time this week trawling through customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in order to look for trends — paying particular attention to the scathing one-star reviews that inevitably warn all other readers against buying or reading the disliked book. Starred reviews affix to all works of literature a kind of efficiency rating, which over time average out to a meaningless valuation somewhere between the middle threes and the low fours.
And she's right, there isn't a lot to be learned from a star rating because it generally does fall smack in the middle of the scale, but also because the ratings are coming from an audience of people that you don't know anything about. For instance, I think it's a fair bet that someone who normally reads and loves Danielle Steele is not going to enjoy The Luminaries, but should that person feel free to give The Luminaries a one or two star review? I got a rejection letter last week that also speaks to this issue ... one of the feedback snippets basically said, "I would have liked this story a lot better if it was a horror story." Which is kind of like saying, I would like cottage cheese a lot better if it was yogourt. That's not criticism, constructive or otherwise, that is just identifying what you like, and telling other people that you only like what you like. Catton concurs, saying that a starred review amounts to "just an expression of brand loyalty," that is as ridiculous as "giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat."
Shortly after reading that, I stopped star-reviewing the books I didn't enjoy. One thing I don't want to do anymore, especially since putting my own book out in the world, is tear another writer down. The vitriol that normally accompanies a poor rating of a book astounds me. People seem to forget sometimes that the book they read and didn't like and then proceeded to trash online is still the product of a human being with feelings. The book, though you may not care for it, is the outcome of a lot of time and hard work.
Also, if a book doesn't mean much to you, that's not necessarily the writer's fault. That's maybe, at least partly, the reader failing the writer at being a good reader. I know I sometimes read things impatiently, or while distracted with life, or while in an especially critical or otherwise unfavourable mood. Maybe I wasn't the intended audience. And though it's nice to think that a great wordsmith could transcend the boundaries, could draw everyone in and wrap them up in a great story no matter their age, interests or life experience, it is just not possible. Preferences are normal and we shouldn't feel guilty for having them, but we shouldn't think that they hold any evaluative worth. It's fine to have opinions, and it's good to voice them, even if they are negative, but if you do, then criticism should be well-considered and go beyond the realm of thumbs up/thumbs down.
And if I love a book? Then I star it and share it and love it up all over the place. Because even though what I think doesn't mean anything about the quality of the book, it is the only way I have to show my gratitude for a very rare experience: synergy between reader and author.
Erin Bedford, writer.