With a very few exceptions, I’ve stopped giving stars on book reviews. Why?
Some books I read entirely for entertainment. Some books I read and discover there are deeper themes, viewpoints that make me think, and may have a lasting impact on how I see the world. Some books I read and fall in love with the author’s writing: how they use words, the grace and precision of their sentences, their images, their skill with the craft. Some authors are journeymen, shall we say, conveying a good story competently, but without a master’s touch. In my eyes.
Books I love, others don’t. Books I dislike, others love. That’s a given for all art. But here’s my first reason not to give stars: my opinions change. A book I disliked (or didn’t understand) in its first reading – The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s dream-like story about the mutability of time and memory – refused to remove itself from my mind. On its second reading, I was entranced. It remains a difficult book, hard to categorize, allegoric, but if the purpose of art is to change the way we see or think about the world, it’s succeeded for me. But if I’d rated it back in 2015, I’d have given it 3 stars, or less.
That leads me into the second reason: how people perceive a star rating. Three stars to me says ‘it’s ok, an average book.’ And that’s fine. Not every book (or movie, or painting, or meal, or hotel) is a masterpiece, even within its genre. But more and more I see authors thinking their work automatically deserves five stars. I see some authors being upset with four-star ratings, focusing on the stars, not the words in the review. I’d much rather my review was read as meaningful critique. So: no stars. Take the time to absorb what I say – that’s what matters.
The third reason is one of respect. In today’s interconnected world, very often I know – at least through social media – the author whose work I’m reviewing. Writers reviewing other writers know how much blood, toil, tears and sweat goes into writing a book, and we are loathe to undermine that effort. Overall, I think perhaps we’re a little too nice to each other, because of that. But a review without a star rating, one written with skill and thought – a proper critique, not a criticism – should indicate to other readers – and the writer – what I thought the strengths, and perhaps the weaknesses, of the book are.
Will I ever give another star rating? Yes, sometimes. I will star-rate a book for a debut author, especially if they have next to no reviews and if I can write an overall positive review. I will star-rate an exceptional book, one that a decade from now I’m pretty sure I’ll still be thinking about. But otherwise, no. Not any longer.