For as long as I’ve been a part of the bookish community (which is over 7,5 years now – wow), the first thing I do after finishing a book is go on Goodreads and give it a star rating. It doesn’t feel as if I’ve truly finished a book until I’ve entered my rating and have marked it as ‘Read’. Because this has become such an integral part of my reading experience, I already start puzzling and thinking about the number of stars I want to give the book before I’ve even finished it. What do I think of the writing style? Do I think the characters are developed well enough? Is the world-building keeping me engrossed? What does that mean for my rating? These questions keep me busy as I’m reading the book, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.
I love reviewing books – it’s why I started this blog all those years ago (that, and baking, of course): I wanted to share my thoughts on books with the world, and talk about them with other people. When I started out, I didn’t even add star ratings to my book reviews. I added them retroactively a few years later, after I devised my own rating system, but at first, it was all about the words. Before joining Goodreads a few months prior to starting my blog, I had never even considered rating the books I read on a scale from one to five. Now, it’s second nature. It’s just part of being a book blogger/vlogger/instagrammer. It’s what we do!
Recently, though, I’ve started noticing a bit of a shift, both within myself and within the community as a whole. Although star ratings are still the norm, I’ve noticed that people are starting to resist that clear-cut system, because it’s too simple. Of course, we’ve all been clamouring for Goodreads to add half stars to their rating system for years now, but the criticism is starting to become more radical than that. More and more people are saying that we should get rid of rating systems altogether, because it’s much too simplified a way of giving your view on a book, and it’s not doing authors or readers any favours. When deciding whether or not to read a book, a lot of people base at least part of their decision on the average star rating a book has on Goodreads. This system suggests that star ratings are an objective means of establishing a book’s quality, and that reasoning is flawed: the most palatable and mainstream books are the ones that end up with a high rating, and the books that weren’t written for the majority end up with a lower one, suggesting they’re not as good, which is not true.
Rating and reviewing books is entirely subjective and also complex, and I’ve come to realise that it’s a bit weird that we’ve come to rely on such a simplified system (which, of course, has been around long before Goodreads – newspapers have been using it for ages). If you really want to know whether a certain book might be to your tastes, you can’t go entirely off of star ratings. You need to look at actual reviews, to see which specific aspects of a book people liked and disliked. Sometimes I read negative reviews stating that a book is much too character-focused and there’s not enough plot, and that’ll make me want to pick it up, because I love stories that focus more on characters than on plot. If I’d just looked at the star rating in this instance, I would never have wanted to pick up the book.
So, the system is flawed and outdated, but there’s another reason why I’ve been starting to think that maybe I should stop using star ratings altogether. I find it so difficult to rate books. Maybe that’s why I spend so much time thinking about my rating while I should actually be enjoying the story itself. When a book is clearly a new favourite, I don’t hesitate to give it 5 stars, but when it was just really good, I can doubt endlessly between 4 or 5 stars. The same goes for books that were good, but that I don’t feel too strongly about. When should I hand out a 3-star-rating and when should it be bumped up to 4 stars? And what should weigh more heavily: enjoyment or literary merit? Does a thought-provoking book deserve a higher rating than an exciting pageturner? Who’s to say? It’s all so subjective. It changes so quickly, too: sometimes a book I gave 4 stars right after reading it ends up becoming an absolute favourite.
In 2021, I’ve started using a spreadsheet that calculates my star rating based on the rating (out of 10) that I give the book in seven different categories (CAWPILE). It makes it a little less vague, but it’s still not ideal. It’s an easy system to hack, and because of the way it’s configured, most of my ratings end up being 4 stars. I’m going to keep using it until the end of the year, because I like how it keep track of my reading, but I’m seriously considering cutting out star ratings from my reading and reviewing habits in 2022. Maybe even earlier if I get too fed up with the whole system. And I’m also going to make more of an effort to not be influenced by other people’s star ratings myself as well. Hearing people’s actual thoughts on books is much more interesting than those five little stars, anyway.
What do you think of star ratings? Do you like them? Let’s talk about it in the comments!