Star ratings are the subject of intense debate and agony in the book blogopshere. Reviewers struggle over the decision to rate a book four stars or five. Goodreads users lament the lack of a half star rating. A reflection about someone’s personal journey through the anguish of selecting stars–and based on what kind of criteria–seems to pop up every view weeks. However, even though Briana and I moved to providing star ratings here at Pages Unbound a few years ago, I admit that do not attach much importance to them. For me, the review of a book reveals far more information about a book and is significantly more useful feedback than stars.
Here’s the thing: star ratings are intensely personal and highly subjective. Some people consider three-star ratings to be a good book. Some people think it is average. Some people think if it’s below four stars at all, it’s bad. And no one agrees on what the stars should even account for. Are the stars supposed to measure “objective” things like prose style, plot pacing, and character development? What if a book seems objectively bad–flat characters, tortured prose, silly premise–but is somehow still so exciting the reader can’t put it down? Can you account for its weird appeal despite its flaws? And what if you pick a middle grade book and decide it’s not for you, someone older than 12? Can you give it a bad rating even though the target audience might like it more? Even if a reviewer has a detailed breakdown of their star system somewhere on their blog–which readers who follow along in their feed may or may not see–a breakdown will never account for all the factors that could go into selecting the number of stars.
To me, star ratings are more important on a site like Goodreads, where they are aggregated into a total star rating casual viewers may use to pick or pass on a book. However, when I read individual reviews, I may not even look at the star rating. If I do, it’s generally just to see at a glance if the review will be positive or negative. (I consider three stars and up positive.) I don’t sit there and try to dissect why the reviewer chose one number of stars over another. I just read the review to find out what parts they thought worked and which parts they didn’t. I think reviewers may be comforted to know that the average reader probably isn’t as worried about their star system as they are.
I think reviewers stress over stars because they want to be fair to books. They do not want to deprive a stellar read of a star it “deserves” or mislead readers into thinking a book is better than it is. However, in my opinion, that’s what the review is for. Because star systems are personal and apparently unknowable, the review is there to explain. As long as the stars accurately indicate the review is either positive or negative, I don’t think there’s much need to agonize over them. I know I don’t agonize over my own.
What do you think? Do you stress about stars? What’s your rating system?