Today I’d like to welcome Australian author Kate Belle to the blog. Kate’s first book, The Yearning was released to much critical acclaim last year and her second novel, Being Jade is out this month from Simon & Schuster. You can read my review of The Yearning here and check back later today for my thoughts on Being Jade.
Today Kate is talking about star ratings….and why she’s no longer doing them. Over to you, Kate!
The fault with our stars
Like the very lovely Bree, I love reading and reviewing books. And, like most people, I have followed – or tried to – the notorious star rating system adopted by Goodreads, Amazon and everyone else. Comparing, judging, assessing and rating everything in stars is par for the course these days -from books to accommodation to a giant packet of gummi bears (you MUST click on the link and read the reviews – pure GOLD). But recently I’ve been rethinking the wisdom of jumping on the bandwagon of this star rating system and here’s why.
In March I read Natasha Walker’s Secret Lives of Emma: Beginnings. I knew the true identity of the author (John Purcell in case you’ve been meditating in a cave somewhere) and was due to share the stage with him and others on a Sex in Words panel at The Wheeler Centre in early April of this year. I had been keen to read this erotic book and the panel and a long weekend gave me the impetus to do it.
Being the control freak I am, I began internally rating as soon as I started reading, swinging from a measly 2 stars when the main character Emma didn’t please me, through to a mighty 5 stars when John put a blow torch to the sexual tension. But when I’d finished the book I was conflicted. My feelings about it were so mixed I couldn’t decide how to rate it
So I took the lame option and shot it with a 3.5 stars – a middle of the road judgement. But I never felt comfortable about it, because a handful of stars didn’t accurately reflect the complexity of my response to the book.
After I published the review I sat on the panel and listened to John speak about his character, Emma, and how so few people understood what she was about. It dawned on me I’d missed the point of Emma entirely. With new insight, I suddenly saw the book in a new way and realised I’d fallen smack bang into predictable social judgements in my assessment.
It’s not news that reading is completely subjective. Our view of a book will vary wildly according to mood, stress, age, experience, context, to time available to read, educational background, personal values and beliefs, culture, the book we last read, what our manager/partner/relative just said to us and so many other variables. There are books I would have rated 5 stars twenty years ago I’d only give 1 to today, because views about life have changed over time. Those stars I felt compelled to allocate to Secret Lives of Emma, and any other book I’d read for that matter, were a poor facsimile of my ever evolving response to my reading experience.
Star rating as a system is inherently flawed. Individual interpretations of what 5 stars means is as varied as a Kardashian’s shoe collection. I’ve read rave reviews with 2 star ratings and complete sledgings with 4 star ratings. It is wide open to misuse, misunderstanding and manipulation. I’ve heard about the unscrupulous readers who go around rating books based on their blurbs or covers, without even bothering to read a single page, while others automatically give certain authors low or high star ratings because they simply do/don’t like them.
In creating the star rating system we have now fallen victim to it. We all know it is hellishly inconsistent and routinely manipulated and abused, yet we feel compelled to continue to use it, to quantify and simplify our reading experience into a handful of cute, pointy yellow images.
The truth is most books, especially good or challenging ones, are far too complex to reduce down to a single, simplistic star rating. So I’ve made a decision.
I’m starting a small rebellion. I will continue review books, but I am no longer going to let myself get pulled into the star rating thing. Instead I am going to focus on thoughtful and honest reviews. I’m going to use words (those precious, precious things) to capture the breadth and depth of my reading experience, and leave readers to make their own assessment, as they should.