The Star-Ratings Tango

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

star star
Photo Credit: Markus Schöpke

The internet is always teaching me something. For instance, I recently learned that you’re not a geek if you can’t display an in-depth knowledge of particular pop culture phenomena. (I’d elaborate, but I can’t because I lack sufficient geek cred.) Say what? You’ve just robbed me of my life-long belief that I’m a geek, internet. I haz the sads. (The dictionary still has my back. Whew.) I also just learned that displaying your diplomas makes you a tacky, pretentious douche. Thanks, internet! (The classy thing to do, if you’re wondering, is to put them in a box “somewhere” and then “forget” about them.)

Now that my whole worldview has been upended—ah, kidding. One should never take internet wisdom too seriously, of course. I just wanted to illustrate that what one group holds to be a common understanding will often astonish or perplex another. We develop our ideas of what constitutes common knowledge based on the people around us, and it’s often not until we collide with someone who is baffled by something we consider common sense that we become aware that our perspectives are not as universal as we might think.

Which brings me to the bane (and occasional delight) of every writer’s existence: star-ratings. Perhaps nowhere am I more aware of how much perspectives can conflict than with book reviews. When I started keeping track of the books I read on my blog, I didn’t rate them. I even tried to avoid calling my posts “reviews”—my rationale being that my posts aren’t reviews in the classic sense, but more like my reading notes and reflections, a part of my reading process. Then I joined Goodreads with its tempting little stars. At first I thought deciding how many stars to give a book would be difficult. That’s when I noticed the hovertext. This is what it says:

5 stars — it was amazing
4 stars — really liked it
3 stars — liked it
2 stars — it was ok
1 star — did not like it

While choosing stars on their own seemed an enigmatic proposition, these little descriptions clicked with me. They made sense. It was surprisingly easy to slot any book into one of those categories. From my perspective, only the one stars are truly negative reviews, and no book’s getting a five unless it had a profound impact on me. Most books are going to land somewhere in the middle, and most of those are going to be threes. You know, average. Not life-changing but not terrible either. And yet, I’m clearly in the minority in taking this approach. It’s so unusual, it might even be considered weird.

In the majority camp, you have readers who give four or five stars to practically everything. This group includes writer-readers who are reluctant to say anything remotely critical about a fellow writer, sometimes out of kindness, sometimes out of fear of retaliation. Their positive reviews tend to be genuine; they simply omit reviewing books they didn’t like. It also includes readers whose star-ratings don’t match their written reviews. That is, they’ll write a ‘this book was ok’ review but then give the book four stars. I can only surmise that this strategy is an attempt to avoid conflict with the writers of the books in question. The third group are readers who would clearly prefer a binary ratings system: loved it/hated it, like/dislike, thumbs up/thumbs down. With this group, everything’s a five or a one.

On the other side of the reading equation, you have the writers, many of whom seem to have developed the expectation of receiving five-star reviews. Frequently I see writers flipping out over two- and three- and even four-star reviews, in despair because from their perspective anything less than a five means “I hated it” or angry because they think an uninformed and possibly jealous reader is out to get them. Some will fume to their allies, seeking sympathy; others will attack readers head-on, rebutting each criticism or even bullying readers into changing their reviews.

This, I shouldn’t have to point out, is egregious behavior. As writers, we absolutely do not have the right to dictate what readers think of our work or what they write about it. A great deal of the conflict over reviews, I think, arises from writers misunderstanding readers’ motivations for writing them. Reviews have multiple purposes—they can be for personal reflection, to enter into a discussion with fellow readers, or to provide information to potential readers—but unless the reviewer is the writer’s publicist (or a friend providing UPOP), they are not for the writer.

Once a work leaves our hands, it ceases to be ours alone. Whatever words we have put on the page, with each new reader, each new reading, the meaning is reinterpreted, the story reconstructed. Each story is a tango, a negotiation, between writer and reader. A story that one reader finds moving and meaningful, another might find sappy and maudlin. And that’s ok. No, really it is. It might make you sad that a reader didn’t find your story as wonderful as you think it is, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing their reviews wrong. It means their perspective is different than yours.

The good news is, that means sometimes two stars equals “guilty pleasure!” not “blech.”

Email: beaver[at]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email