A Five Star Dilemma

I love the speech at the end of the movie Ratatouille that talks about critics. It starts with the statement,

Negative criticism is fun to write and even more fun to read.

[Proof that it is true.] But even a negative review can turn a reader on to something they love. A critic may write, “The food was a confused mishmash,” or “The band was obscene,” but the reader may love fusion food and punk music. I had a friend in college whose movie reviews I trusted completely; the more enthusiastically he spoke of a movie, the more certain I was that I would hate it. Reviews are valuable; but a five star rating tells me nothing. Three stars tells me even less.

Being asked to give numerical ratings is stressful. I absolutely loved the movie Independence Day; I laughed out loud in the theater and watched it many times. Sounds like it deserves 5 stars. But then what do I give The Shop on Main Street, a subtitled black and white film investigating the internal struggle between good and evil that made me question my own morality and want to be a better person? I didn’t enjoy it as much as Independence Day, so only 4 stars?

Everywhere I am asked to rate my experience.


I’m trying to become more involved on Goodreads, so this question of stars has been needling me more than usual lately. And the injury added to the insult of a useless review is that it impacts the person whose work is reviewed. If I don’t give the SeaTac toilet a happy face, will someone lose their minimum wage job? The ranking that authors receive on Goodreads and Amazon help determine how they show up in search results, which has a direct and measurable impact on how much money they make. Even if I dislike a book, I’m uncomfortable taking any action that makes it harder for someone to quit their day job and get better at writing.

If I withhold a star from a romance that I truly enjoyed, like Trade Me, because I can’t put a romance on the same level as a spiritual epic like Heaven and Hell, will I scare off romance readers, who are not interested in the devastation that Paradise Lost can wreak on the life and soul of a boy who yearns for an existence beyond the mundane and are simply looking for engaging characters and a couple steamy scenes?

If I can’t compare novels across genres, how can I even try to compare a novel with a book of researched non-fiction?

Is it wrong to compare different kinds of books? Should I click on the correct number of stars with a caveat in my head? “For a work of literary fiction, I’d give this book four stars.” But then do you rank Tolkien as fiction or fantasy? Because if Lord of the Rings is lumped with other fantasy, then I can never give another book with magic in it more than four stars, as it will inevitably (almost by definition) be derivative of Tolkien.

I’ve tried just leaving the stars blank; when in doubt, opt out. But I’m a little too OCD to leave electronic forms incomplete. I could make a blanket statement of support for the arts by rating everything I read 5 stars. I can just do whatever I feel like on a given day, knowing that there is little chance anyone on Goodreads will ever notice that my inconsistent ratings are actually almost random. I’ve tried all of these approaches, but none of them feels right. Maybe I’m looking at the question of rankings the wrong way.

What do you do? I would really like to know how other people approach the question of stars.

Oh, and if you’re on Goodreads, do you want to be friends (or whatever it is people do to be social on Goodreads)?


3 thoughts on “A Five Star Dilemma

  1. When I set up the Laxness in Translation website, I deliberately avoided ranking. The work of Halldór Laxness is too complex and often exists outside the reader’s cultural touchstones. Sometimes you just have to read a variety of reviews first before you can even begin to rate a book. That said, there are a few Goodreads reviews in it.

    • Yes, exactly! “Did you like this book?” is one of those apparently simple questions like “Are you single?” or “What do you do?” that can actually be hard to answer. I admit I’m guilty of glancing at the number of stars on review sites to see if it’s going to be a good review or a bad review, but a numerical ranking all by itself just doesn’t give any real information.

  2. Pingback: February on the Crooked Road | gemma D. alexander

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