Monday, September 3, 2012

A new rating system

Just over a year ago, I posted an article called "What's Happened To Our Reviewing System?" It took issue with the current way we rate books, but without suggesting a way to improve it. I'll rectify that now.

Say you're a fan of horror novels and Stephen King's Carrie is your favorite book. If asked by Goodreads or another site what you would rate it, you would click on the fifth star without a second thought. A fan of British science fiction might do the same for A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Dark fantasy lovers might bestow the highest ratings for some of Neil Gaiman's works. And if those books are your favorites, then giving 5 stars may be appropriate.

But how many stars would these same reviewers give Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, or Ulysses? To say that Carrie or American Gods is on the same level as The Grapes of Wrath is simply silly. But this is what's happening. Ratings simply don't tell the whole story.

So here's my suggestion: Let the horror lovers give Books of Blood, Volume 1 5-star ratings if they love it that much. But let all ratings be by genre, not across genres. When something is given a 5-star rating, that should mean "Among the best of the genre," not "Among the best books ever written."

I recently gave Neal Stephenson's Anathem 5 stars. That doesn't mean that I think it is a literary masterpiece that will be taught in colleges for centuries. I suspect that very few people will even get through it, but I simply couldn't go any lower. It is visionary, scientific, futuristic, and philosophic (in fact, he invents his own philosophical system) with interesting characters, a riveting story, and an unusual twist just when you think you're on the home stretch. It takes science fiction to a whole new level--just as his Snow Crash did a decade earlier--and as his Reamde does to the Thriller genre.

But if 5 stars indicates "Among the best of the Genre," what would 4 stars indicate? Well, obviously, not  among the best in the genre, but still quite good. Kind of like, maybe Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which is both thought-provoking and exciting. Yet compared to the Harry Potter series, it seems lacking. Another neat thing about this rating system is this: if you think that Pullman is the better writer, you can give him the 5 stars and Rowling the 4. I would give four stars to books that  might not be among the best in the genre, but that I enjoyed immensely and would probably want to read again. Paul Theroux' Ozone and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick (to which Vonnegut himself gave only a 2) come to mind.

And what about 3 stars? Although it usually means "good" or "I liked it okay," it has become a rating that no one wants to be given. Although it isn't death, a preponderance of 3-star ratings might be off-putting to potential buyers, especially when 5 stars is so commonly given. I'll give three stars, too, sometimes. I gave one to The Great Gatsby, which I've never really found that interesting, but it probably won't hurt Fitzgerald's sales any. I would hesitate, though, to give 3 or fewer stars to an e-book by an independent author. Instead, I would give a short review stating what I liked about the book and what I didn't. And not issue any stars, avoiding that part of the rating system. Or I might simply avoid rating it at all.

Two stars? One star? I see no real point to issuing many of these. If the book is truly terrible, let someone else give the bad news. I've noticed that many of the very worst reviews are from readers with an agenda. Also, if a book is bad enough to get only a single star, why finish it? It is an opportunity, however, to get your ya yas out on things you were forced to read as a child, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, in college (Nightwood.), or something you finished despite your better judgment or if you simply had nothing else to turn to (the Lemony Snicket books). But use these sparingly.

Here are some other genres (or subgenres), just in the category of fiction
Romance, not to be confused with
Paranormal Romance--a different subgenre entirely
Classic World Literature (War and Peace, for instance)
Classic American Literature (Huckleberry Finn). Not to be confused with
Contemporary American Literature, like Jennifer Egan's award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad or the independent Still Waters by Sara Warner. Both these books, in time, might become part of Classic American Literature or even Classic World Literature, but let some time pass.
Mysteries, like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Thin Man. But this genre has its own sub-genres, like
Lesbian Mysteries (Iza Moreau's The News in Small Towns), or any LGBT mysteries, which seem to include aspects not found in straight mysteries (like more sex, for instance), and which have different agendas.
Science Fiction can be broken down into several sub-genres, including
Fantasy, which is not quite the same as
Dark Fantasy, which is, in turn, not quite the same thing as
And so on, which is another thing Vonnegut said.

Rating books is a serious business. And we are the main reviewers now, not The New York Times. Although you are expected to give writers that are your friends the maximum number of stars, be as truthful as you can with your actual written ratings. Include a short description explaining the number of start that you assign. And keep in mind--whether you are writing or reading the rating or the review--that the book is being compared to other books like it, not to literature as a gigantic and worldly whole.