I’m not sure where the star rating system first originated. (Curse you, internet, for failing to provide immediate trivia information!) I believe it became well-known by its use in the Michelin hotel and restaurant guides, which have been giving stars to deserving establishments since 1926. Now? Star rankings are everywhere. From football stadiums to random hotel sites to amazon.com to this new-fangled GoodReads.
Originally, the star itself was a marker of quality. To be singled out by Guide Michelin with a star was to be raised to the firmament, put above lesser establishments. (See what I did there? ;o) Pretty quickly, however, Michelin added two- and then three-star ratings. Three stars represented the very best restaurants and hotels. As of this year, there are only 79 three-star restaurants in the world.
Michelin, like some redoubtable academic stronghold, has resisted ratings inflation over the years. The new reader-based internet rating systems for books has not held up so well. In fact, the whole system seems to be plunging from the sky in a ball of fire, like some Sputnik/Skylab/Challenger disaster of literary proportions. The whole thing is blowing up faster than I can read the latest review kerfuffle on Amazon or GoodReads.
The first time I really noticed how rapidly book reviews were becoming inflated was when a friend lamented that she’d gotten a “bad rating” for her book on GoodReads. I sympathized with her and went to see the damage. The review wasn’t vituperative or even particularly harsh, and then I noted that the reviewer had marked the book with 3 stars.
But wait! What? 3 stars? I hesitated, confused, as I scrolled back up to pass my cursor over the offending rating in question. The hover text obligingly popped up: “3 of 5 stars, liked it.” That was what I thought. 3 stars means the reader liked the book. That was the presumption upon which I’d based all of the ratings I’d doled out on GoodReads. Not that I’m all that adept at remembering to enter the books I’ve read and my ratings of them, but there were several good books I’d rated at 3 stars. Because I liked them. Not loved them. Not felt gushy and world-altered. Just liked. You know, in a positive, hey, I enjoyed reading that kind of way.
So how the heck did 3 stars became a “bad review”?
Oh, right… the same way a C became a bad grade, when we all started expecting to be above average. When we all started expecting our work to be deemed “amazing,” or “brilliant,” or “earth-shattering.” When we started getting our little feelings hurt if we weren’t deemed geniuses by everyone who read our stories.
It’s not that I don’t understand. Yes, when my first book comes out later this year, I will hope for mostly 4- and 5-star ratings. That would be very nice. We all want to be loved and admired. But it’s crazy when we expect that. Because like the old Freshman Composition teacher I am, I still want a system of evaluation to maintain its credibility. I still want there to be standards for what makes a student essay a B+, as opposed to a C. I don’t think “average” is a “bad grade.” I don’t think marking that I liked a book should be interpreted in a negative way.
The truth is, I don’t think most books I read are 5-star books. There are a few. Books that just blow me away. Books that have changed the way I think about the world. Books that I can re-read over and over and never get bored. Those are 5-star books. Maybe I’m just a bitch, but generally the highest rating I’ll give, even to the aforementioned dear friend, is 4 stars. Because although I think some of my friends are very talented writers who’ve written enjoyable books, I don’t feel like going around proclaiming they’re works of genius, just … because. For the sake of friendship. To be nice. That’s not really what book reveiews/ratings are for, right? Or is it?
I won’t even get into the question of writers rating their own books at 5 stars. Do I think my forthcoming book is a 5-star book? No. I think it’s pretty good. Mostly well-written with some nicely crafted characters. The plot’s no beauty pageant winner, but that’s just it. Not every book is gonna be the winner. The Pulitzer Prize–only goes to one book. Not every student essay is an A++++++++++++++++
Which is not to say that everybody should have the same 5-star book. Ridiculous. The joy of such reader-centric sites as GoodReads is that each reader can expound on the virtues of their favorite books. The other side of that coin is that every reader can discourse on the failures of the books they deem deserving of 1-star ratings.
The problem, as I see it, is when we get sucked into a system of over-rating books, because we’re afraid of offending someone or being attacked for our honest opinion. Having been lambasted for giving my honest, but not cruel opinion on books that I thought were less than stellar, I’ve all but given up rating books on GoodReads. I cringe in anticipation of my entry into the land of stars and reviews and revenge ratings, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative…