the politics of rating books

note: i think reviewing books is an important job, and people should do it. just, you know, people who are not me.

it doesn’t seem like it’d be that political of an act. you pick a book, assign it some number of stars, and (hopefully) write a sentence or two (or page or two) about why you rated it the way you did.

but i just can’t bring myself to do it. i opened up a goodreads account this past week with good intentions. i would keep better track of what i was reading! i would share my reading list with the world! and i would tell them …. oh, wait. what would i tell them?

when i talk about books on twitter (which, yeah, i do a lot), it’s invariably because i liked them, and usually because i LOVED THEM. when i talk about them on this blog, it’s because i liked them/loved them and there was something specifically interesting about them that i want to explore and/or share and/or rant about. i NEVER talk about books i don’t like.

why not? well, partially it’s because i just don’t have enough emotional/mental energy to spend on things i don’t enjoy. also, i am a book RECOMMENDER by trade, not a book REVIEWER. i think this is an important difference, one that is often overlooked. except by Julie Klam, who i stole it from. (i feel like interjecting at this point that i know the grammatically correct thing to say would be “from whom i stole it” but WHO TALKS LIKE THAT? i don’t talk like that, and i consider this “talking”. so there. also, i know that that period goes inside the quotation marks, but that is a pet peeve. ok. enough interjection.)

so yes, as a bookseller i recommend books. what does this mean? it means, when someone comes into the store and says, “i’m looking for a book,” i direct them to books that fit at least one of the following criteria: a) i liked them, b) they match what the customer is looking for, or c) both. sometimes they’re not both, though, and i think other booksellers will agree that we often sell books that we didn’t personally like to people who are very happy to have them.

which brings me to another point — there is a difference between “i didn’t like it” and “it was a bad book” that i feel is sometimes overlooked. as a bookseller, i am paid (in theory) to tell you my opinion about books. so yes, i am honest, and if a book didn’t appeal to me i will say so. but THAT IS WHAT I WILL SAY — “this one wasn’t for me.” not, “oh, that was TERRIBLE” or “you don’t want that one.” BIG difference there.

i don’t think it’s necessarily WRONG to say “that was TERRIBLE” — i’m just not comfortable saying it. for a variety of reasons. one of which is that i often work with authors, and they are generally lovely, hard-working people who have poured their hearts and souls into their creative endeavors. another of which is that i often work with publishers, who are also generally lovely, hardworking people who have poured their hearts and souls into other people’s creative endeavors. yes, yes, there are exceptions, but i’m not talking about the exceptions.

is my opinion really that important to anyone, you might say? well, no, but also yes. ask any author — they look at those reviews on goodreads, and that A-place, and anywhere else reviews are posted. i personally know several who have to actively fight the urge to spend all day every day looking at reviews of their books anywhere and everywhere they can find them. so do they care that I PERSONALLY did not like their book? probably not. do they care that SOMEONE did not like their book? HELL YES, they care. (again, generally. see previous note about exceptions.)

and after thinking about all of this for a few days, and chatting about it on twitter, i thought for a minute that i just wouldn’t rate any books at all. and then i realized that, oh yeah, that kind of COMPLETELY DEFEATS THE POINT of having a SOCIAL READING account. heh. and look, here’s this notebook that has all these blank pages that i could write titles of books on, oh yeah, and here’s a pen i could write that with, and no author or publisher will ever see this notebook, so it’s probably a pretty safe bet that i can just, you know, WRITE THIS STUFF DOWN.

several people have made the case for negative write-ups, namely that if someone doesn’t once in a while not like a book and say so then they feel like she’s shilling or not being honest or not giving a true picture of her reading tastes. to them, i can only say: sorry. if i don’t mention it, you can assume i didn’t like it. and if you’re an author or publisher, you can assume that i haven’t read it yet.

who will be right? only the notebook will know, and it’s not telling. in the meantime, i am going to go delete that goodreads account.

the politics of rating books

6 thoughts on “the politics of rating books

  1. Really interesting post Jenn. I totally agree. I have only ever written one negative review which was for Ian McEwan’s latest book becuase my expectations were so high and I was left feeling nothing. I needed to expel my bad feelings about the book. But usually you just move on to the next book and start raving about it, like Matterhorn!

  2. I have the exact same philosophy about rating books, and it’s one we use at Books on the Nightstand. But I also have a GoodReads account. I just don’t use the star ratings, or review space, unless it’s a book that I love love love — then I give it 5 stars because I want the world to know. But I love GoodReads for tracking the books I’ve read, because I can tag them in multiple ways. I can keep track of how many of the books I’ve read are cookbooks, for example, or mystery, etc. But my favorite feature is that at the end of the year I can print out a few pages that show the book jackets of all of the books that I’ve read that year. Looking at all of those jacket images just makes me happy.

  3. I understand where you’re coming from but I still think there’s value in negative write-ups or talking about books you don’t like.

    I don’t think you personally have to, and I understand why you don’t as it conflicts with your job. but for me as a reader, I like for books to generate discussion and books I don’t like can generate discussion as much as books I do. I also like to understand people better and knowing what they like and don’t like is extremely revealing.

    I agree there’s a distinction between liking something and it being a bad book and the reviewers I trust the most will make that distinction.

    I see what you’re saying about authors pouring all of their heart and soul into a book, but if we never speak up about what doesn’t work for us, we aren’t really helping them make their next book even better. And if someone buys a book because it got at least some sort of thumbs up and they find it mediocre they might choose to go to a movie next time. 🙂

    Having said that, I far prefer loving and raving about books, too! 🙂

  4. Great post. I use Goodreads, and I’ve only ever given a low number of stars once — it was an otherwise exuisitely-written memoir by a Canadian poet that stooped, suddenly and rather shockingly, into a truly thoughtless slur against American people. I think I would only give a low rating in a case like that, where there was something about the book that struck me as being outright offensive. I added a comment explaining why I didn’t give it very many stars.

    Otherwise, I question the value of giving poor ratings to books on these sites. Speaking as a writer, I do read all my negative reviews, but I generally don’t find reviews particularly helpful in improving my work, because they tend to contradict each other. If one person calls my characters one-dimensional and another goes out of her way to praise my character development, there really isn’t a clear message there. These are all just the opinions of individuals.

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