Earlier this year, I read an article by Sadie Hartmann, well-known reviewer of horror, explaining why she was no longer rating books with stars. Her reasons included how subjective and reductive such explanations can be, especially when compared to a written review. This spurred my own thoughts on the matter, and I decided to give it a test drive; I’d try not rating books on GoodReads or Storygraph and see if any changes occurred. The answer? Yes.
What, perhaps, makes this more obvious than it should’ve been is that my written reviews on this blog have never come with ratings. I’ve never declared something a three-star or five-star book in a longer review. Instead, I’ve always known that every book has its audience; sometimes I’m part of it and sometimes I’m not. That still shouldn’t stop me from giving recommendations, finding good qualities, or criticizing elements that may not jibe. Again, reviewing—as a whole—is subjective. While I may love it when writers wax poetic when describing settings, other readers may find that it weighs down action. (This is also why my reviews tend to exceed 1,000 words). As I’ve been reading this year, knowing that I wouldn’t have to hem or haw over how many stars to give a book was freeing in a way. More than a few users have complained about the lack of middle stars on GoodReads, and while Storygraph allows for that it still leads to the same concerns for me.
I agree with Sadie Hartmann’s points, and bring a few of my own to the decision to stop using stars.
Stars are subjective to time and mood. While stars can vary in their meaning and rank between people, they can also vary in how they’re utilized by the individual. We all have reading journeys and growth and that impacts how we come to the page. I’ve often found that books I might’ve given 5-stars ten years ago would earn much less now (case in point: Gamer Girl). Sometimes you’re more willing to round up and other times you’ll round down. Maybe your entry into a genre caught your attention and love, but you later find works that exceed it. All of these things can vary, and that variation creates weakness.
The rating is stuck in its time (usually). It’s only recently that GoodReads has enabled a ‘reread’ function. For those readers who like to dive back into their shelves, the initial rating of a book can change with each visit. Sometimes it increases because you discover new layers to the text, or you realize it doesn’t hold up with each successive read. When I was younger, I was a voracious re-reader; I’d obsess over a book and find myself in its plot more often than not. Now that I’m older, I want to discover new worlds and don’t have as much time to sit back with those old favorites. So, as with my previous reason, my initial rating of a book would be very indicative of who I was at that time. The opposite of this is Letterboxd, because I often watch movies more than once. Books, on the other hand, deserve more than a one-time reductive star rating.
Prior to writing this, I went through my GoodReads account and, mostly, erased the ratings I’d left on books. It was an interesting walk through the past, and I was able to see more than a few trends. For example, I rated all of the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer incredibly low, despite how much I initially loved those books and the impact they’ve had on my life. I gave other books 5-stars when I wouldn’t use the same rating today. Some authors were consistently decent, and I left a few of those because it’s a mix of bias and preference. Also, despite creating my GoodReads in 2012, I was rating books I’d read prior to that year as a way of building my account, and that seemed unbalanced. Like, yes, I loved Sharon Creech when I was in elementary school, but it wasn’t like I’d recently re-read her books at that point. See what I mean? The stars are flawed.
Since I stopped using the stars, I’m moving forward and attempting to be more thoughtful in my reviews. Some books, obviously, will get the full Reading Malone treatment, but I want to be able to simply experience books as well. I’d rather be helpful in recommending books to specific audiences than reducing the value of any media to a handful of symbols. However, if you find that the system works for you, that’s all good. This is my personal decision, and doesn’t apply to everything (since I still rate films). You do you.
Although, as Sadie Hartmann said, “Death to stars.”
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