Like most authors, I “stalk” reviewers on Amazon or Goodreads. I don’t care about them individually (so don’t worry), but I’m always interested to see how my stuff stacks up. What it’s taught me is that every person’s use of the star rating system is unique, which is why it makes no sense to dispute anything, or even let it bother you.
I remember one guy who — it was obvious — only rated books that were good, meaning even a one-star book wasn’t bad. In his world, bad books weren’t even acknowledged. It seemed a little wonky to me at first, but then I realized it’s like Michelin’s system of rating restaurants. There are only three stars available, only the very best restaurants in the world are even considered, a Michelin one-star restaurant is a damned fine meal, and out of all the chefs in the world, only a handful ever get a three-star rating, which is like the gold medal of chefery.
Okay, fair enough.
But the taco truck on the corner isn’t trying to be Noma, or (the now-closed) El Bulli, which raises a very important point. Tastes not only vary by individual, they vary across time within the same individual. You wouldn’t eat at l’Auberge Chez Francois every day even if you could. Sometimes you just want a damned good burger. Or a taco.
Same with fiction. A trashy romance novel isn’t trying to win the National Book Award. Comparing them on the same scale is kind of ridiculous. But there are bad trashy romances and good trashy romances, same as anything, and when you’re in the mood for a trashy romance — and who isn’t from time to time? — then you want to read a good one, not a National Book Award winner.
You can see this clearly with hotels, which can be rated on more or less objective grounds — on the presence or absence of certain amenities, for example, along with location, price, and so on. Hotels have both a star rating and a customer rating. A three-and-a-half star chain hotel on the interstate isn’t trying to be a five star resort, and when customers give it five stars, it’s not because they’re deluded about what a five-star hotel should be. It’s because they understand intuitively the “genre” of a three-and-a-half star hotel and are telling you it’s a great version of that.
Taco trucks, three-and-a-half-star hotels, and trashy romances operate inside an intelligible structure that you learn but are never taught, a whole system of signs and signifiers in your head that you can read instantly but whose rules you could never articulate (at least not without training and effort).
I think my first book, FANTASMAGORIA, is a three-star book in the sense that it’s not trying to be any more than that, but I would argue it’s a five-star three-star book! And one of the best reviews I’ve gotten on it, in fact — articulate, fair, thoughtful, and positive — gave the book three stars for reasons that totally made sense to me.
Then there’s the guy who gave THE MINUS FACTION two stars, far below Brandon Sanderson’s latest (at five), but equal with Brave New World and Lord of the Rings… which still perplexes me.
We all know it, but it bears repeating: what matters most is the aggregate rating across many reviews. In fact, as I’m often heard to say, what matters most to readers when considering a book is not necessarily the star rating but how many reviews there are, and this is because we all interpret the star rating inside that complex but inarticulable system of signs and signifiers. And anyway tastes are highly subjective. What readers want to see most is that a lot of people enjoyed it.
Which brings us back to the old Catch-22: lots of people won’t read a book until lots of people have read it.
So how do YOU use the star system?