Monday, June 11, 2012

How Much Does a Star Weigh? (Dissecting a Book Review)

I have read and participated in discussions on what seems like dozens of blog posts about book reviewing. They've tackled topics like giving undeserved positive reviews, always giving reasons for your star ratings, whether you should review books by people you know, and a multitude of other issues.

What I haven't seen is a discussion on how star ratings are derived. In other words, what particular elements do you mark down for, and by how much? How much "weight" do different elements carry?

Plot, character, and world-building are the three foundation blocks of a novel, in my opinion. But other chunks that take up a lot of weight are dialog and pacing. Voice is a very important one to me. And then there are things like sentence structure, description, and word use. All of those elements are in some ways tied inextricably to each other, but they can still be looked at separately.

I'm going to attempt to assess my own method by looking at some of the reviews I've left on Amazon.

I've never given a book a one-star. I think if a book is that bad, well, frankly I'm not going to make myself read the thing. I likely won't get past the first few pages. And how does one justifiably write a book review of only a page or two?

There are times, however, I can get a decent way into a book--much farther than the first pages--but still give up. The reasons? Some books with strong voices have lost me because I didn't buy the story premise or the plot. Some had a great premise and plot, but the voice drove me nuts. Some had characters that were so inconsistent I couldn't keep reading. If any element, regardless of which one, was enough to make me stop partway through, the book got a two-star.

Three-star reviews tend to come from being able to get completely through a book, but finding some particular element distracting. I may find myself having to stop because I'm getting annoyed by the voice or idiosyncrasies in the plot. But there is something else--maybe a character or a situation in the story--that I'm curious enough about to draw me back to the book.

Four-star books keep me reading, but have slight speed-bumps here and there. It's a book that when I reach the end, I'm very glad I read it. The big elements are strong and the writing is tight. The voice may not have knocked my socks off, but it was pleasant enough. However, it may not be a book I hold on to with intention of ever reading again.

Five-star books are those that I'd totally read again. All the big elements are there and well-done. The voice is compelling, and the writing clean. I've become completely absorbed by the story and when the book is out of my hand I'm itching to get back to it. There are different levels of this, btw. I have marked books five-star that I still wouldn't rank up there with Harry Potter or The Name of the Wind. They're not epic-omigod-you-must-read-this-or-die, but they touched me. The Muse by Fred Warren is a good example. I picked it up on a day when I was feeling particularly foul. Depressed and grumpy and pretty much sick of the world. But when I closed the book, which I read in just a few hours, I hugged it to my chest and smiled.

Hmmm.....has this actually helped? I'm not sure. I think I can pinpoint certain things that seem to matter more to me than others. Such as, I can tolerate a less than stellar plot if the characters and voice are compelling enough. I've read books with voices so strong I've thought, "This book could be about a trip to Walmart and I'd read it," because I love the character and/or prose so much.

But if the writing isn't fluid and I'm constantly tripping over the prose, the most incredible plotting in the world won't matter. Connections to the characters are lost because the voice is too dry or the wording prohibits the reader from getting into the character's head and really experiencing things. The potentially coolest-ever story world falls flat because I feel like I'm trying to look through a dirty window to see it.

And there is the problem of subjectivity. For example, I've seen books slammed solely because they are written in first person present tense. The reviewer finds that to always be like a dirty window, yet I happen to love that pov choice IF it is done well. There are things that are wholly personal taste.

There are times when what we love, hate, or are indifferent about is hard to nail down, too. We just "feel" like it's a three-star or five-star. It's simply the taste left in our mouth when we close the cover. Nothing in particular stood out as poorly done, but we're underwhelmed. Nothing was outrageously original, but we "couldn't put it down."

Sometimes I wish star ratings could be done away with. I've found myself reading and reviewing books for  which I can describe my dislikes in detail--yet I know as I write the review those same things are going to strongly appeal to another type of reader. I don't like techie-focused "hard" sci-fi. The details bog me down and I find my eyes rolling back in my head. But what if it's the most well-written hard sci-fi book out there? I actually wouldn't know that! So my review says the book goes into excruciating detail--without that star rating the potential reader can interpret that in light of their own likes and dislikes.

What I'm coming to realize is that stars have different weights for different readers/reviewers. What makes a four-star for one makes a three-star or a five-star for someone else. And reviewers put varying degrees of emphasis on different elements. In other words, what kills a book for me may not bother you a bit, and vice versa.

And here's something kind of out in left field: What if it's something that is editing-related? Not talking about self-pubbed books here, in which the author has taken control of all aspects. I mean traditionally published books, where an editor is assigned to (or chosen by) an author but doesn't really do their job? Should the rating reflect that, as most readers relate the story solely to the author and don't think about behind-the-scenes?

Reviewing used to feel so much easier before I started letting my mind run down these trails!

So, tell me: How much does a star weigh for you? What elements are most important to you, and therefore heavy enough to knock stars off your ratings?

(PS--I never, ever let cover art influence my review of a book. I've found cover art and content can be drastically disconnected from each other. Some of my favorite books ever have covers I hate. Just sayin'.)


Mike Duran said...

Kat, is that a star made of dog food? I have the same feeling about the star rating. I do like how Goodreads qualifies their stars -- 2 stars "it was ok," 3 stars "liked it," 4 stars "really liked it," etc. That's helpful, but I'm not sure everyone abides by that criteria. The thumbs-up, thumb-down (made famous by Siskel and Ebert) was even worse. All in all, a good review, for me, no matter how many stars, explains the reasons for those stars. Like, "I'm giving this 3 instead of 4 stars because..." The worse kinds of reviews, in my opinion, are those that fling stars around w/out qualification... especially "dog food stars."

Kat Heckenbach said...

Dog food?? Hehe. Um, stone. This is where I got the image:

And yes, throwing stars out willy-nilly is pretty pointless. Even if the reviewer says they can't pinpoint exactly what bothered them it can be a little helpful. But say *something*.

Kessie said...

I consider those "I loved it" vs "I liked it" vs "It was okay" explanations you get when you hover over the stars. I figure out which of those best describes my reaction to the book, then I explain why. I know my reaction is subjective. I understand that about other readers, too. If they didn't like the book because "all the characters do is talk", I'm interested, because I like good dialogue. If "the plot was confusing" to one person but "great twists and turns" to another, I'm definitely interested.

The stars don't bother me so much. They're representations of people's subjective reactions. It's their explanations that I'm interested in.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Kessie, I look at lower ratings, too, and sometimes those end up being positives to me. Like you said, sometimes people mark down for things I actually like in a book.

But speaking as an author, the problem is that too many readers look only at the star rating and don't bother reading the reviews themselves. Or, there is a rating only and no explanation for the choice.

sally said...

I hate giving books stars. I'd rather just say what I liked and what I didn't.

But we live in an imperfect world. I won't review a book on Amazon that I have to give less than four stars. I give four stars to books I like that weren't what I consider perfect. I give five stars to books I couldn't find one thing to complain about. Even if I didn't like a book or never plan to read it again, it will get five stars if it was excellently done.