I know it’s accepted. I know it’s expected. I also know a creative work with the complexity of a novel can’t possibly be reduced to a five point rating scale.
I’m not saying other people shouldn’t use them. It’s the standard convention, and it seems to be what’s expected of reviewers. I’m just saying I have a lot of trouble with assigning them, so I avoid them if I can.
What does three or four stars mean, anyway? “I liked this book, but not as much as other books I’ve read.” Maybe. It doesn’t say anything about what I liked or didn’t like about it, whether I thought the language was beautiful or verbose, if the plot was well structured, whether it was paced skillfully or if the tone was uneven and confusing. A star rating says nothing about whether the characters were rounded and believable, too perfect or too evil, inconsistent or grew with the story arc.
Giving a rating also says nothing about whether a book is within my usual reading preferences or if I’ve stepped out to try something else, which can have a huge impact on my response to it. I’ve known some people to be blown away by the ‘amazing’ concepts of a literary novel with a smattering of science fiction, which were standard tropes in sci-fi twenty years ago. The reverse is also true, that those not used to the conventions of a genre can dismiss a novel out of hand because they don’t understand what the author is getting at in the first couple of chapters.
If I review a novel, my reasons for liking or disliking aspects of it can be just as important as how I respond to it. I’m unlikely to review a slasher horror novel because I don’t like reading that material, but if I did it would be unfair for me to give it a star rating out of five. I know – before reading it – I’d be unlikely to enjoy it, so while it might be an excellent slasher horror novel, it couldn’t get an honest high star rating from me.
We all respond to stories differently, and have different preferences. When I read a review I find the most interesting things are the details of the reviewer’s response to the novel. Do they think it was well written? What did they think of the characterization? The plot? Were there particular things they liked or didn’t like? Was this a typical genre for them, or a stretch? If not typical, does it encourage them to read more like this?
A star rating tells me none of this. I look at books I’ve read, and the thought of trying to reduce them to a number out of five makes me incredibly sad. I hate the thought of reducing the countless hours of imagination, toil and angst their authors have put into those words down into a number of stars.
Imagine if we did this with visual art. You would go into a gallery, and before each work everyone was able to write a review, and give the painting, sculpture or other artwork a rating out of five stars. It would be averaged and the rating displayed alongside the details of the piece. Perhaps the Archibald Prize People’s Choice Award would be the one with the highest average stars. Of course, we could extend it backwards and give a star rating to the masters; Monet and Van Gogh, Raphael, Michelangelo, Da Vinci …
Okay, maybe that’s going too far, but you see the point. Novels, good novels, can’t be reduced to a five point scale any more than works of art can be. So, I’m going to stick to reviewing without stars.