Who Will It Be?

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I am a native North Dakotan, a professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah, and a YA writer. My first book, The Predicteds, is due out from Sourcebooks Fire in September. I'm represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. When I'm not writing or teaching writing, I'm an avid reader and an enthusiastic listener of podcasts (especially podcasts about books). I'm a fan of taking long walks on sunny days, browsing through the library on Saturday afternoons, and watching embarrassingly bad TV at any time. My favorite color is lunch.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I Give This Topic Two Stars (Or Maybe Twenty-Seven)

I’m a big Goodreads user; I would not even consider reading a book before I put it on my virtual currently-reading shelf. I set reading goals and meticulously keep track of what I’ve read and what I liked (or disliked) about my books. And keeping track of everything is really easy with Goodreads. (In the olden days, I had to chisel my notes on a slate tablet).
The problem with Goodreads, though, is that it wants me to publicly rate my books. That stresses me out.  When I rate a book, I do it to remind myself how I felt about that book at that particular time. It’s not a commentary on the book itself necessarily.
 Lots of perfectly great books just don’t resonate with me when I read them the first time; likewise, I often love an unpopular book just because it was the right book at the right time. But online starring systems seem to suggest that however many stars a book has is indicative of the book’s merit. Prep, a book by Curtis Sittenfeld, only received 3.27 stars. That’s one of my favorite books. I’ve read it at least three times. I’d give it more than five stars if I could; I think it’s pretty masterfully done, and I can so relate to the neurotic main character.  
The opposite happens too. Sometimes I hate books that everybody else loves. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has 3.93 stars (even though more than 2500 people have given it only one star.) Count me a hater. Too many descriptions of coffee and sandwiches. Too many sex-starved women throwing themselves at a protagonist who has little to offer, save for coffee and sandwiches.
But even though  I rated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo two stars, that doesn’t mean it’s a two-star book. I just didn’t like it. For one, I’m not a huge fan of crime novels, and I really hate graphic descriptions of violence. Second, I read it while I was in Europe last spring, and my attention was quite divided. Third, I think there was something lost in the translation, and I just couldn’t appreciate what we were presented in English
I get that our responses to books—especially fiction—are very personal responses. So it pains me to click on the little stars, especially if I’m going to give a book only one or two of the measly buggers. If I only give a book one star, will I make the author (or fans of the author) feel bad? Will they understand that my one star simply means that it wasn’t the right book for me? Will it impact sales of the book?

The other problem with stars is that I change my mind about books. I adored Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the first time I read it. I loved it the second time. By the third time, I demoted it to just plain “liked it a lot.” I don’t think the book got worse; I just changed. And the context in which I read it changed. Conversely, I couldn’t make it through The Good Earth when I first tried reading it in grad school. I finally read the whole thing a few years ago, and I thought it was incredible. I know a lot of people hated Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but I loved it. Part of the reason, I think, is that I read it right after I had foot surgery this fall. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t sleep, so I had long uninterrupted hours of reading time. It’s the kind of book that requires big reading gulps. I think if I had read in sips, I would not have had the same positive response. No number of stars could convey all of that.
All of this rambling was prompted by a book I just finished that I hated. Most readers loved it, but I thought it was really poorly written. Everything about it just rubbed me wrong way: the characters, the plot, the writing. If I had rated it, I would’ve given it one star. But I didn’t rate it because I don’t think any book deserves to be a one-star book. Every book speaks to someone, even if it didn’t work for me.
For all of these reasons, I'm hereby boycotting the star system. I just can't label books like that. It feels too much like a beauty pageant. Why should I make my books parade around in bathing suits while I give them arbitrary ratings? It's just plain wrong.

No more stars.
(Unless I can't help myself.)


  1. I couldn't agree more. I also hate the star rating because I worry my Goodreads friends will hate me if I don't like the books they love, or maybe the author will fall in to a pit of depression after receiving my rating. And I can't help but ask, what book did you hate that you can't rate? Your stars have helped this reader in deciding what to add to her "shelves".

  2. Good points! I give you five stars!

  3. I have a Goodreads, but I never use it. Part of it might be due to the rating system. I never know what to rate things. I don't want to seem mean by giving the book a poor rating, but I don't want it to seem like I like every book I read. If I'm not into a book, I just stop reading it. They should include a "didn't finish it" category.

  4. I know I am going way back in time to comment on this but I loved it! I think a lot about what I say in my reviews (I am a book blogger). I often worry that if I read a book and hate it, that I have to keep that a secret. I learned early on that it is very likely that the author of a book will read my review. The last thing I ever want is for someone to take what I say personally. No one likes every book they read though. I love how you talk about the different things that could be affecting your opinion of the book; other things going on in your like, how much you read of it at a time, etc. I think that is the case for me as well.

    I actually still struggle with this. I am much more likely to skip reviewing something that I am to give it a 1 or 2 star rating. However, as a reviewer I am finding that people want to know when I don't like something. It helps to find others who have similar reading tastes when you have both likes and dislikes to go on.

    Maybe it will help if we think of reviews more as a personal opinion of a book at a certain time in our lives instead of the worth of the book in a handy star rating. I do not really think that any one person can decide the value of any book anyway.

    Since your book is coming out soon, I wish you many 5 star ratings!!

  5. Thank you, Shannon. I loved your comment. I think you are right that we readers want to know when a reviewer didn't like a book, even though that's sometimes hard. I'm grateful for thoughtful reviewers like you. Love your reviews.

    Thanks for the comment!