the problem with star ratings for books

The problem with star ratings for books

Book ratings are often a vital metric in helping readers choose their next book—but how well do they actually represent people’s opinions?

As a society, we have been obsessed with numbers for a while now. Statistics are not just utilized for reports and research—they can now quantify your opinions or personal experiences too, and are especially important in the realm of social media. The widely used star classification is one of the many ways we can express ourselves, and this has also translated onto well-known review platforms such as Goodreads and StoryGraph for the purpose of critiquing the media that we consume.

Why star ratings are useful to readers

It’s not uncommon to see the concept of ratings being adopted by book bloggers or reviewers (myself included), typically consisting of a scale of one to five stars. Ratings are supposed to give you a very simple overview of your thoughts; if you don’t have the time nor the desire to write a review, quantifying your opinion is a quick and easy way to indicate how much you liked a book.

A rating’s basic utility lies in its simplicity to communicate an opinion. Naturally, it only makes sense for people to skip the reviewing process completely and just provide the books a rating. Readers will then look at other people’s ratings, and often choose books based on how highly rated they are. In theory, it’s a simple and effective system.

Rating systems are subjective

In practice, a rating is anything but simple. The opposite ends of the scale are usually self-explanatory: a one-star rating means you hated a book, and a five-star one means you loved it. The middle ground is where things get iffy: What does a two-, three-, and four-star rating really indicate? I personally view a three-star rating for books as “good with a couple of reservations.” However, many other readers and authors view this rating as “mediocre,” or even “negative.” Funnily enough, ratings are often discouraged by publishers and professional literary critics. Edward O’Brien was the pioneer of giving literary ratings (on a scale of one to three), taking into account the value of the short stories he edited in relation to “literary permanence.” This was, however, quickly met with reproach by other critics and editors. Editor Katrina Kenison posits in regard to judging literary works that

“We do the best we can; that we try to lay eyes on everything, but to do so is simply impossible; and that “best” is a purely subjective adjective, reflecting no more than a particular reader’s sensibility at a particular moment in time.”

The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

While professional book reviewers frequently avoid this method of measurement, the opposite is true for film critics. This is often considered extremely valuable with the likes of review-aggregation platforms such as Rotten Tomatoes. Whether by score or scale, it is socially acceptable for the film industry to quantify one’s thoughts on films, encompassing all aspects of filmography. Nevertheless, even within the industry, critics frequently operate differently from each other. According to The Chicago Tribune, Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and Dave Kehr use the zero to four scaling system, however, Ebert and Siskel consider a “three-star rating to be a cut off for a ‘thumbs up,'” and Kehr considers two stars a “borderline recommendation.”

This metric is still contested even among professionals—now imagine review sites such as Goodreads where its primary audience are regular readers instead of professional critics and don’t always contextualize their rating. To clarify, I think that there is nothing wrong with only giving a rating and not a “proper” review, readers should not be policed on how they’d like to communicate their thoughts on art. However, the fact that it’s very difficult for there to be a consensus regarding what an “objective” scale is doesn’t just prove that art is subjective, it also points to the rampant phenomenon of commodifying art.

Commodifying art

The commodification of art is not exactly brand new. This particular phenomenon values quantity over quality, leading to rushed, disingenuous, and less meaningful works of art that are consumed as a prize or badge of honor rather than an experience you can resonate with. In this case, I’d like to focus on the review and rating system on business platforms and how that can be a detriment when implemented similarly on review sites.

With popular e-commerce platforms such as Amazon selling a vast array of products, feedback integrated within the typical five-star scale can be helpful for users when giving feedback as to whether a product functions as advertised. A five-star review doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best product ever made, nor does it always indicate that it has reinvented the wheel. It first and foremost denotes that the product successfully functions as intended—even if it’s not a special or unique product.

This rating system is even more conspiciuous when you filter the “top positive reviews” and “top critical reviews,” as according to Amazon, three-star reviews are “critical reviews,” as opposed to “neutral” or “good.” How many times have we dismissed a product just because it has a three-star rating on average, even though it’s “technically” a solid rating?

And it gets harsher across service-based platforms such as rideshare company Lyft, where perfection is considered the default and potentially threatens the workers’ job security if the rating so much as drops below a 4.6 average. While it’s nowhere near being the same situation, it reminds me of a few authors who voiced their disappointment on social media due to certain users giving a three-star or even four-star rating for their books. With this in mind, many perhaps adopt a similar thought process from the nature of product-based sites and apply them to review platforms. Instead of treating literature with nuance and care, people treat it as if it has a specific use case where its akin to a product functioning properly or falling apart.

I believe that this leads to less thoughtful engagement with the books we read, because instead of critically thinking about them and processing what we read, we prioritize thinking, “how many stars should I give this book?” I find this thought process to be more common among fellow readers recently, and I even find myself asking that question often. This results in a rather reductive and simplistic view of the books we read and hear about—we end up dismissing books based on other people’s ratings too quickly.

We shouldn’t necessarily focus on how many stars we give; rather, we should aim to process the books’ highlights, concepts, themes and value to us personally, and then give a rating based on these aspects. As logical and obvious as that might sound to some, with our focus on metrics in the digital age, we often do the opposite.

Rating systems lack nuance

Although ratings on products and services can certainly be nuanced, literature and media generally have a more complex relationship in how people consume them. Readers may acknowledge that a certain piece of literature lacks merit and is not technically impressive, however, if it does resonate with them on a personal level, that could prompt them to give it a higher rating.

Letterboxd, a platform for film reviews, has an interesting way of displaying this cognitive dissonance: it has both a “Like” (denoted by a heart icon) feature and a five-star scale, where users are able to give films a low rating while still “liking” them due to more personal reasons such as nostalgia.

Going back to what Kenison said about literature being subjective, rating systems further vary upon on one’s mood and circumstances as well. In reality, it’s difficult to be truly consistent with your ratings, and extrapolating one’s opinions on the book based on a scale alone is just not feasible.

Beyond that, under certain circumstances, it might even be inappropriate to give any type of rating to specific literature. For example, I’m tentative when it comes to rating memoirs, especially when they include emotionally heavy accounts of the hardships the author endured. Even if it has technical flaws, would quantifying them be really meaningful?

Enhancing the rating system in media

By no means am I saying that five-star scales for literature are inherently harmful. I will personally continue using them on multiple platforms, as it does provide a quick overview of what I generally think, not just for other users, but also for myself. It’s interesting to see how your own taste changes overtime, and to look back on the media you’ve forgotten.

However, I think it’s essential to reflect on and contextualize our ratings as much as we can. We should acknowledge that they are in fact not conducive to thoughtful analysis to a degree. I usually review every single book that I read on Goodreads to provide further context and articulate myself, but I understand that it’s absolutely not a must for other readers to do so. It might not be realistic as of now, but implementing a rating system that consists of options such as “excellent,” “good,” “okay,” “bad,” instead of a one to five scale could also help enhance review platforms, as those terms have a more universal and straightforward definition. I also think it’s great that many reviewers and bloggers already do this on their page by specifying how their rating systems work. As long as we don’t let ratings get in the way of critically parsing a book, metrics do not have to be a huge issue. After all,

“The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics, but metric fixation.”

Muller, Jerry Z. “Introduction.” The Tyranny of Metrics, 2018. Princeton UP.

3 thoughts on “The problem with star ratings for books

  1. I like what you said about how literature is treated like a product that’s supposed to have a specific use. While it’s probably wise to choose 4-5 star products, I think we shouldn’t only be reading 4-5 star books. And I definitely find myself wondering pretty often whether I’d give a book a different rating if I had read it at a different moment. Great reflection and analysis on the rating system!


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