How Do You Rate Art (or My Philosophy on Book Reviews)

Before we get to my philosophy on book reviews, we are going to start with that age-old question: is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Or is there some objective standard with which to measure art? The answer to both questions is yes. Confused? Good. At least I’m not the only one!

I think the answer lies somewhere in between two extremes. The truth is that everyone has their own personal taste when it comes to art. But it is also true that we can find patterns of what people like. Things like symmetry and the golden ratio are pleasing to the eye. Artists of all mediums have learned what people find pleasing and used it to their advantage.

It is also true that standards of beauty differ from culture to culture. But there seem to be certain elements that are universally regarded as good and beautiful. We aren’t going to go into where these standards come from (although I have very strong opinions on that). But we are going to turn this discussion to writing!

So are there objective standards for what makes a book “good?” Yes, you can evaluate a book by the standards of English grammar. You can ask whether the author communicated the message well, or not (although that is partially subjective, too). But ultimately there are no objective standards that make a book good or bad. 

But what about the writing rules?! What about the writing police?! What about publishers and agents who seem to know the perfect standards of storytelling?!

Well, actually there are no perfect standards of storytelling. Publishers and agents may know sells and therefore what trends are currently marketable. But that is not the same thing as an objective standard.

“But what about the writing rules?!” you ask.

Are they really rules? Or are they best practices? The truth is that the first authors didn’t have a bunch of rules. They used the English language to tell the best story they knew how. After seeing which stories did well and which didn’t, people began to develop these rules for how to write books. And if we are honest, those “rules” have changed over time.

Now, before you get angry and label me as “one of those indie authors dragging down the writing community because she doesn’t care about standards”…(you wouldn’t do that would you?) Hear me out.

For the most part, the best practices of writing are good! They exist for a reason. A lot of them are there for the reader’s benefit. I have learned some of this the hard way. I like to write stylistically and tell stories in new ways. Some readers have no problem with this. But I learned that when I submit to some of these best practices, I can reach more readers with my story.

So what does this have to do with book reviews? Well, what exactly is a book review? It’s your personal opinion on your book and a recommendation of whether other readers would like it. It doesn’t have to be a literary critique of every element of the book (unless that is your job). I repeat: it doesn’t have to be a literary critique of every element of the book.

I admit, when I first started reviewing books, I thought five stars had to be absolute perfection. But that is a dangerous standard. Because there is no perfect book in the world. (Okay, maybe one.)

It’s a bit dangerous, and a bit unfair to hold authors to a standard of perfection. Especially when the five-star rating gives you so few options. Let’s think about this for a second: if books were rated on a scale of one to ten, there would be a lot more leeway in the upper tier. I would probably buy and read any book that was a seven or higher. That is four different levels: 7, 8, 9, and 10. But with the current five-star rating, I hesitate to buy a book that is a three. That would translate to a five out of ten.

So clearly the system is a bit unfair. There is nothing in between four (pretty good) and five (perfection). In light of that, I give you my new reviewing philosophy:

Round the star rating up, give the author the benefit of the doubt, and then express any reservations in your actual review. Seriously. Think about it. The star rating piques the potential reader’s interest and indicates whether or not this book might be worth their time. But the reviews go a long way in helping them make that decision or not.

Here’s something else you should consider: if you are an author yourself, you probably have a more critical eye than the average reader. That doesn’t mean don’t be honest. But let the star rating show whether you think people would enjoy the book, and let your review delve into the strengths and weaknesses.

“But what if I give it a three star and then rave about it in the review to show people that I really enjoyed it?”

Here’s the truth: when it comes to spending money, most people consider a three not worth their time. (Remember, a three would be a five or six out of ten)

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest with your ratings or reviews. But I hope it gives you a different perspective. Personally, I have a very detailed rating system for books and movies because stories are super important to me. But I have to translate that detailed rating system into something general readers would understand and make decisions off of.

I hope this has given you something to chew on! What do you guys think? I really want to hear other people’s opinions. And let me know in the comments if you are an author yourself, or just a reader!

7 Replies to “How Do You Rate Art (or My Philosophy on Book Reviews)”

  1. Great post! This is pretty much how I go about writing book reviews too. I tend to be super critical when reading a book, since I’m an author, but I also know that someone worked really hard on that book, so even if I didn’t like it, writing a scathing review is not the answer. Giving honest critiques in a respectful manner, as well as trying to find the “bright spots,” if possible, will always be received better. 🙂

    1. There are no real clear answers because after all, reviews are subjective. But I think we can have some general guidelines. 😀

      Thanks for giving us your perspective!

  2. This is a good topic to think about. I know I’m pretty hard in my star ratings- I’ve only rated a handful of books 5 stars. I consider a 3 star worth my time and would recommend it to people who like the genre. At 4 stars, I would start recommending it to a wider audience. At 5, I think everyone should read it. However, not everyone sees it that way. I like your point in bringing out the flaws of a book in the review rather than the stars. There’s a lot to consider.

    Off topic, but I just read The Traveler and LOVED it! I have a full review coming to my blog this Sunday. Your characters are so engaging.

    1. Yeah, I think everybody needs to find their own rating system that they feel good about. I just think it’s important to open up discussion and re-examine it.

      Thank you so much!!! I saw it and tweeted it on twitter (but I don’t know if you are on twitter? I couldn’t find you). Looking forward to your blog!

  3. Great post. I like seeing how your mind works with reviews. As a writer it is REALLY hard to know where to fall on ratings. On the one hand, a lot of things that are pet peeves to me (head hopping, inconsistencies in the world, flat characters) don’t bother most readers. Especially modern readers. On the other hand, if I didn’t enjoy a book, and it’s not well written, it’s straining my credibility as an author if I suggest it to others. So I try to always rate one star above my first-reaction-rating, and I try to ere on the side of too-high a rating, but I will point out what I didn’t like. I also know that most authors do read their ratings so I always try to point out the positives as well and not attack the author for something I don’t think they have the skill to pull off yet. And I always try to keep in mind how I would want someone to rate my books.

  4. I’m definitely in agreement with you, here. That’s why I don’t give star ratings on my blog reviews, I just tell what I honestly thought. I feel like the 5 star system is a bit too cut & dry…but c’est la vie.

    I too round up. The last thing I want to do is hurt an indie author by being too strictly ‘honest’ with my subjective opinion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *