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My Goodreads Star Dilemma

I had a mini-crisis — of courage/honesty/boldness, etc. —  this week over how to rank books by friends and clients on  

The way it works:  on this site, people give stars to books they've read , ratings which can work as recommendations or warnings for other readers of similar tastes. 

One star means "didn't like it." 

Two mean "it was okay." 

Three equals "liked it."  

Four is "really liked it." 

Five:  "it was amazing."  (Which gives a whole new meaning to "gimme five.")

Simple enough if I'm comparing Coleridge, Keats, and Milton.  But I hang out with writers, I critique other writers' books, I'm in a writing group with writers.  These people are producing quite a few  books and I like them all and want them all to do well.

Yet I'm not willing to go on record saying that every one is "amazing."  Nor do I have whatever callousness or courage or moral fiber is required to make distinctions among my friends and clients' books.  To say one is a like and one a really-like?  Or that only three or six of them are amazing?

Tell me this: Which one of your children do you love the most?  Who's the prettiest?

Here's what I've decided:  they all get four stars from me.  I "really like" each and every one of them.  That is perfectly true.  I hope no one's feelings are hurt by my not giving them five amazing stars instead.

But if I'm bringing down your average and you want me to take off my four stars, let me know and I'll hop right to it.

In a spirit of equity, I've given all my own books fours.

This is my chicken-hearted solution.   I would welcome comments from others who have run up against this sort of sticky human relations problem.


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  • December 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm Reply

    It's so funny that you posted this today – I of course got the notification from Goodreads and noticed the 4-star review for claire. I admit I was surprised that it wasn't a 5 given your blurb for it! But then I noted you also gave Cold Mountain a 4 so I thought, well if claire got the same as Cold Mountain I'm a happy woman. :))
    Really, I think whatever allows you to feel okay about it all is the right decision for you. I started out being brutally honest in my star-giving, but that was when I first joined Goodreads and was doling out stars to writers I had never met and never would meet. Then it got more personal and I decided I would not rate any book less than 3 stars – if I read it and couldn't give it at least 3 I would remain silent.
    But THEN I noted that some writer friends were literally giving 5 stars to every book they read by a writer they knew, whether in real life or online, and I felt bad b/c: 1) I had been honest in my star-giving and some of those got less than 5 from me and 2) I no longer trusted any 5-star review b/c how the heck would I ever know if they really felt it was that good a read or were they just handing out the 5s to all friends' books?
    It's crazy!
    I have stuck with my plan to give no review below a 3-star and to be as honest as I can be – in hopes that everyone understands that tastes in books are subjective and whether I give it a 3, 4, or 5, that really is an individual matter and doesn't have all that much to do with what someone else might think about it. I give 5s to books I am pretty sure I will read again or have already read multiple times b/c I liked them that much. If they had a 5-plus I would designate that as "knocked my socks off" and there would be a handful of books with that rating from me.
    To complicate matters more, I have read in more than one place that "real" readers – i.e. the non-writing kind, prefer books that have a range of stars. Because if they see all 5s they feel the reviews are either friends or readers fanatic about that writer or book – thus not an objective review in any way. :0
    You are bold to address this here!
    My act of boldness is to admit (though it isn't a secret if you go to my Goodreads page) that yes, I gave ALL MY BOOKS FIVE STARS. I write the books I want to read, and I have read all mine many many times, so… there you go.

  • December 16, 2011 at 1:14 pm Reply

    Billie, thank you for keeping me company in this matter.  What I've noticed is that stars tell me nothing about a book.  Some books that are, by my standards, wretchedly bad rank high.  Some of the best writers, who ask more of readers, are rated much lower.  For myself, I just want to see a lot of people reading and ranking and offering opinions, whatever they are.

  • December 16, 2011 at 1:32 pm Reply

    It's a tough gig, the publicness of being an author and friend of the same.  We talked about this already, but I've grappled with how to rate such on GR and other sites.  The result is that I've become extremely selective about what I read.
    Do you feed your blog through GR?  It's good SEO to do so.  Also, I added you as editor on GOTD (unless you don't want me to) , though it autoreferences a "Peggy Payne" link that doesn't seem to be the one you are actively using.  Perhaps I'm missing something?  That link does return to "you" and shows your books, but it is not the same "you" as the "Peggy Payne" link that is displayed in forums, etc.  The latter has an image associated with it and the former does not.

    • December 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm Reply

      Kelley, I don’t know how to feed my blog through GR. Will check that out. And what is GOTD?

  • December 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm Reply

    I think the bottom line is it's good to have stars. A range. And sometimes the low-star ratings actually sell the book to me depending why that person didn't like it. As in most things, what people say about books actually says more about THEM.

  • December 17, 2011 at 3:03 am Reply

    I really like your solution to this dilemma.  I give it four stars.

    • December 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm Reply

      And I “really like” those four stars, Joe. Thank you.

  • December 17, 2011 at 8:42 pm Reply

    a dilemna of relative ethics !  reminds me of travel writers no longer able to publish articles about paid-for travel, writers now having to pledge that the trip written about wasn't paid for by the commercial interests reviewd.  Such possible & actual conflicts of interest are unavoidable in anyone's life.  And that makes 'em no easier to resolve.
    How can one decide to Blurb or not, & what to say about friends' or important business  connsctions' books ?  There seems no correct,absolutely ethical answer, cz everything's relative to one's own relative values.  I think we just have to be brave & accept that's the way life is, arrive at the most personallycomfortable choice case by case, & be prepared to manage the fallout from our choices.   Aiki

    • December 18, 2011 at 4:13 pm Reply

      And it helps me to be able to announce my decision and my reasoning, Aiki.

  • December 19, 2011 at 5:07 am Reply

    After reading your about your dilemma, Peggy, I can't help but think of the parallel universe I inhabited as a university professor (or for anyone in the role of teacher). An A (five stars?) was–especially for graduate students–an expectation, especially among very bright MBA students. But the grades/star rating system is flawed, in my opinion. It only addresses a murky standard or benchmark. Certainly in education, there are objectives laid out on a syllabus, but like literature's readers, the instructor sees each student's work through his/her filters and sensibilities. Everyone wants to be on top. You want your friends and students to be on top. Yet each student's work is unique and unless the work is based on definitive right/wrong answers or memorization, the grading system is dubious at best.
    I don't know that you can do any better than what you're doing, given such a system. I know my comment does not propose a solution, but I wanted to point out how unhelpful the grade/rating system can be. Thanks for your post!

    • December 19, 2011 at 8:53 am Reply

      Good comparison, Jodi. I found grading undergrads in a fiction writing course pretty sticky too. There was also the issue of how to grade students who were good from the start and continued to be — and those who had less experience and improved a great deal. And, yes, they all expect A’s.

  • December 21, 2011 at 11:32 am Reply

    Greetings Peggy, How about writing a "Sandwich Review?" Put the positive in the middle and add other words–+ or – — on each side. Tell the truth, don't lie either. If you Love it say so and if you don't just say what you Like about it. If you Hate it just don't write anything. Funny, people get ticked off either way. We can't please everyone let alone make them happy.
    I wrote this about our mutual NC writer friend's first novel, "…Everyone one should read this book!"
    I thought that about covered it. Of course, I'm not a polish professional like you but I made my point. Love to you! Eileen

    • December 21, 2011 at 11:42 am Reply

      Thanks, Eileen. I do feel comfortable writing the reviews. It’s assigning the number of stars that bugs me. That seems so absolute.

  • December 21, 2011 at 11:35 am Reply

    PS I never expected an "A" in those classes myself. I was always SHOCKED they even let me sit at the table with everyone else. Then when I read the football players stories, and learned they they could only spell their names, I felt like I just might be able to pull it off–that I was a writer–of course!

  • January 15, 2012 at 5:43 am Reply

    I did not know I could give stars. Or reviews! Just cruising along and reading this and finding it out. Well, I love  your loving and smart solution. HOWEVER, once i figure out how to do it, I am going to go give REVELATION five stars. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and I recommend it every chance I get!

    • January 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm Reply

      Thanks, Marjorie. Goodreads is really kinda fun. I’m glad you like my solution; it has had mixed reviews.

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