I’ve noticed that many people don’t use the full spectrum when rating; in fact most use about half: 5/5, 4/5, and the rare 3/5. And I can understand why. Growing up, most of us attended classes where we were graded on a scale of 1 to 100, but everything below a 60 was simply labeled F. I also think there’s a very real concern about “being mean”. Many of us know how hard it can be to toil away for months or even years, only to see our work rejected.
But it’s also true that ratings themselves are a convention, a system of meaning that we’ve created, and where the 100% system uses approximately 40 distinct values, most rating systems only offer 5 (10 if they allow for halves). Instead, I like to treat the 5 point system like the 4.0 system; clustering over half the spectrum (60%) into the lowest value (.5/5).
I agree that there are many stories out there that are so bad that we can lump them all together as “bad”, but if we’re going to all lump them together, why waste multiple values on them? Instead let’s use the whole spectrum. Granted, that’s not the current convention, but we can change that.
“I like” and/or “It’s good”
What does it mean when we give a story a high rating? Does a 4/5 mean that “I” as the reviewer like it, or am I suggesting that “most” would like it? Often the two are lumped together, but I think it’s an important distinction to make. I may not like The Great Gatsby, but I can recognize it as a well written piece of literature. So where does that leave us?
I like to average the two. If I really enjoy a story, but I feel it has significant shortcomings, then I try to incorporate that into my rating.
Taken another way there are:
- Specific Recommendations: For someone who wants a story with a specific focus, whether it’s traveling in a fantasy setting, or the daily routines and details of life in space.
- Sub-genre Recommendations: For someone who wants a specific type of fantasy, science fiction, or horror. Perhaps it’s a grim and harsh medieval narrative, where ruthless politics win the day; or a safe story, where heroes are rewarded and villains suffer a terrible fate. It could be the difference between a challenging, philosophical tale, and an easy adventure story.
- Genre Recommendations: For someone who just wants a fantasy, or a scifi, or a horror.
- General Recommendations: For someone who just wants quality stories, regardless of the genre, tone, or style.
Ratings are very useful, but by themselves they tell us very little. Everyone is biased; every story has strengths and weaknesses. Even the choice to label something as a strength or weakness is very subjective. One fan may praise Jane Austen’s stories for their relationship driven narratives, while another might find fault with the slow pacing, and the lack of life-or-death consequences.
Citing the strengths and weaknesses in a review helps audiences understand why the reviewer gave a specific rating. It gives the reviewer credibility by demonstrating that this isn’t a simple rave or rant, fueled by passionate emotions. The reviewer carefully thought through why they liked or didn’t like the story, hopefully recognizing their own bias in the process.
I once read a review for a series called Kino’s Journey, where the critic described it as “incredibly slow”, “almost no action”, and “very little character development”, and I don’t disagree. The story is a minimalist, idea focused journey, ideal for those times when I want to slow down, relax, and just drift.
Depending on my mood I may crave a harsh story, tolerate it, or skip it in favor of something more mellow. It all comes back to why, and the reality that no story can do it all.
Agree to Disagree
It’s easy to become invested in stories; they stir our hearts and inspire our minds, never mind the time spent composing our own. So it’s understandable if someone becomes frustrated when they read a bad review besmirching one of their favorite stories. But that’s not the way to interpret a bad review.
As a reader I like to treat reviews like a discussion; here are someone else’s thoughts and opinions on a story. If I haven’t experienced the story yet, then this review can help me decide whether this is the story I’m looking for right now. If I have experienced the story, then this is a great opportunity to see it in a whole new light.
As an author it can be even harder to see bad reviews in a positive light, but part of storytelling is a never-ending journey of discovery and growth. Every review is a free piece of constructive feedback from someone who chose to experience your story.
I once attended a writing panel where several professionals from a publishing house discussed the business side of writing, and right out of the gate I was struck by how incredibly ornery they all were. It was only gradually that I realized they were frustrated because they had spent many years honestly offering constructive criticism, only to receive angry denials in return.
It may be that some negative reviews speak from a place of hostility, but any time someone chooses to respond, that’s an opportunity to learn, and if nothing else you can always calmly say “I disagree,” and leave it at that.
What do others think?
How do you approach ratings and reviews?
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