One Star or Five?

24 May

Six years after everyone else, I’ve got around to joining Goodreads. I’m rapidly discovering that the site is crammed with people from around the world who are genuinely interested in books rather than those on certain other sites who are there just to push ‘product’. And among the reviews, all manner of books are presented as works of genius..

One of the most noticeable aspects when you look at members’ reviews is how certain books seem to polarise opinion. A five star review will be followed by another with one, often stating that the reader couldn’t finish the book. These are books that ‘get a reaction’, and in general that must be a good thing, surely. And it seems to me, that it’s books at either end of the spectrum that provoke this sort of response. Books that I love (by inspirational writers like those in the photo below) will receive eulogies from like-minded readers only to be dismissed by other readers as ‘boring’ or ‘pretentious’. Examples of ‘kidult’ fiction, on the other hand, will be declared literary masterpieces by the critics of Calvino and Borges.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever... It  could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

From my point of view as a reader, this just has to be the best photo ever… It could only be improved if Perec were looking over their shoulders.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I belonged to a writing group, my own work would receive a similarly split response. I tend to think that you must be doing something right if your writing pleases kindred spirits while annoying those with limited horizons and no work ethic when it comes to writing. I’ve remarked before, which side of the divide you’ll find me on. There’s no sense in standing on the sidelines of your own blog. I’ll be manning the barricades in defence of complexity and depth, ambition and experimentation, throwing metaphorical Molotov cocktails at writing that’s lazy, juvenile and shallow.

Curiously, even as I type this post, sitting in Caffe Nero, there’s a man, clearly on a blind date, slating The Great Gatsby as preposterous and pretentious. Fitzgerald’s book is far from being my favourite book, but I can appreciate its craftsmanship and originality. I suspect that Romeo’s one star review is a reflection of his philistinism and intellectual laziness. She seems to think he’s wrong too. It must be his chat-up lines, rather than his erudition, attracting her five star reviews…

All text © PSR 2014. Image found on Goodreads – its provenance is unknown to me.

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3 Responses to “One Star or Five?”

  1. Mari Biella May 24, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    I’m glad you’re beginning to enjoy Goodreads, Paul! It’s not perfect, but I think on balance it probably is the best online place to discuss books with like-minded people. One of the things I dislike about it, funnily enough, is the star rating system, which seems to me arbitrary and simplistic. What’s the difference between three stars and four, or between four stars and five? How can one’s considered feelings about a book be summed up by a row of asterisks?

    It makes me smile when some readers write ecstatic reviews of silly and simplistic books (I won’t name names, tempted though I am) and then dismiss other, more complex and well-written books, as “boring”. I don’t object to anyone reading and enjoying any book they choose. I do wince, though, when they insist that such books are much more worthy of our attention than “The Great Gatsby”, for example…

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves May 24, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

    I am beginning to warm to Goodreads.

    The star system is, of course, hugely limiting, but it is a way of ‘nailing your colours to the mast’ with certain books (five or one!). I’m totally with you on the principle of read whatever you like but don’t proclaim the latest novel by Marian Keyes to be a greater work of art than one of Dostoevsky’s.

  3. www.laurensapala.com May 27, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    I also like Goodreads but I, too, have troubles with the rating system. For instance, I just reread Green Hills of Africa by Hemingway and gave it 3 stars, not because of the quality of writing, but because of the way my perspective on the book has personally changed. When I read it 12 years ago I didn’t have the same views on colonialism, Africa, and big game hunting that I do now. With my current perspective, I found the narrative much less enjoyable.

    However, I don’t usually have the time to write all of my complex feelings in a detailed review that would explain why I chose 3 stars in this case instead of higher. The truth is that I do love Hemingway, and his writing. I just didn’t care for the subject matter of that particular work.

    I guess nothing will ever replace actual in-person conversation with other book lovers!

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