The world of books is never boring. (Almost) every week I’ll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what’s going on in the online book community (or something I’ve seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me!
It’s no secret that there are few (if any) books that are universally liked. Especially amongst book reviewers. A book that is given 10/10 by one reviewer might only rate 2/10 for another. Is one wrong? Is there even a “right” rating? Or are they both right? What factors contribute to a numerical book rating – and why such variation?
I struggle with assigning numerical values to books. I do it, because I know that often readers just want to know if a book was good, and if so, how good. But I regularly have to refer back to my own guidelines for what each numerical value means, and even with that reminder I have an incredibly hard time deciding which number fits a particular book.
The reason it’s so hard to pin down a number is, of course, that opinions on a particular book aren’t based on any kind of formula. They’re based on a wide and hugely varied set of criteria. Often different criteria for different books and different readers.
There are the obvious things that all reviewers consider: writing style, plot, character development, consistency. These are all equally important in any story, but it’s difficult to put a number rating on a book that would be a 10/10 for plot, but is a 2/10 for writing and a 4/10 for character development (or any other combination of disparate values).
On top of that, there are less quantifiable aspects that inform my impression. A certain character that I just don’t like. A plot that doesn’t appeal to me. A subject that doesn’t hold my interest. The book could be well written, the characters may be fully realized and the plot might move along with good pacing and flow – but something about it still just doesn’t work for me.
Conversely, there are books that are very close to my heart, even though they’re not objectively great works, because they connected with something in me on a personal level. Perhaps I read them when I was going through something similar or they provided exactly the humourous escape I needed to get me through a bad spot.
Further muddying the waters are my feeling towards and impressions of the author. This is a rich topic to be explored further in a future post, but I am someone who has a hard time loving a book by an author I don’t like. I know that a book is not its author. I know that despicable human beings have created truly breathtaking works – and that people I have immense respect for have turned out duds. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as I’m reading, whatever I know about the author sits in the back of my mind and informs my enjoyment of it.
And don’t even get me started on how difficult it is for me to give a negative or even just slightly unfavorable review to a book I’ve been given for free. I do it, because my ethics trump my emotional discomfort, but I can’t honestly say I’ve never given a book a slightly better review than it probably deserved because I felt guilty saying everything I felt. It takes a lot of practice to steel oneself against reviewer’s guilt.
Because of these factors, I have struggled (and continue to struggle) with how to rate and review nearly every book I read. Should I rate them based on how I feel, regardless of objectivity? Or do I have an obligation to remove any kind of emotional bias I may have and try to base my rating solely on what the book technically merits?
In the end, I’ve discovered that it’s impossible not to allow my own emotional experience of reading a book to influence my rating. It just will, because the joy of reading is in the emotions it evokes. And even though two readers may read the same words, they will not experience the same story. A large part of what makes reading so magical is the connection experienced by each individual reader that allows them to feel their way into text.
I’m not a professional book critic. I don’t have the terminology or experience to break down books into their component parts and bring literary theory and comparison into the mix. I’m not going to tell you whether The Goldfinch was a brilliant work of modern fiction or a derivative, overly long opus of mediocrity. But I will tell you if I got along with the main character, if the plot held my attention, what moments stuck with me by the end and whether I think it was worth its page count.
So the conclusion that I’ve come to is that it’s okay if my emotional response to a book informs my review of it a little bit. I try to give “fair” reviews, but I’ll occasionally let my feelings for a main character, plot or setting bump it up (or down) a half star or so. I justify this by trying to identify my particular bias in my review in the hopes that readers can decide for themselves if they’ll share my reaction.
And I think that one of the main things to love about both being a book blogger and reading book blogs is finding readers who have similar tastes and biases. I’ve discovered countless new favourites based on rave reviews by bloggers who, in the past, have liked some of the same books I have. I’ve also found fantastic friends in bonding over these books. I hope that others have had the same experience with what they’ve found here – a personal reading history that, while still giving useful critique, provides a sense of the reviewer, too.
What about you, readers and fellow bloggers? Do you like reading reviews that are informed by personal bias, or do you prefer objective assessments of books? Do you struggle with assigning ratings to books? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!