The Truth: A Three-Star Review Is Not a Bad Review

While we at the Riot take some time off to rest and catch up on our reading, we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Monday, January 11th.

This post originally ran July 13, 2015.
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Like many of you, I read a lot of book reviews and a lot of book review sites, and I also read a lot of comments left on book reviews. That has led me to comment on the futility of author responses, but one thing recurs even more frequently than author flame-outs: author complaints about the three-star review. When I was on Goodreads (leaving remains one of my top-three internet decisions, alongside quitting Facebook and joining Instagram), I ran into this all the time — by far the greatest number of author complaints I received were about three-star reviews. I find this deeply puzzling.

I’m no math whiz, but this I know for sure: three stars, on a five-star scale, falls right in the middle. If the worst book in the world — I don’t know, something Bill O’Reilly wrote on the toilet — can only receive 1 star at worst, and the best book in the world — let’s say Harper Lee co-writes a double-secret prequel to Harry Potter with Salman Rushdie — can at best earn five stars, then surely it’s true that the vast majority of books ever written anywhere by anyone are going to be three-star books. That’s how bell curves and standard distributions work, kiddies (I assume, anyway, as I became an English major because it guaranteed no mandatory stats class).

A three-star review is an average review. And yet some writers respond to a three-star review as though it were the numerical equivalent of the front stoop of a dive bar on Sunday morning. They demand answers: “How DARE you tell me my book is worth only three stars? I worked HARD on it? What have YOU ever done? ALL MY FRIENDS GAVE IT FIVE STARS.”

Mmhmm. Ok. But here’s the thing: if you get a three-star review, that probably means your book is just fine. Some of my favourite authors in history occasionally throw down a three-star book. If everyone gave four- or five-star reviews to every book that ever crossed their path, the very act of giving a score out of five would be completely meaningless. When you get a five-star review, it should mean something real. It shouldn’t be the literary equivalent of a participation ribbon.

Remember how you felt in grade school when you got a participation ribbon for coming in dead last at yet another track meet? Even the littlest kid recognizes that as a pointless if well-meaning exercise.

Speaking of school analogies, let’s think about grades: remember when you were in school and you got a C? Sure, it might have stung — Bs and As are nicer to get. But in the average classroom, the median grade is in the C range. A C didn’t mean your paper was bad. It meant you met the criteria for evaluation in some ways, but not in others. It suggested that you could do better. In most grading handbooks, it means “satisfactory.”

You wrote a satisfactory book. Own that, baby!

Here are some things I mean when I give a book three out of five stars:

  • this book was totally fine
  • I didn’t hate reading this book
  • at no point did I regret purchasing this book
  • some things in this book were good, and other things were not
  • generally, the good outweighed the bad, but not so much that I forgot the bad bits
  • there’s nothing terribly wrong with this book
  • there’s nothing terribly outstanding about this book
  • this is a book that other people will probably also not regret reading
  • if I knew someone who liked this kind of book, I would tell them to maybe read this one
  • I will probably read the next thing this author writes

Here are some things I don’t mean when I give a book three out of five stars:

  • I hated everything about this book and everyone involved in its production
  • I have added the publisher of this book to my enemies list
  • this book is irredeemably bad
  • this book should be banned
  • I will actively seek out ways to ruin this author’s career
  • when I see this book in a store, I will turn it so the spine faces inward
  • I have cursed the author’s family

Reviewers, if a book is satisfactory, feel empowered to say so with a three-star review. Authors, recognize that a three-star review is just fine. Everyone else? Take a participation ribbon and a glass of orange drink and hit the showers. Good talk.

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