I’ve been thinking about getting another Goodreads account (or two). And it’s not because I’m embarrassed by what I read and want to keep a separate list or because I forgot my password. The reality is I don’t know how to rate books. As I’ve broadened my reading over the last few years, I’ve run into the problem of whether I should rate books by literary value, content, or entertainment value. Perhaps by author intent or perhaps by coincidence, some books put more stock in things like allusions and themes, some focus on making a point, and some are just straight brain candy. What matters most?
Goodreads allows for one overall rating and you can elaborate in a review if you like. You can’t rate a book once by literary value, once by content, and once by entertainment value. I keep my own blog for reviews and I use the single-rating system there, too, with half-step increments. I started keeping track of all the books I read and my thoughts about them well before I realized that there were these different levels at which I could assess a book. A change my system now wouldn’t work for me. Hashtag, sunk costs?
So what do we do about books that have significant literary value but bore us to tears (here’s looking at you, Middlemarch)? How do I rate a book that makes a great point but has a prose style I just can’t get behind (I see you, The Beast Is an Animal)? What about novels that are possibly socially damaging and problematic yet still scratches the escapist itch (hey there, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding)? It gets even more complex when we’re looking at a graphic novel, picture book, or other illustrated piece. How does art factor in?
I’ve had some of people tell me they rely on my ratings when selecting their reading material. They might just be flattering me, but I try to take this task seriously. I consider others’ perceptions of a book when I rate it; I ask myself, “Is this a good book?” and I suppose that’s an indicator of literary value. I also think about the book’s meaning; I ask, “Does this book perpetuate concepts or ideas that are harmful? Does it appear to intend to do so?” to determine if the content is problematic (and this veers into a whole other kettle of fish regarding intellectual freedom—for another day). And I examine whether I enjoyed the book; I ask, “Was I bored while reading this?” which helps to assess whether I was entertained. All three of these things factor into my rating, but the weight shifts from aspect to aspect depending on how significant each felt in the work.
My approach so far has been to balance the rating as best I can. Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is fantastically well-written, from my perspective. It tells a beautiful story in the slow tradition of literary fiction and the language is carefully selected. It is, for my tastes, a five-star book. Except for the in-passing racism. So I gave it four stars. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is a massively important YA novel which takes on police brutality. But I struggled with the prose and the narrative structure didn’t hold my interest. So I gave it four stars. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is a prime example of excellent literature and it’s clear Woolf painstakingly planned this novel. Yet it dragged for me in many places. So I gave it three stars.
I’m not sure this is the solution. Balancing merits and demerits of a book like this doesn’t work well, because each part is of different value in different books. We can try to hold up our ratings based on author intent. We can ask, “How well did the author achieve what he or she set out to achieve?” But unless an author has outright stated their intent, we should strongly caution against assuming it. And even if we have intent stated from the author, is not part of the point of reading and literature to interpret based on our own experiences?
I’m hopeful there is a solution out there, so I want to hear from you! Let me know how you rate books in the comments.