The Perilous Process of Rating Books on Goodreads

It is like finding a treasure, hidden in plain sight. The greeting is ambitious:

Meet your next favorite book.

My fingers take to it instinctively: a different cover appears with every swipe. And I swipe a lot. I am a kid set loose in a candy store, one where everything is free. I look up a title: The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell. Almost four out of five stars are colored in. To the right, a more specific rating: 3.81, as well a number of ratings and reviews: 13,471 and 2,184, respectively. A green box prompts me select one of three options: Want to Read; Currently Reading; or Read. A message urges me to review books in this last category so that I can get personalized recommendations.

I’m in love.

In love with Goodreads.

rating books laptop working writing

It quickly becomes a part of my routine. When I finish a book, I click on the app and rate it. Giving four or five stars is a delight (The Death of Bees turned out to be a definite 5-star book). But, for the most part, I struggle with rating the books I don’t like. I’m an aspiring author. What right do I have to judge another (infinitely more accomplished) author’s work? Most people advise me not to feel this way. I am rating these books as a reader. My author hat is far away, hanging from a hook on my coat rack (or, more likely, crumpled up inside my bag). It is important to be honest. To give feedback.

Sometimes, when a book really upsets me (cough—Today Will Be Differentcough[1]), I’ll give it the one-star rating it deserves.

But, for the most part, I mark the books that I did not enjoy as Read without rating them. It’s a compromise. A way to keep track of the books I’ve read without feeling guilty about not giving enough stars to the books I disliked.

But what about the books I couldn’t even finish? Just today I decided to give up on Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich[2].

Can I mark these books as Read? Can I rate them?

These are questions that come up during my last book club meet.

“You can’t rate them,” says Charlie.

We are fourteen members sitting around a conference table. It is 6 o’clock on a Wednesday evening. This is not my fun book club. It’s my serious, no nonsense, no alcohol book club (apologies for that trifecta of redundancies).

“Of course you can,” says Zoe. “Just because you didn’t finish the book doesn’t mean you’re not entitled to an opinion.”

“That’s exactly what it means.” says Charlie, raising his eyebrow. “Rating a book you didn’t finish is cheating.”

“It’s not cheating,” Jenny opines. “We don’t have to suffer through a bad book to rate it.”

“Actually,” says Agnes, lifting a finger in the air, “we do.”

A heated discussion ensues. Everyone has an opinion, except for the moderator and I. (Although, come to think of it, the moderator probably does have an opinion. She is simply playing the role of the neutral and sensible peacemaker).

It is a very odd feeling, not having an opinion. I am not used to it.

And so, I give the matter a lot of thought.

Charlie and his supporters do have a point. A book is meant to be judged in its entirety. It isn’t fair to read part of it and give it one star (or five). An argument can be easily made that it is a disservice to the Goodreads community to have overall ratings be compromised by readers who only partially read a given book. What if the book has a very satisfying ending? I’ve felt lukewarm about certain books, only to wowed by their endings (The Sellout by Paul Beatty comes to mind). He who has not been bored by the “muddle in the middle” in books cast the first stone.

On the other hand, Jenny is right: why should we have to suffer through a bad book only to be able to rate it? We already know we didn’t like it: after all, we did give up on it. Besides, Goodreads may be an online community, but it provides its users with customized recommendations. And when we give a book a one-star rating, we are sending the Goodreads algorithm a clear message: this book was awful. Brutal, but also useful. Because you won’t receive similar suggestions after casting in your bad rating.

I allow these arguments to simmer in my mind for days. I dissect each viewpoint. I reduce them to their individual principles. I try to find suitable analogies. I oscillate between the two opposing positions.

Finally, I reach a conclusion:

(***drum rolls***)

In my opinion, it is perfectly reasonable to mark a book I did not finish as Read, as long as I’ve given it a fair chance. (A fair chance is a personal concept, and, in determining it, each person is bound by their own honor code.) If I do decide to rate it poorly, I must write a review and clearly mention that I chose NOT to finish the book (reasons for this inability to finish are optional).

A controversial subject. But this is my position and I’m sticking to it.

 

[1] The writing is crisp and clear and fun, and the story is engaging, but the main character forgets Yo-Yo, her defenseless, loving, dog outside a supermarket on a dangerously hot day. And acts as though this is a funny, whoops! moment and nothing else. That’s just NOT okay.

[2] There can be no doubt: Ms. Erdrich is a brilliant, skilled author, and this novel’s plot is original, gripping, and relevant. But it’s told in a very limited first-person point of view: Cedar, a mother, is writing a letter to her unborn child in a future, dystopian world in which evolution is running backward. I am too curious, too analytical—frankly, too anxious—to look past the tantalizing bits of information that she feeds us only to completely abandon them seconds later.

A woman checked out a book called How to Win a Local Election. And she did. Listen to Annotated on Apple Podcasts or Google Play to hear her story.
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