Why is there no consistent system adopted by book reviewers- one that reveals the quality of writing contained between the covers of a book? The common, 5-star rating system is both inconsistent and unreliable.
I have tried my hand, reviewing books for four years and remain incompetent. I would prefer to study reviews based on a 100-point scale such as the one Robert Parker popularized for wine. There, the span between a score of 89 and 95 defines just how close a particular bottle of wine comes to being a Classic rather than merely an "outstanding wine of superior character and style". Parker’s scale allows consumers to refine their taste buds; it offers a method to educate the public palate. I long to be educated.
The book industry's 5-star rating offers me nothing but confusion:
- Some reviewers of fiction attach a 3-star rating to an average novel, while others do not acknowledge that average novels exist.
- The RT Book Reviews don’t give a score above 4 ½; they consider 2-star ratings to delineate problematic novels and 1-star ratings to be “Severely flawed. Pass on this one.”
In my opinion, severely flawed novels have no place on book shelves. They reveal that some publisher- online or hard-copy- has not done his/her job. The unsuspecting consumer loses, in such cases. Often that consumer is me.
Would you as a wine end user prefer to purchase a bottle of wine based on Parker’s careful numbering system of 50-100 points, or would you rather spend hard-earned cash on a guesstimate of value similar to John Platter’s 5-star wine rating system? Platter's system began in 1980 with the first edition of a magazine titled, Guide to South African Wine. Platter categorizes wine as follows:
- 5 stars Superlative. A Cape Classic.
- 4 stars Excellent.
- 3 stars Good everyday drinking.
- 2 stars Casual quaffing.
- 1 star Very ordinary.
Though better than no scale at all, such a scale implies that the complexities of wine can be broken into five divisions, and that each wine within the class holds equal pleasure. But wines within each category are not equal, requiring further delineations: a plus or minus may be added or perhaps 1/2 or 3/4 or, dear me, 7/8. Such additions illustrate the scale's ineptitude.
I invite readers with an imagination to apply a similar, though amateurish scale to fiction:
- 5 stars Superlative. A Classic, equivalent in value to works by Dostoevsky, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Roald Dahl. Literary elements fit. Voice is original, recognizable. These novels become more complex once dissected. Classic novels and their authors mentor future writers. (A close look at amazon.com’s book reviews informs me that novelist Raine Miller’s novel “Cherry Girl: Blackstone Affair 3.5” has been given a 5-star rating by 154 readers. And 11 readers have rated “Tides- Book Two: Riptide” by Deborah Annette Shaw and Meredith Patalon with 5-stars. Are such novels truly in the category “Classic”?)
- 4 stars Excellent, though it falls short of brilliant. This category may include books on Oprah Winfry’s Book Club list. Novels by Kingsolver and McEwan. These are well-written novels by competent authors that rarely earn awards. (Readers at goodreads.com give 4-stars to “Texas Bride” by Joan Johnston and to “Accident” by Danielle Steel. Are they comparable? Steel was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her body of work, January 1, 2014.)
- 3 stars Good everyday reading. Nothing too profound; satisfies the desire to be transported somewhere, anywhere. (Might this include grocery store paperbacks?)
- 2 stars Casual quaffing. Formula novels might suit such a rating: the outcome is predictable; the characters tend to be stereotypes. (I used to call Lavyrle Spencer novels my summer candy; perhaps Spencer novels are worthy of two stars.)
- 1 star Very ordinary, generic, vague. Nothing much happens in such a novel, its characters are unremarkable. Frequent clichés. (I believe this category applies to most online books offered at my local public library, written by aspiring authors waiting to be discovered, but unwilling to be edited.)
Reviewing a novel is complicated. Blogger Kevin Harnett discovered six leading Victorian scholars could not agree on which of Dicken’s novels constituted his best work. He noted that The Guardian rated “Great Expectations” as the least Dickensian, while Time Magazine rated the same novel as Dicken’s second best work.
Perhaps a scale as precise as Parker’s would be off-putting to the disparate population of avid readers, yet most do not wish to waste time or money on a disappointing novel. Jancis Robinson's 20-point scale offers a compromise. Dr. Maynard Amerine of UC Davis developed his wine scale based on color, aroma and flavor, the balance of sugars, acids, tannins and volatile acidity. His categories:
- 20 Truly exceptional
- 19 A humdinger
- 18 A cut above superior
- 17 Superior
- 16 Distinguished
- 15 Average
- 14 Deadly dull
- 13 Borderline faulty or unbalanced
- 12 Faulty or unbalanced
I would certainly like to know which novels are 14 Deadly dull!
The wine industry earns points as I peruse liquor store shelves, seeking the highest quality wine I can afford. I feel like a co-conspirator, examining tabs that reveal three consistent scales defining the quality of their wares. Shopping in this manner is fun and I have only myself to blame, when I make a poor choice.
Publishers would be wise to emulate what the wine industry has accomplished with these rating systems. Despite the cost of a hard cover novel like Neil Gaiman’s “The Absolute Sandman, Volume 4” achieving a cost of $71.28 at Barnes and Noble, the realm of storytelling remains “buyer beware”. Readers remain dependent on discordant and confusing review strategies both online and in more traditional media.