The stars aren’t right

HP Lovecraft told us that when the stars are right, Dread Cthulhu and the other Old Ones will wake from their slumber and make the world their fuckmuffin. It’s a harrowing thought, but we’re safe for a while yet, because the stars, they ain’t right – or, more accurately, they aren’t enough.

The rise of social media and rapid internet access has shown that humanity, as a species, really likes two activities – watching pornography and telling other people whether we did or didn’t like pretty much any person, object, creative endeavour or earthquake that there is. As soon as a thing is done, we as a species will get online to leave an appalling comment, post an image of an adorable kitten or, most of all, rate it out of five. We judge the world around us and yell out that it roxxors or suxxors. It’s the human condition at its most fundamental level.

But folks, I’m here to make a simple request. Dump the star ratings and start writing some reviews.

Now, this isn’t me talking as a writer, although indie writers live and die by the good reviews they get on social media and online stores. That word-of-mouth is vital and at another time I will desperately beg, whore and dance for your kind words. Instead, I’m saying this as a reader, one who is always looking for new books to cram into his Kindle, but keeps running into walls covered in 5-star ratings that tell me nothing about a book other than that its author begged, whores and danced for some love. Without a review, good or bad, to explain the rating it’s all just statistical noise.

Reviews, on the other hand, tell you a great deal, whether you agree with them or not – and sometimes the ones you don’t agree with tell you the most. I don’t suggest looking at my reviews as an example, both because that would be ludicrously egotistical and because it wouldn’t be useful – too small a sample size and too uniformly positive. (Because my books are pretty good, he said modestly.) Instead, let’s look at a better example – erotic juggernaut Fifty Shades of Grey. Because apparently everyone’s reading that.

Fifty Shades has 3415 five-star reviews and 2251 one-star reviews on Amazon, with around 2000 more spread around the 2-4 region. It’s obviously polarizing; the vast majority of readers either love it or hate it. But that star rating in and of itself doesn’t tell you anything; you actually need to read a few reviews to understand why there’s such a difference.

A typical five-star review:

Where to even begin? Fifty Shades of Grey is one heck of a book. It has about everything you’d ever want in a book. Love, suspense, mystery, action. Wow!

You can’t help but fall in love with sweet Anastasia from the beginning. She is a little naive and a lot clumsy. She says what’s on her mind and doesn’t think of the consequences. She has no idea what she’s getting into when she meets Mr. Christian Grey. Gorgeous, uber-rich Christian Grey. You fall for him right away, that’s how charming he is. You wish he were real or you were in the book to be able to just be with him. You want to take care of him, date him, smack him, be with him, admire him, all the above. He’s just that amazing.

A typical one-star review:

First, the awful writing. I am no literature snob. However, this book feels like it us on a 5th grade level made to seem better with a thesaurus. It’s repetitive and just plain bad.

Next, the non-existent plot. Seriously, nothing happens. They meet, they have sex, they email each other, the have more sex, the bite lips, they have more sex, the end. Just plain boring.

Last, bad sex. “Down There?” are you kidding me? It’s called a vagina. Grow up. This book most likely intrigues bored housewives and hormonal teenagers. If the author was aiming to give that demographic the tingles she most likely succeeded. However, a book that it 70% sex should at least be good sex.

I feel stupid for reading this book and wish I had spent that ten bucks on socks.

What these reviews (and those like them) tell us is not just that readers have different tastes, but that they have different purposes for reading, and that a book succeeds or fails for them depending on whether it meets those purposes. The one-star readers can’t get past the bad writing and pillory the book for its lack of craft or strong plot (this review in particular does a wonderful analysis of the writing based on term searches). For the five-star readers, none of that matters; all that’s important is the characters and their ability to connect with emotionally and (vicariously) sexually. Many of those reviews admit in passing that the book isn’t well-written, but they mention this only to dismiss its importance, because that lack of craft doesn’t impinge in any way on their enjoyment and their reading purpose. (If anything, the book’s lack of craft may help many of those readers get past the prose and drill down to the character level, but that’s a separate discussion.)

I don’t bring this up to criticise or judge Fifty Shades of Grey in any way – it’s not something I have any interest in, but it obviously speaks to a hell of a lot of people, and I’m not about to judge those readers for what they find emotionally engaging. But the key thing is to note that the book’s overall mean star rating of 3.2 tells us nothing about reader purpose or response, and nor do the 1- or 5-star ratings in themselves. We need to actually read people’s reasons before we can decide what meaning those ratings have for us and our reading priorities; we need to know why they liked or hated it before we can judge whether we would agree with them.

Similarly, check out the reviews on Chuck Wendig’s various writing guides. 250 Things You Should Know About Writing (which is a damn fine book) has 41 5-star ratings and 4 one-star reviews, all of which are pretty much the same as this:

If this author actually had anything helpful to say, it was impossible to find. The book is a conglomeration of abusive statements, excessive swearing, arrogant side-tracking and blatant lack of any sense of how to communicate ideas. Definitely not worth the 99 cents, and since I cannot get a refund, I am hoping this review will save others their hard earned money.

Chuck has gone on record as loving those one-star reviews – because they signpost the kind of readers who don’t like his stuff, and why. They thus help him sell more books to people who like his voice and his swearing, and who want to separate themselves as readers from those who don’t like those things. If all those folks left was a simple 1-star rating it wouldn’t have anything like the impact, and Chuck would no longer be pulling in so much sweet cheddar from the great books he effortlessly and constantly cranks out while the rest of his peers and contacts congratulate him and secretly wish he’d choke on his fortune and die, die, die, goddamnit I keep putting needles in this voodoo doll that smells of bourbon and wordcount and nothing ever fucking happens.

Not that I would do that, of course. Wendigo is my huckleberry.

So yeah – if you like a book, or hate it, tell people why. Don’t just leave a star rating, but write some kind of review, even if it’s only a few sentences, whether it’s on Amazon or Goodreads or the local supermarket notice board. Explain to us why you love it, why you hate it, what you look for in a book and how this particular work ranked against your internal metric. Qualitative data, not just quantitative numbers.

Not because that’s what the author wants, but because it’s what other readers need.

Do it for your peoples.

Pay it forward.



5 replies on “The stars aren’t right”

Overall the reply was a solid effort on o’duffy’s part. It started strong and kept the momentum and suspense for the entire response. Its reminiscent of some of his earlier work but shows that he has matured as a writer.

My only complaint is that it was a little short and left me wanting more in the end.

4 stars!

I really liked this post. In fact, it’s given me a bit of a guilt-slap and the impetus to actually leave reviews on Goodreads. (I don’t normally leave star ratings either, mind you.)

Do you mind if I link back here when I write a bit about this on my blog?

[…] So yeah, I find it really hard to stay on track to read one book at a time, even when I really enjoy the book in question. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, because the writer still gets paid and I (eventually) still read the book. But on the other hand, skipping between books willy-nilly like a meth-addled toddler in the kindergarten library makes it hard to maintain a constant grip on what I’m reading, which makes it harder to consider and review it at the end. And as we know, I think reviews are a Good Thing. […]

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