The bookshelves in my bedroom are organized by personal preference. My favorite books get top shelf status, the ones I’m slightly ashamed of get hidden at the bottom, and everything else falls in between. No one can navigate my system but me, and whenever my mom goes hunting for a book, I tell her “Bookshelf by the side wall, second row down, purple spine in the middle.”
I used to use a similar ranking system on GoodReads: my all-time favorite books got 5 stars (I didn’t give out a ton of these, usually reserving them for the Harry Potter series and Sarah Dessen’s novels), everything else was usually a 4 or 3. Books I gave up on got a 1 or 2.
Then one of my grad school professors (Jonathan Auxier, author of middle-grade novels THE NIGHT GARDENER and PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES) spoke about GoodReads ratings in class. He explained that GoodReads Authors (authors who’ve set up author profiles attached to their books) can receive email notifications when users rate their books. He also expressed his frustration (and the frustration of his fellow authors) about readers who rate books 3 or 4 stars with the explanation of, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with it…it just didn’t really do it for me.”
As a writer, I’m coming to understand this more and more. After years of workshop classes, I’ve learned to turn off the part of my brain that imagines what I’d like the story to do. When I read now, I try and base my opinions solely on what is presented to me. “You can’t write someone else’s story for them,” my undergrad fiction professor always said. We look at what the writer has put on the page and figure out how to make it work best.
Is every book I rate 5 stars a Masterpiece? No. But does it follow through with the concept it presents at the beginning? Yes. Does it develop its characters well? Was it solidly plotted? Did it feel original? These are the criteria I look at when rating books.
Also, the star-rating system leaves no room for explanation, so I would much rather have people read my written reviews instead of basing their opinion on a book off my star-rating. I don't use star-ratings to distinguish my favorites anymore. I add books I love to separate GoodReads shelves ("beautiful books," "favorite contemporaries," etc), just like I've organized my physical bookshelves in my room.
The last reason I have so many 5-star books on my “Read” shelf? I try not to read bad books! Before I pick up a book, I read (or watch on YouTube) at least four or five reviews. I hate wasting my money on disappointing books, so if I’m not pretty sure I’ll enjoy a book, I usually don’t buy it.
What are your thoughts on the GoodReads rating system? How do you score books?