Discussion

On Ratings and “Being Critical”

I have been rating books since September 2015.

In these years in the book community, I have read and watched many discussions revolving around how people rate books, reading critically, and how the average rating changes as one becomes more familiar with reviewing. One thing all these posts and videos seemed to agree about is that as one spends more time reviewing, and learns how to review critically, their average rating will become lower.

This hasn’t necessarily been true for me. Or, it has been in the past, but it isn’t right now.


A Misconception

Let’s get one thing out of the way first, since there seems to be some confusion about this:

Uncritically hating on things isn’t critical reading

Hating on a romance book for being trope-y, one-starring a novel because it contains “girl hate” when the book is meant to be an exploration of misogyny between women, complaining that a 15-year-old main character is immature and doesn’t behave like a rational adult – that’s not critical reading. Just because one writes a lot of bad reviews, it doesn’t mean they’re good at reviewing. (I’d also argue that they’re at least bad at recognizing which books they like to read, or specifically look for things they don’t like.)


My History With Ratings

2015

As it often happens when one starts reviewing and giving ratings to books, I gave almost everything five stars. Everything feels new, everything feels like the best thing you’ve ever read, and you still haven’t learned how to explain what you like and why. I gave five stars to some books I then reread and hated, I gave three stars to books I disliked all the time, and refused to read contemporary novels. (…I mean, if the contemporary genre was still like it was in 2015, I’d probably still refuse to read contemporary.)

Three Books 2015-Acqua Rated 5 Stars Because They Existed
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard: I read it before Shadow and Bone, and if you read it before Shadow and Bone, it’s a fun read and doesn’t feel derivative. However, if you reread it right after like I did… it still isn’t boring, but not something I feel so strongly about that I’d give it five stars despite all the similarities and subpar writing. I currently rate it 3 stars.
  • City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: this was one of my first YA books, but if it’s not one of your first YA books, the bad writing and the infodump problems this book has are really glaring. I currently rate it 2 stars.
  • The Selection by Kiera Cass: the first YA book I rated, one I read just because I really liked the cover, and I mean, if you deliberately not care about worldbuilding, plot, characterization, misogyny, writing and predictability, this can also be a fun read! I don’t know what you could care about, then, but I remember giving it five stars (because it existed, I guess, it could have been anything easy to read and I would have given it 5 stars). I currently rate it 2 stars just because it got me into reading YA, but I mean, if I reread it I know what I would think of it, and that’s why I don’t.
2016

I took a full immersion into YA fantasy. I think I read 60 in a year? Which is more than half of what I read. I couldn’t really explain what I liked and why yet, but I started recognizing some tropes and clichés typical of the genre. This mostly meant that I felt like I had to rate low everything that had popularly hated tropes in it, even though I didn’t always hate them myself (and didn’t always end up rating them low, but I felt like I should have), because that’s what I thought reading critically meant. In the second half of the year, I started to care about reading diversely, which is something I haven’t stopped doing ever since. Also, this is the year I finally understood contemporary books weren’t necessarily boring.

I am surprised by how many goodreads reviewers are still stuck in the “it has a love triangle so it must mean it’s not a Quality Book even though I enjoyed it” phase. Tropes exist for a reason.

2017

I finally get better at explaining why things don’t work for me. I start recognizing what I should avoid in YA fantasy, especially towards the end of the year. However, I still got a lot of two and one stars, because I believed in not DNFing books and ignored my preferences – I felt bad about not reading hyped diverse books even when they had tropes I didn’t like.

2018

I get amazing at not falling for bad YA fantasy, and fail with all other genres. I accumulate a lot of two stars, but most of them are DNFs, and almost all of them are ARCs I thought I wouldn’t love, but since they were free, I requested them (I started using Netgalley in December 2017). Because of the ARCs my average rating was lower that both 2017 and 2016. Nearing the end of the year, I put together a list of anti-buzzwords to remind myself of what doesn’t work.

But in 2019…

I’ve rated only one book two stars and no books one star in three months. My average for both 2017 and 2018 was at least two 1-or-2-star books a month. And while I am reading slightly less, I’m not reading so few books that there should be such a big difference.

Why is this happening? For two reasons:

  • I got better at understanding what I like and what I don’t. With this, I don’t mean that I try to never get out of my comfort zone, it means that when I do and it’s not working, I DNF after a few chapters (and then don’t rate the book because I haven’t read enough to.) I’m not wasting my time on things that aren’t working, not anymore, and it’s not a coincidence that my only two star book was a two star because of the ending.
  • Reading critically also means that you appreciate more what you read, because you usually understand what the book is trying to do.

Explaining This Last Point

I haven’t seen many people talk about this, but now that I’m able to explain what doesn’t work, I also appreciate books so much more, because I understand more about how books work.

  • What I would have dismissed as low-quality a few years ago because it was trope-y, I now appreciate because of themes, because of the hidden complexities some trope-y book have, or maybe because it was just that entertaining: that’s not an easy feat either, when your book is full of common tropes!
  • What I would have hated for its annoying heroine I now like because I actually understand what the author is doing with the main character’s arc. I don’t dislike a book just because its protagonist makes bad decisions at the beginning, and I have only hated two main characters in all of 2018 (none in 2019 yet). I always try to see where the main character is coming from before judging, which is a good idea both for fiction and real life. (…sometimes I end up hating them anyway, especially that one who was a misogynistic mediocrity.)
  • What I saw as predictable I now don’t hate because I understand that I have read a lot of novels – and when it makes sense for the main character to be surprised by something and the twist makes the novel more interesting even though I saw it coming, I have no reason to complain.
Books I Wouldn’t Have Rated (As) Highly A Few Years Ago

Witchmark by C.L. Polk: this is both a trope-y m/m paranormal romance and a predictable steampunk murder mystery. I probably would have still enjoyed reading this at the end of 2016, but I definitely wouldn’t have seen as a favorite, just as a fun, low-quality read, when it’s all but. Not only I feel strongly about trope-y diverse books being necessary, this is also a book that manages to do so many things: the romance is compelling, the magic system is really interesting, it’s an exploration of class privilege and it also talks about how veterans are failed by their own country… there’s a lot here, and it’s great, and I’m glad I’m able to see it now.

Never-Contented Things by Sarah Porter: I’m sure that even only a year ago I would have DNFed this. I would have seen it as a weird book with incest in it, something disturbing with no purpose to it, when it’s actually a story about a girl who has not had a healthy (even non-romantic) relationship in all her life and is doing everything she can to remain together with the only person she feels cares about her (her brother, who ends up abusing her). It’s the story of her getting out of that situation and confronting her denial and self-hate. Understanding this didn’t make me enjoy the book any more – I didn’t like reading this, at all – but I know what the author was doing and I do believe this is a good book.

The Fever King by Victoria Lee – this book basically took over my head for two days, and a few years ago I wouldn’t have given it 5 stars anyway because it’s really predictable. But I honestly didn’t care? If a book is so good that it makes me feel this way even though I predict everything, it must mean it’s great, that something about it works so well that the predictability barely registered. This is not ignoring flaws, this is recognizing their dimension, because sometimes they really are irrelevant.

An aspect of knowing how to review books is also seeing a book’s could-be-flaws and understanding whether – and if so, how – the book works despite or even because of them. And if it works because of them, is it really even a flaw?


My Goal

Ideally, my goal is to never read a book I don’t like again.

I know it’s not going to happen, but that’s what I aim for. I’m here to have fun, I’m going to look for books that I find entertaining and/or interesting, and, most of all – I don’t believe one has to trash books to be taken seriously as a reviewer. Good reviews can be as well-thought-out as bad ones, and in my opinion, they’re also harder to write.

If you ever feel like you should give a low(er) rating to something you loved just because it was predictable or had tropes that many people hate, don’t be like 16-year-old me: remember that you don’t have to.


Do you care about rating/reviewing critically, and what does that mean to you?

Advertisements

41 thoughts on “On Ratings and “Being Critical”

  1. I love this. You’re so right about how when you first start reading critically rating seems to go down on average, but finding out what you enjoy and understanding more about tropes/predictability really makes a difference in reading experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I think it’s really interesting how you can tell how your reviewing style/ability has changed. I’ll have to look at that for myself and see if I can tell. I definitely think my reading tastes have matured over time (I also read City of Bones and The Selection series early on and haven’t reread them since so I’m not sure how I would feel about them now).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I noticed how my reviewing style has changed mostly through rereads of books I loved (sometimes I ended up not liking them; sometimes I liked them just as much or even more, but never exactly for the same reasons as before). Or even just thinking about what I considered good writing/plotting/characterization then and what those things mean to me now (not the same thing) helped.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That was such a fantastic discussion post to read!! I also feel like my rating hasn’t dropped in recent years, as I kind of got better at picking out the books I liked and avoiding those that I know I won’t like/that I’m not interested in!! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked reading this!
      Yes, I think that as one goes on the “I’m more critical because I’ve read a lot of [genre] books” side and the “I have read a lot of [genre] books, so I usually know which ones won’t or will work for me” side more or less end up evening each other out and the average rating doesn’t change that much.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! I agree with so much.

    I do see my own ratings start to drop a little after a year of reviewing. They have probably slid about a half point in the last 6 months or so. I don’t see myself as starting to hate on books, but to really start to look at all aspects of the elements that makes a good book. Still very positive in my reviews, but just more critical like you say.
    Thanks for this. Great stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Being a little more critical while still maintaining a positive outlook has led me to enjoy books a lot more even if my ratings aren’t all five stars like they were at the beginning (and it has also made my reviews better, in my opinion).
      Anyway, I’m glad you liked reading this, and thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is such a wonderful post! ^_^ It was great to read about the evolution of your reading tastes/ratings–similar to you, because there’s so many new books out there, I try to stick with books I know I’ll like and align with my reading tastes! And I agree that the more you read/review the more your ratings can change–its something I notice a lot more now! Great discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great discussion! I personally think that the more we read for review purposes, the less likely we are to always be impressed. You read a lot and you end up coming across similar stories and if you’ve grown tired of said stories, it inevitable affects your enjoyment. That being said, I think we end up learning a lot about ourselves and our own tastes, so being more discernible when deciding what book to pick up helps are ratings average. City of Bones was one of my first YA novels and I loved it, but I’m pretty sure if I picked it up today, I probably wouldn’t even finish. Sometimes you change and it doesn’t even have to mean a book is bad, it’s just not for you anymore. Enjoyed reading this post a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      I agree with everything you said – sometimes I read a book and think “I would have loved this had I read it three years ago, which was before I read other 10 books with basically the same plot”, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean the book is bad, it sometimes does mean that I didn’t enjoy it at all – but someone who starts reading that kind of stories from that book could? It’s something I try to keep in mind, and I try to look at the execution instead of only which tropes/plotlines are in the book.
      And I’m glad you liked reading this!

      Like

  7. I don’t know if I review critically but I know I’m not as generous with my 5 stars ratings anymore. I feel as if I’m getting difficult to impress or the books that I’m reading aren’t doing it for me anymore. I think another thing that contributes is that I’ve “outgrown” certain books but I’m still reading them because I keep thinking of back when I enjoyed that type of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel like I’ve “outgrown” some subgenres – to be specific, some subsets of YA – too, even though I loved them a few years ago. Sometimes I try again, but I usually end up disappointed and so I’m trying to do that less and less.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This is such an interesting topic and you have so many good points. I definitley agree with your definition of critical reading, it’s not synonymous with hating books for not being exactly what you want them to be and on the flip side of that: being critical of something isn’t synonymous with hating it. I can’t count the amount of times people have assumed I’m not enjoying a book (or movie or show or album), simply because I’ve said something critical about it.
    Rating everything 5 stars for existing is so relatable, that was me in 2013. Whenever someone on Goodreads likes my review of a book I rated 5 stars back then now, I have to fight the urge to write them a message and explain that I’m NOT LIKE THIS ANYMORE. But at the same time I don’t want to change those ratings, 2013 was the year I fell back in love with reading and got to know my taste again. I like that my Goodreads reflects that.
    2018 was actually the year with the lowest average rating for me and that’s the year I started blogging (well, the first full year), so I definitley think that’s had an impact. Writing about books and explaining what worked/didn’t work has made me a more critical reader. But my ratings for 2019 are much higher! So I think I’m getting better at knowing what I’ll like and passing on what I won’t as well. Here’s to only reading books we like! I think that’s a great goal.
    (Sorry this is the longest comment ever, you gave me a lot of thoughts)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. (I don’t mind, really! I am the one who just wrote an enormous post including a yearly breakdown of my reading habits.)

      “I can’t count the amount of times people have assumed I’m not enjoying a book (or movie or show or album), simply because I’ve said something critical about it.”
      This. Also because I often find that I’m much better at explaining what doesn’t work about something than what does work. I don’t want my 4.5 reviews to be half negative, but sometimes I just don’t find the words to explain the parts I liked, and I’m trying to work on that.
      I changed many old goodreads ratings to reflect what I would think of certain books today (mostly, the ones I reread or tried rereading), but not all of them, so there are still some five stars that… definitely wouldn’t be five stars today.

      Like

      1. Yes! Explaining why something’s not working for you is so much easier than explaining why something is. I roll my eyes at myself every time I use the phrases complex characters and rich worldbuilding. But…I still use them. I could write an essay about one little thing that bothered me though. This is why I don’t write full reviews!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. This is an interesting conversation. I actually don’t disagree about the tropes and cliches, but at the same time, I struggle with a lot of YA Fantasy and YA Science Fiction. I’ve found a few key books that I like (Six of Crows, Spellslinger, The Diabolic). I don’t think it’s bad by default, I just think it’s too happy for my tastes (I know, I’m a terrible person). I prefer it when there isn’t always an HEA or it was really seriously earned.

    Out of curiosity, I looked at my average ratings for 2017 and 2018, they are exactly the same. 103 books read, and a 3.77 rating. The distribution of ratings is a little different between 5, 4, 3 stars, etc. This year I am apparently not doing well because the average has dropped to a 3.47. I think a lot of it has to do with my mood, and needing to diversify my reading. In 2015 my read list was dominated by historical fiction, now it’s dominated by science fiction. Maybe I need to get back to my roots.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t think there’s anything terrible with not wanting to read really happy books, even though I’m kind of the opposite (I’m fine with not having a defined HEA, but I’m not fine with anything that feels hopeless). It makes sense to want to see the characters earn it, and I do agree that often YA fantasy makes it too easy for the protagonists.

      The exact same number of books/average rating for 2017 and 2018? That’s a really interesting result (…I couldn’t have done that if I tried). And I hope you find books that work more for you soon!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Isn’t it crazy? I’ll have to check the math again. I mean I suppose the odds go up a little if you read the same number of books in a year, but still.

        And I will- I think I’ve just been in a funky mood because I haven’t had as much time to read this year as I have in prior years, so it’s making me really impatient. Fantasy and sci-fi tend toward the longer side of things while a lot of my historical fiction reads managed to keep it under 400 pages.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Loved this! I love your analysis of your reviewing and I so agree about critical reviewing. We have to take into account what the author was trying to do. I think its so important to know what you like and develop a sense for when a book feels right (i.e. one you’d love) and when a book feels off (one that you’ll end up not loving). I still cringe at DNFing but I actually did DNF one this past week so I have to pat myself on the back even though I lowkey regret it already. hahaha. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked reading this! I made DNFing what didn’t work a goal for 2018 and since then I have no problem with not finishing a book. And I think understanding the difference between “this went wrong” and “this ended up not being the story I wanted to read” is really important.

      Like

  11. Super interesting post! I have been reading for a really really long time, which means I definitely am good at picking books I like, but also means I can see where things are going pretty quickly. My daughter and I are listening to a thriller on audiobook together, and I was making predictions at the beginning, which baffled her. It made me realize how much my experience as a reader influences how I read.

    I also know that several books I’ve rated five stars on Goodreads would not get that from me today. I read them as a kid or teen, and they had a huge influence on me, so even if I’d now see them as dated, predictable, or problematic, in my heart they are five star books!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s always great to be surprised by a plot twist, but the more you read (especially if you know the genre you’re reading well; I’m sure that if I started reading adult thrillers I’d be surprised at first) the more that’s unlikely to happen – and I’d always rather see a predictable but solid plotline than an unpredictable one that came out of nowhere.

      And I prefer to change ratings to reflect what I think of the book right now, but I understand that! Some of these books meant a lot to me just a few years ago.

      Like

  12. I somehow missed this post and I’m glad I noticed it now because you raise so many great points here, and your journey feels similar to my own experiences as well.

    I’m not gonna say I don’t like to sometimes read a good “let’s-drag-this-through-the-mud” review but I’ve definitely become more sceptical of them when I see that the reviewer keeps reading books they know they’ll hate just to drag them for the tea. Like… love yourself, dear reviewer. DNF-ing a book has never – to my, admittedly limited, knowledge – killed a person. (When I check out a book I don’t know, I usually trust 4- and 3-star reviews the most, anyway.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “love yourself, dear reviewer” = so much this. And maybe it isn’t everyone’s experience, but I find hate-reading things emotionally draining.
      And yes, negative reviews can be fun to read! But same, if I notice that someone writes a lot of them, I don’t feel like I can trust them anymore.

      And that’s interesting about the 4 and 3 ones! If there are no reviews by people I know I trust, I usually read the 5-4 stars ones first, to see what people love about a book and see if they talk about things I could care about in some way. Then, if there are prominent bad reviews, I read those.

      Like

      1. Oh, yes, hate-reading may be appealing/entertaining to some but I also find it very emotionally draining.

        I’m usually sceptical of 5-star reviews (unless it’s someone I follow) and 1-star ones for very similar reasons. They’re passionate, in love or in hate, and I feel that more often than not clouds objective judgment? (I know that if I love a book, I’ll forgive it more than if I was ‘meh’ about it.) 3-star & 4-star ones tend to be more neutral in tone, with a balanced mix of the good things and the bad things. I guess that’s also because 3-star reviews are very hard to write, to pin down exactly why the middle rating and not higher or lower? Of course it’s all subjective in the end, anyway.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I read the 5 star ones first because I want to see what people are passionate about – if x and y are supposedly amazing in that book but I don’t care about x and y at all? I won’t even bother with the negative ones. Otherwise, I’ll look into it and read less glowing reviews (one stars first to see if there are things like glaring bigotry or stuff like that).

          And interestingly, I find three stars the easiest reviews to write! I have both negative and positive things to say, which makes everything easier. As I struggle with explaining why I love something, five stars are the hardest for me. (With one stars, I always feel kind of bad.)

          But if I wanted to understand a book as a whole with one review instead of just deciding whether I want to read it, I’d read a 3/4 one too, probably

          Like

  13. I want to tattoo your “misconception” paragraph somewhere handy, because I echo ALL of that. I swear, I roll my eyes so hard every time I see something like that in a review. I always attribute my high average rating to the fact, that I am good at picking books I know I will like. I have have rarely finished a book that earned less than 3 stars, and I don’t rate DNFs.Yeah, my average is high.

    Like

    1. I almost never rate DNFs anymore, it just… doesn’t seem fair? But I do review them, because I think there can be something useful in telling others why I couldn’t even finish the book. And I’m getting to the “rarely finishing books that would be less than 3 stars” too, which I really like.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. “Uncritically hating on things isn’t critical reading”- really like this point!! In my opinion, it’s cool to have critical opinions/disagree with people, and in my opinion this can come down to personal taste, but there has to be evidence or a reason to back it up (even, in my view, if it’s just not liking a particular trope- cos then you can be clear with other readers that may might like it even if you don’t- eg I might not like a book for a love triangle but there are people out there who love them). I definitely have found my ratings have gone up as well since I’ve figured out what I like more 😀 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I agree with your point about love triangles, especially as someone who went from hating them (when they were in literally every YA book) to mostly not minding them and liking some of them – one doesn’t have to like a trope, but there’s nothing wrong with a trope existing in itself.

      Like

  15. This is such a great discussion! I think I’ve had a similar reading experience! When everything was new I didn’t notice tropes as much, whether they were done well or not, but with more exposure I learnt the nuances of tropes I loved versus tropes that needed something unique to
    impress me.

    I’ve also gotten pretty good at recognizing which books I’d like, and which books I should skip because chances are I won’t like them. I think all this comes learning about yourself, what your tastes are, and what books and genres are a good fit. And it takes a while to figure all that out!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!
      Yes, I really think it comes from learning more about yourself too – I think doing so has made me a better reviewer and also made reading more enjoyable for me.
      I’m glad you liked reading this!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s