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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?