Here’s an e-mail I sent to Amazon regarding starred ratings on books and films and why I think they should get rid of them.
As an Amazon customer, I find the star-ratings on tools and electronics useful and informative because the product either works as it’s supposed to or it doesn’t. The same goes, in most cases, for non-fiction. I have no problem with ratings on non-fiction books and I’ve supplied a few within my area of expertise, because, like tools and electronics, they either do what they’re supposed to do or they don’t.
But I don’t review genre fiction or films on Amazon unless I can give a five-star review. It’s not because I care about anyone’s feelings (I don’t) or because I don’t know how to review books (I do); it’s because I’m forced to rate the book or film with a starred rank, which, contrary to popular opinion, is something that can’t be done in good conscience. Let me explain.
Suppose that I restricted my star-rating to basic writing mechanics, which is a fairly objective criterion. I could then include whether I liked the book or not—my subjective evaluation—and the reasons for it. That sounds like a working formula for rating a book or film: the rating is based on objective mechanics while the review includes my subjective taste. In cases where these two align, I can give a five-star review without any qualms.
But I never have because what works in theory is sometimes unworkable in practice. What do I do about all those books and films that I’ve enjoyed where I thought the execution was flawed? On the formula above, I’d be stuck giving them poor star-ratings while giving them good reviews, which would have to strike anyone as bizarre and it would be unfair to the author or producer. Conversely, books and films that I’ve hated, which were nonetheless well-constructed, would force me to give positive ratings, something that comes across as equally bizarre and it would amount to a betrayal of my true view.
It might seem that the way out is a “hybrid” star-rating that takes account of the mechanics and my subjective taste. But I’m not comfortable with that compromise because, again, it’s not possible in practice. I think that some of the books and films I love could have been tweaked into masterpieces. Conversely, I’ve enjoyed some books and films that I didn’t believe could be tweaked into masterpieces. Now how do I rank a flawed masterpiece against a flawless run-o’-the-mill book? Does it even make sense to use the same star-rating in both cases? Not as far as I can see, because we’re talking apples and oranges.
You can simplify the case by considering the following questions: do you rank the best film you’ve ever seen with the same ranking you applied to good movies? Would a book that changed your life receive the same ranking as one you thoroughly enjoyed? What possible justification can there be for ranking, say, Dan Brown and Shakespeare on the same star-scale? Or am I right that it doesn’t even make sense to put any of these things in the same ballpark?
Let’s consider one last scenario. Suppose a book is mechanically so god-awful that no one could possibly enjoy it. I’ve read such books, but I didn’t review them either. Not because I couldn’t be bothered, but because there’s a certain educative function that such books play—they perfectly illustrate what not to do. Hold on, you say, I’m now changing tracks: I’m not looking at aesthetics, I’m looking at pedagogy. But then how do I rank the book? If on aesthetics, I’d give it one star, on pedagogy five; does that mean a three-star review is warranted? Such a compromise makes no sense and it shows the weakness at the heart of product reviews for fiction.
The bottom line is that Amazon should get rid of the starred reviews on fiction, because fiction can’t be judged like a product or non-fiction. And it’s not because everything about writing is a matter of taste; it’s because the sublime, the well-written and the bad can’t be captured in a qualitative star-ranking, even if some of it can be captured and conveyed in a review.
Thank you for your attention,
W. H. Dean