The Subjective Test: How I Rate Books

As a member of the book community, perhaps one of the most prevalent practices is assigning a value to a book which categorically states “this is how good I think this book is” – it’s at the heart of sites like Goodreads and fundamentally, part of reviewing a book. 

This system of how high or low you rate a book is subjective and takes many forms. It’s not something I’ll discuss in this particular post but this does lead onto a bigger discussion about paid reviews and problematic reviews. I think it also begs the question, should ratings  – especially by staples of the community – be able to be rescinded/changed after the fact? People grow and change and I know I would rate hundreds of books that I read a few years ago differently but that seems to make it a moot point if I go around changing those without acknowledging that my previous opinion was valid. Otherwise, ratings lose meaning.

A well-known accolade in the literary world lies with Kirkus and their starred reviews. A comprehensive system that allows them to review hundreds of books a month; in under 500 words they review the book. There is no change to the value, it is a single star denoting excellence. Speaking about Kirkus specifically, in an effort to be more transparent and make it easier for non-white readers to find representations of themselves in fiction – they’ve taken on a specificity regarding character’s skin colour in their reviews. All of this to say that what I think of a book will be different to what you think of a book, based on a variety of factors – there’s a flawed universality to rating systems (a one to ten like IMDb or one to five like Goodreads).

Yet, it fails to address the fact that not only will someone’s opinion on a book be subjective, so is the way they assign value. It seems to be the stance of most reputable sources that half-stars are redundant. I disagree, I utilise half-stars and it’s very much a matter of best judgement when a book doesn’t deserve the lower rating however, didn’t quite match up to the next whole number. I will not be giving separate reasoning for half-star rating because it’s pretty straightforward.

Another part of rating is that oftentimes it’s a gut decision.

Usually, once I finish a book I’ll know my initial rating pretty much off the bat. The only thing that usually changes my initial rating when it comes to a review or even just Goodreads is if upon reflection there’s something in the book (positive or negative) I hadn’t realised enough to factor in at the time.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

“It’s just bad.”

A one-star rating is the only truly bad rating, in my opinion. Anything else can usually be enjoyed despite or even in spite of it’s issues – but a one-star book is something that wasn’t redeemable in any form. I didn’t enjoy it and I don’t think there’s any positives to talk about.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“Trash. Mostly trash.”

A two-star rating can fall into two categories. The first is a book that just wasn’t for me, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s awful but it isn’t something that I would read again. There was nothing that I particularly liked about it and I was probably pretty disinterested at times.

These traits also align with the second category, which is pretty much reserved for the trashy shelf. It’s books that just aren’t great – whether they’re badly written, have problematic elements or overtly tropey and predictable. But we love them anyway. There are several books that I love, that I would even go so far as to call favourites, that I cannot in good conscience rate any higher than two because of a multitude of reasons. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“I liked this one.”

There’s two schools of thought when it comes to three star ratings, there’s those who think that three star ratings are a bad thing. I think a good percentage of the people who think of three stars as ‘bad’ or ‘unworthy’ of praise tend to be authors and publishing professionals. This is by no means a generalisation, simply my observation over years of reviews.

I, of course, disagree. I think three stars is a more than amicable rating. There’s loads of books that I’ve enjoyed and given this rating which I can talk about all the time, they can often be favourites. So, what exactly denotes a three star rating? Usually, I’ll expose myself here, I have a bit of a bias towards YA contemporaries – I don’t tend to pick them up and when I do they usually rate lower than anything else I read. Most contemporaries tend to be given three star ratings. However, overall, books in this category tend to be enjoyable but lacking in how much I may have connected or related to the book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“It’s really good. I’d recommend it!”

This is a book that I loved with my whole heart. This doesn’t mean that four-star books are perfect books, it merely means that if there is anything to be critiqued it didn’t take away from my overall reading experience. These books are usually books that I make a connection with whether it’s because the book was funny, relatable or because I was immersed in the plot.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“Where art thou?”

I find five-stars probably the hardest to quantify. It truly is a gut feeling. In coming to try and verbalise how and why I rate books five stars, I had a look at my previous five-star reads and noticed a few trends. The first is that five-star reads aren’t perfect books. They don’t have to be literary masterpieces. Perhaps more than any other rating, five-star books are based on feeling, rather than literary or creative critique. You just know when a book is paramount.

These books tend to be formative in some way or another, whether that’s to my personal philosophy or to my outlook on different topics etc. I like to think that I’m not overtly critical when it comes to awarding five stars but they are quite rare – perhaps I’m not reading the right books. I re-read my five stars books quite often, there’s something to be said about re-readability. If I can read a book several times without any qualms, it’s quite brilliant.

7 thoughts on “The Subjective Test: How I Rate Books

  1. For me, a one star rating is “I forced myself to finish this book” so a.k.a “It’s just bad” like you said. It’s so hard for me to rate a book 5 stars! When I want to give a book this rating, most of the time I have to check if the book was as good as my previous 5 star reads 😅


  2. This is a great idea- I stopped putting rating on my reviews as they were hard for me to come up with- and I always wanted to change them depending on my mood! But this is a great way of doing it, thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My 3 stars is the same as your 3 stars. I personally think it’s a good rating and one that I give to books a lot. And yup. 5 stars to me is when the book gives me feels and strong emotions! Re-readability is also a factor too in 5 stars 😊

    Liked by 1 person

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