Sunday, July 21, 2019

Discussion: Have My Ratings Fallen Victim of Grade Inflation?

Over the course of this last month, I've spent a lot of time scrolling through my Goodreads "read" shelf and poring over my all time favorite books for differen posts. One thing I realized as I did so is that I rate books differently now than I used to.  The first full year I was rating books on Goodreads, 2009, I only rated 6% of my books with five stars. In contrast, in 2018, 21% of my books got five stars from me. While it's possible that my entry into the world of blogging has led me to a more focused approach on finding books I love, that still seems like quite a change.

When I first started on Goodreads, I didn't think of it as a social media outlet or a marketing tool. It was simply a place for me to track my own reading. At that time, my rating system worked something like the American school grading system:

DNF =I couldn't make my way through it. Basically an F.
1 star = I was forced to read it for school (or a book club) and didn't like it. Basically a D.
2 stars = It was okay. It wasn't particularly good, but it wasn't so terrible I couldn't finish it. Basically a C.
3 stars = I enjoyed reading it, but either I don't really think it will stick with me, or after I finished it and reflected a bit, I had some issues with it. Basically a B.
4 stars = I really enjoyed reading it, and it would probably leave a good impression on me over time, and I forgive it any flaws I found.  Basically an A.
5 stars = all time favorite. Basically an A+

But now I feel like a 3 star rating is what 2 stars used to mean. I know people often won't read books with under 4 star averages, and I've seen suggestions that raters only bring authors' attention to 4 star and above ratings. What I thought of as a good book, as the logical rating for the vast majority of what I read, has somehow become code for "barely tolerable." So I find myself giving every book I like 4 stars instead, and every book I really like 5 stars, and then I don't know what to do with the books that I think are even better. I resolve some of this by hedging with half star ratings in my own record keeping, but that seems silly too.

I also struggle with the issue of personal taste vs. objective quality, as well as intended audience. If a picture book makes me laugh hysterically, but would go over the head of a child, is it a good picture book or not? If I find the endings of 95% of middle grade novels to be uncomfortably pat, do I have the right to rate them lower because of my adult expectations?  What about books I absolutely adored as a kid, but would find kind of boring now? Or books I loved, then I read reviews that highlighted issues I hadn't noticed at first?

Maybe I'm going at it wrong. Maybe instead of starting at the lowest rating, or even at the middle, I need to decide what a five star rating means to me.

  • I loved reading the book.
  • I feel like I will remember the book even after I've read a few more books.
  • The book is beautifully written and/or creatively put together.
  • I think the book is a great example of its genre or field. 
  • The book made me feel deeply without making me feel like my emotions were being manipulated.
  • The book makes me think.
  • This book, as best as I understand, does not engage in harmful and limiting representation of any groups of people. 

If I follow this, I think it will give me leeway to not give five stars to books that are worthy, but don't engage my emotions fully. It will encourage me to give five stars to middle grade novels that are terrific in their own right, even if I'm skeptical things would really work out so well. Four star books, then, would be books that get many, but not all, of these things right, and three star books would be books I like, but that don't hit many of the other criteria. 

There's also the issue of re-rating books later on. Sometimes I look up a book I remember loving and see I only gave it three stars. What? Conversely, I find five star books that I have no memory of having even read. Hmm. In both cases, I am not above changing my rating to four stars. I'm certainly never going to go through all 2,000+ books I've rated to double check my currently opinion against my earlier response, so it's not a major issue.

How about you? Have your ratings changed tone over time? Do you look at ratings from other readers? (I rarely do.) Does a "3" seem more like a "C-" to you or a "B+"? 


  1. I think I am pretty good at identifying books I will enjoy, and therefore, the bulk of my books end up in the 4 star range. I more or less agree with your rating scale. 3-stars was a good book, not great, but good. I won't finish a book I am not enjoying, so, you won't see many ratings under 3 from me. I am greedy with my 5-stars, but I half star and round up a lot. It looks like a lot more books received 5-stars from me, but in reality, many are 4.5. I have found I rate on emotional impact, on how the book made me feel. I am not a writer, and I don't consider the target audience, but I am here to be entertained, and if the author did a phenomenal job doing that, I will reward their work.

  2. My ratings have changed a ton over the years. When I first started on Goodreads, I gave pretty much everything 5 stars. If I had fun reading it, the book got all of the stars. Now I’m way more critical. I think my average rating is 3 stars. I do struggle with the personal taste vs objective quality thing. The books I love aren’t always the same books that college professors say I should love.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. My ratings have also tended to go up over the years. However, I have an easy explanation for that. In the old days, I had a hard time finding good books, and I tended to read anything I ran across. There were not a lot of good sources of books for me. I often read books I started even if I was not enjoying them.

    It's very different now. I don't finish books if they aren't striking me. I have many blogger friends (including, of course, you!) to tell me of good books.

    That makes sense, right? I'm reading more of the good books and passing on the not-so-good.

  4. I'm with you on that my ratings have changed over the years and I rate books based on my personal preference which may not be the best approach in terms of objectivity but I do try and explain that it was well written etc just not for me.

  5. Oh, I am constantly evaluating my rating system in my head and worrying that I'm veering too far in one direction or another (usually to the positive), but honestly I haven't found any surefire way to solve the problem. In the end, ratings really are subjective, and I've come to terms with that. But I have (on a rare occasion) gone back and changed a rating on a book when the test of time proved my original rating wrong.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction


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