Friday, September 28, 2007

Thinking About How to Rate Fiction for Adults

I have been trying to come up with a system to figure out how good an adult novel is. I mean, what makes a book of adult fiction a 3 star book versus a 5 star book?

I just finished reading a book which I received from the Amazon Vine program. I had committed to read the book and review it on the Amazon site. Now that I have finished it I am stuck with the challenge of rating it and doing a customer review. I will say here and now that doing a customer review just because I feel like it is much easier for me as my strong opinion for or against a book, or a passion for the book is usually what compels me to write my customer reviews.

In 2004 I participated in NaNoWriMo and finished my rough draft manuscript. So I have an unedited manuscript of a work of fiction, sitting on my hard drive right now. I am actually afraid to edit it. And worse, I think at best it would be a 3 star book and I had high hopes of writing a Toni Morrison-ish 5 star book. After writing rough draft manuscript, I realized how hard it is to write a book. I got a little more tender-hearted about doing customer reviews on Amazon especially if I’m not rating it 4 or 5 stars, and so I slowed down from submitting customer reviews.

Then later, after reading more about the craft of writing and the challenge of getting published, I suddenly felt even more self-conscious about rating a book. What authors have to go through to write the book then to actually get it published seems to me to be reason enough to grant it 3 stars for effort, at least. (Not really, but can you see my guilt at rating a work of fiction at 3 stars or less?)

I have no problems giving a comparison to other books on the market (that I know of) or giving an opinion if I feel I am qualified enough, that I know enough about a topic to judge the book. But judging fiction is a little more iffy because so much of it comes down to the personal taste of the reader and that may say nothing of the talent of the author as a storyteller, or even the quality of the writing itself. This is where I worry that readers may be too harsh on a lower rating of a book, ouch, that must hurt the author!

The book I just finished is the first novel of an author who formerly worked in the corporate world. She wrote the book while she was pregnant. The book has been published in the United Kingdom, where she is from. It is soon to be released in America. I feel bad about giving this book only a 3 star rating. I feel self-conscious since this is a new release in America and the book is making its debut. I’m not quite sure whether this deserves a 3 or a 4 star rating.

So I have been thinking carefully about my own personal 5 star rating system for adult fiction. Here is what I have worked up so far. Hopefully once I write this all down and tweak my ideas, I’ll find it easier to find which rating I want to give this book that I just finishing reading (Bitter Sweets by Roopa Farooki).

By the way I’ve not read anything that professional book reviewers have to say about how they feel that books should be reviewed. I wonder what they say? These thoughts are all from my own head.

My Explanation of Star Ratings for Adult Fiction Books

1 star:

This book stinks. The book is junk, a complete waste of my time. Not well written. I can’t believe anyone would ever want to read this book. How did it get published anyway? In reality I probably would never rate a book of fiction as 1 star because I would not have bothered to take the time to read the entire book and I’ve actually never reviewed a fiction book that I didn’t read cover to cover because that just isn’t fair..

2 stars:

This book is also not worthy of my time. Someone else may like it. Someone else may like this subject matter. It is not well written in my mind. The characters in the book may not be believable, or if they are, the book is just not well written. I might not even be able to get into the book; I may give up on it. Actually I don’t usually do customer reviews on books I don’t read cover to cover but in my own mind, if I can’t even read the book it will get either a 1 or 2 star rating.

3 stars:

This book is perhaps good for beach reading. This is light reading. The actual writing quality is not stellar; it makes me think that even I could write a book like this without much effort. This book does not elevate a person. This book is not worthy of being re-read. This book may be good for ‘an escape’ read. The plot may be dumb, I may not like the actual story, but I did read it and it was entertaining in some way.

The characters or their situations may not be believable, but maybe they are, or maybe I tried to fool myself into believing it just so I could get through to the end. I was moved to finish the book because I wanted to see what happened in the end. Some element in this book is usually predictable, either the ending is obvious, or what one character does is predictable.

This may or may not have been a page-turner. I probably would not recommend this book to a friend unless they specifically wanted something not heavy or just wanted a non-stressful beach read and I thought the content was something they may be interested in.

If the characters in the book are shallow or if I don’t make strong emotional ties with at least one major character, it would warrant the book being rated a 3 instead of a 4.

There were identifiable holes in the story, or some things were glossed over too quickly, and that harmed the story in some way. Perhaps not enough was done to make us love or hate certain characters. I blame this problem partially with the editor or publishing house who could have worked more with the author to address the holes or the shallowness and to fix those problems. Certainly if I as a reader can pick out those problems, could not an editor?

4 stars:

This book is definitely a page-turner. I was driven to stay up late to read it and maybe even put off doing necessary things to find the time to read it. I was drawn into the story. The story and its characters are believable. Nothing in the book was predictable.

The book EITHER is very funny or entertaining in some way and and was a good use of my time for sheer entertainment purposes OR it was serious enough to illicit emotions from me and make me care about at least one character deeply, or the cause or issue in the book.

If I think a certain friend may like the book I would recommend it but I would not feel compelled to shout to the entire world that they simply MUST read this book.

Depending on different people’s tastes and personalities, some may disagree with me and call this book better or worse than I thought. This book may be a bestseller but it just didn’t completely click with me, or perhaps I expect too much from a story?

5 stars:

This book is very well written. The author is a good storyteller. This is a page-turner. I may be so engrossed in this book that I don’t even hear the phone ring. Putting aside things I need to do is done without guilt, just so that I can find more time to read. This is such a great escape book that when I put the book down I have to kind of shake the book out of my system to get back to the mindset of ‘my real life’. I may like the book so much that I wish I could step into the book and live there for a while, or perhaps the book is so emotional or negative in some way that I am happy to have my life be what it is and to not have to go through what the books’ characters are dealing with.

There is a strong emotional tie to at least one of the characters. I feel like I know these characters and sometimes I may wish that I knew them in real life. I actually care about what happens to these characters. The book is emotionally touching in some way, and often will make me cry.

Although I was dying to find out what happened in the book, I was sad to find the end near as I didn’t want it to end. I wish there was a sequel on the one hand, but wish there is not lest the author not do a good job on it.

At least one thing in the book has changed at least one thing about me permanently. I have either seen life through the eyes of another person and learned something from that, have been enlightened to think about something completely differently than I had before or I wish that a certain thing would happen or never happen to anyone in real life like what happened to the books’ character. For example, I may feel horrified to think of the abuse that African-American slaves lived through; I may wish that racism would cease to exist, or I may wish justice to be served to all child abusers. The book might have been the first time that the issue or the cause stirred emotion within me.

The book may have eloquent language and be written in a way that makes me think, “I could never write a book as good as this”. The way the book is written, the flow of the story and the language itself is high quality.

I want all of my friends to read this book. I hope the author makes lots of money on the sale of this book. I wish Oprah would pick it for her book club so that millions of readers will experience this book, and so the author will make a slew of money on those sales.

This book is so well written that nearly anyone who finishes reading the book would agree it was a fantastic book and worthy of 5 stars, if not, they may think it is a 4 star book. I would assume that all the books which I think are 5 star books deserve to have been a bestseller at some point, and sadly, if not, they at least touched the lives of all who read it and changed their lives for the better in some way, and for that reason alone, the book is a success.

Links:
An interesting piece on Library Thing about Amazon Vine and the ethics of publishing early reviews

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1 comment:

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Cool!

This made me think a lot about how I would rate books, what makes a book great, really good, good, fair or not worth the time. It is not an easy matter and some of the question does have to do with my personal taste and interests. Some, but not all. Because, as you say, the writing itself, the development of characters, the sense of history and time in a novel--all of these things also go into what makes a book really good.