On the Rating System

Ever read a review that sucked? Because, let's face it, most people who think they have something to say about books, movies, or art are talking out of their "bump." That's what my two-year old calls the part that she sits on (read more about her here). I'll be the first to admit that sometimes my bump starts talking too, but I've tried to come up with a review system to rein in my bump and provide information that's helpful, and sucks the least amount possible. If sometimes I still sound like a pompous buffoon (my wife tactfully suggested this the other day when she was proofing a review), well, I'm probably compensating for something, like my complete lack of friends. On that note, if you can think of something that I could do to lessen the bump-talking on this blog, feel free to suggest it, since I need those little safeguards as much as (more than?) the next guy. If I spent twice as long writing reviews, I'd probably be able to refine them to be less snarky and more careful, but then they might end up even longer, something for which I probably wouldn't be thanked. So, it's a double-edged sword.

Anyway, a ratings system isn't an easy thing to come up with. At the most basic, you've got "liked it/didn't like it." And that's enough for some people. And I suppose that it could be all you really need, if you really trust a person and their taste. But to quote Eric Walker (find his extremely meticulous review blog here):
Let's face reality: for the civilized reader, too many--most--web sites about science-fiction or fantasy literature recall American Bandstand: "Uh, wull, Dick, I give it a 86 'cause it had a good beat an' yuh could dance to it." What one might charitably call "naive enthusiasm" abounds.
So, I've found myself often trying to figure out whether I'd like a science fiction or fantasy book, and I google search it or look it up on Amazon. It can be hard to wade through that "naive enthusiasm" to get to a review that really meets my need for a rigorous analysis of something I'm preparing to give 10-20 hours of my life to. If you're the kind of person who likes to take a look at Rotten Tomatoes before heading to the movie theater, then maybe you feel my pain. The problem is, it can be hella hard to find really critically rigorous reviews of genre fiction.

And sometimes even when you do find a great, thoughtful review on Amazon (for instance, this one for Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), you rarely find any useful set of comparison points with other novels. The five-star system is a really blunt tool. Mr. Walker himself uses a five-star system that he frankly admits is a "banal convention." Other sci-fi and fantasy review sites offer a 10-point scale (here's a reasonably intelligent one), which merely doubles the muddle of the 5-star system.

A lot of popular book blogs do this wishy-washy ratings thing. It's quick and easy, but it tells you almost nothing about the book. And even reviewers with intelligent taste offer explanations for ratings like this:
With three stars, this is where it gets very blurry. Would think that threes range between average, fun and playful, genius parts that are poorly delivered, good achievement, different perspective, enjoyable read, but nothing life changing, recommend it to some but not to all, etc. . . . the list could go on and on.
 I think I just threw up a little bit in my mouth. I could go on, but now I'll bite my tongue (if only I'd bitten it sooner, you think). So without further ado, here are my reviewing categories, all rated on a ten-point scale:


Writing Quality: In other words, does the author use "beautiful phrasing"? This is a category that calculates an author's ability to put words together in surprising and exceptionally pleasing ways. It can be a measure of the "poetry" found in an author's prose. For example, when Melville writes in Moby Dick that Ahab "piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it," he gets quite high marks for writing quality, for beautiful phrasing, for exceptionally evocative metaphor. High marks here often mark a "literary" novel. Still, there can be (should be?) more to a novel than poetry. J. R. R. Tolkien (see The Fellowship of the Ring), for instance, scores lower than some authors in this category, but his contribution to literature is undeniable.

Depth of Concept: Are there multiple meaningful interpretations that can be applied to the novel? This is a category that many academics appreciate, and that many non-academics despise, at least at first sight. Academics, after all, make their careers on searching out new explanations for literature that nobody else has thought of yet, and sometimes they really stretch things to make a new explanation work. A lot of non-academics chafe at the idea that there is anything in a story other than what seems most apparent. But it is the ambiguity of meaning in scripture (whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim) that captures people's hearts and souls. It is what gets people passionately debating what the spinning top at the end of Inception means, or whether Deckard is an android or Roy Batty almost human in Blade Runner. It is what forces the reader to make leaps of intellect and inspiration that are not spelled out overtly or obviously in the text. Herman Melville's Moby Dick is at the top of this list. Christopher Paolini's Eragon is pretty near the bottom.

Rounded Characters: Do the characters present the sorts of subtleties, ambiguities, and mysteries that we find in real people? Are the characters presented in new and insightful ways, ways that keep us guessing and that teach us new things about humanity, simply by seeing them described in print? If there are archetypes presented, are those archetypes played with or complicated by non-archetypical characteristics? 

Well-Developed World: In fantasy-writing circles, this might be close to what is described as "world-building." Tolkien is famously at the top of this list, because of the great detail and craft that went into his development of Middle-earth. But I want to be clear that this is not simply about detail, or about overwhelmingly large worlds or the inclusion of maps at the beginning of a book. Robert Jordan, despite his ludicrously long (and therefore heavily-laden with details) Wheel of Time series, does not score as well here as Cormac McCarthy does in his simple post-apocalyptic novel, The Road. McCarthy is able to give a sense of the world his characters inhabit with a frugality of words that makes each word an extremely valuable part of the whole.

Page Turner: In a lot of ways, this can be my "guilty pleasure" category. Even if a book isn't great literature, or very insightful, if I find myself happily plowing straight ahead through every chapter division, that deserves a nod. Masterpieces, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, can be page turners. At the same time, I zoomed through Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, even though I found things on almost every page that made me roll my eyes. If a novel can keep my interest, whatever its other failings, I gotta give it credit. And if you're ever gonna be on a plane or in an airport for very long, this can be a very important category indeed.

Kept Me Thinking: This category is a little amorphous, and probably more liable to idiosyncrasy than a lot of the other categories. Basically, this category questions whether the material in the novel is larger than just what is printed on the pages, such that it seems to expand to fill your head after you put the book down, when you're in the shower, when you're trying to go to sleep, or when you're supposed to be listening to how your wife's day went (just kidding, honey, your day is always more interesting). I'd suggest that it often means you're trying to figure something out, but it could also be a result of a landscape that is so beautifully described that you daydream about it, or a character that matches reality so well that you find yourself measuring people you meet against a description in a book.

Overall Recommendation: This is more than just an average of each of the different categories. It is comparative to my bench-mark books, one being McCarthy's The Road and the other being Melville's Moby Dick. On the bottom end, I'd place (so far) Paolini's Eragon and Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. Ultimately, it's a benchmark of how meaningful a book is to me. Even funny or lighthearted books can be meaningful (Terry Pratchett, anyone?). A score below a 5 usually means you've got a book that's no more special than a lot of other books out there in the genre; a score above a 5 means that it's got some rarer characteristics. If I were coming to my own review to decide whether to read a book or not, I'd probably shoot for books that are at least a "5" in recommendation. Still, readers can be more discerning about a book than my "overall recommendation" by looking at the scores a book gets in the other categories.

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