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5 Reasons To Pan Those 5-Star Reviews

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iStockphoto / Falzbeil
iStockphoto / Falzbeil

The Way The 1-Star Cookies Crumble

So a tweet landed in my queue. It came from someone I don’t know.

Its text:

Marja Mills, the interloper, tricked a biography out of a beloved author, Harper Lee. 1-star the book.

In case you don’t know the story I’d tweeted about earlier, author Marja Mills’ new The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee has been denounced by the 88-year-old author of To Kill a Mockingbird as unauthorized. The new book’s publisher, Penguin Press, maintains that both Lee and her older sister knowingly cooperated with the book project. The Guardian’s Alison Flood had covered the dispute in Harper Lee Memoirist Insists That She Had Novelist’s Blessing.

And someone had picked up on my tweet, checked out Flood’s story, decided that the Lee position is right, the Mills position is wrong, and that we should all “1-star” Mills’ book. Never mind that there are two sides to this baffling disagreement. Such snap judgments about who’s right and who’s wrong are common. They seem to be amplified online. We all know this.

Of more interest is the 1-star treatment.

This tweeter feels that it’s appropriate to give one star to a book that she or he probably hasn’t read. (Mills’ book was released on a Tuesday, this tweet came to me the next day, Wednesday.)

And this is a known problem, of course, the use by some consumers of 1-star ratings as blunt instruments to punish an author or manufacturer.

But what about the other dilemma?

5 Rights May Not Fix A 1-Star Wrong

The absolute deluge of perfect ratings suggests we have a big issue in giving honest literary feedback.

Daryl Rothman
Daryl Rothman

Author Daryl Rothman wrote a guest post, Are 5-Star Book Reviews Bad For Sales? earlier this summer at the site of author and editor K.M. Weiland. His points bear serious consideration.

In his piece, Rothman takes a stand that will be unpopular with many in the books world: when everything gets a 5-star rating, the honor no longer means anything. The stars are worthless. Like “two thumbs up — waaaaaaay up.”

We’re talking something that goes well beyond books and publishing, of course. For years, professional critics at major newspapers, in particular, fought hard to keep star-ratings out of their reviews. Not only do these systems diminish readership for critiques, themselves (people just count the stars and go) but they also reduce cultural events to commodities. This logic has little sway over advertisers who want to sponsor a star rating because it’s “easy” (or worse, “E-Z”) to use in making that snap judgment

If you come from an arts background, you know that applying the same rating to a novel and a lawn mower is like mild Kafka.

But since the battle of the star ratings was so resoundingly lost long ago, we are, indeed stuck with them, and we can just be happy that in most cases we don’t have some of the other graphical representations of good and bad consumerist reviews. At least one respected newspaper in the States, for example, has been known to indicate a worthy theatrical production with a cartoon of a little man jumping up and down on his chair. And this is considered a device that thinking adults will want to use to develop their plans for the evening.

What Rothman helps us with in his piece is a post-newsroom-star-wars problem we might term Everything Is Perfect. As he writes:

The glut of 5-star book reviews has taken much of the luster off the once-shining achievement. You got a 5-star book review? Great! But so did Susie and Alan and every other person I see mentioned on Twitter. And it seems Susie gave Alan her 5-star review, and he tendered hers.

How shall I explicate the populist problem of the 5-star review?

With the equally populist device of the listicle, of course. I’ll give you a point from Rothman, then I’ll offer you my own intensely irritating thoughts on it.  (Getting that Campari freshened up now would be smart.)

What’s Not So Perfect About 5 Stars On Everything

(1)  Perfection is, um, rare.

Rothman:

There are many amazing works out there, and some merit the lofty ratings. But many good manuscripts do not. Many are more deserving of, say, a 4, which is nothing to be ashamed of. And yes, some are not 4s, either.

Me:

My first sector of coverage as a critic on a newspaper (which had been bought by the New York Times and took its criticism quite seriously) was in live theater. I had worked as an Equity actor before leaving the theater to become a critic. So I knew from experience the myriad ways the art is not perfect — lines-forgotten, costumes down around one’s ankles, idiotic choreography, sets toppling over, grotesque scripting, bad casting, inane “concept” directing, and so on. The only people who ever say a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night? — are the people who have just had a bad dress rehearsal. Not one night of the greatest Medea in history is perfect. Not one. Just ask Euripides.

Creative work is human, gloriously human. Our books shimmer and shudder so gorgeously with the humanity of our ticks and glitches and misses and walkings into walls. Why would you deny that by calling such a thing perfect?

If you go for five stars, you’re so far out on a limb of assessment that you’re probably far more creative, yourself, than your artist or author is: you’re making up something in your mind that almost certainly wasn’t on the stage or the page. As Rothman says, a 4 is — or should be — a huge, resounding honor. Our 4-star authors should be heroes among us.

And after a five, what will you do when something better arrives? There’s nothing  left but self-immolation.

(2) Rooking the reader is not cool.

Rothman:

Some work is not so hot, and bestowing undeserved estimation upon it is a disservice on many levels. The writer and reader forfeit credibility when others feel misled and disagree with the rating/review.

Me:

Have you ever come across a rave-reviewed work that left you staggered by how bad it was? You felt rooked, right? Well, of course you did. And you know what Rothman is talking about. Do you realize that there are 5-star reviews out there for Under the Dome? They must be written by people Under the Influence. And they’re tricking a lot of other people into looking at that…thing.

If you really think the reader is such a precious person to the publishing community — and boy, do we hear a lot of reader-adoration these days — then how can you possibly justify slapping around that reader with the disservice of overrating something and, at bottom, tricking that precious reader into buying something on the false advertising of your quintuplet of stars?

Don’t tell me that “the most important person in publishing is the reader” and then let me catch you putting five unwarranted stars on something. If you do, I’m coming for you in the Thought Catalog stationwagon.

(3) Hey, you just told her she was perfect. What did you think she’d do, learn from that?

Rothman:

[When you bestow that 5-star review on a book], the author loses a valuable opportunity to improve his product/craft.

Me:

And thus we now know that you don’t actually care much for the precious reader or for our revered author. You’ve just deprived the author you revere so highly of your honest appraisal.

Did our revered author ask you to do that? If so, stop revering her, she’s a gold-digger and a cad.

If our revered author didn’t ask you to do that, then don’t be so presumptuous as to assume that he or she wants you to take a fall for her or him. Assume that an author wants the truth, your truth, your authentic reaction.

If you offer the truth of your honest response, you’ve handed that author the most valuable thing you could offer. Good on you. You’re the reader the very best authors want the most. I’m giving you the hero’s 4-star rating for that.

(4)  A quid-pro-quo arrangement is a deal, not a friendship.

Rothman:

Genuine relationships rely upon the spirit of reciprocity, but things can careen all too easily off the tracks when various notions of quid pro quo arise. Offering to read and provide feedback of one another’s’ work is standard, one of the most essential ingredients in the recipe of mutual literary support. But what happens if your literary pal loves your manuscript, posts a 5-star review on Amazon, and now it’s your turn? You excitedly take up his novel and… thud. It’s not good. Oops.

Me:

This is where the consumer-review fact of life today takes us far from the media-critic process of the past.

In “olden days” (thanks so much), we critics were hired by our newspapers and other media (still a plural word — one medium, two media) to generate experienced, honest criticism and explain it. We were paid to formulate an informed opinion and promulgate it. That’s why “wonderful” and “awful” weren’t as common as specific references to tone and grace, vocabulary and voice, plot and characterization, ethos and world-view.

Less emotional than the consumer review, the journalistic critique when done well (now rare as five hens’ teeth, way up) were not beholden to one or another party being critiqued. We didn’t owe the author anything. We didn’t need to please the modern dance company or curry favor with the museum of art.We were paid by the news medium, which stood separate and independent from the parties we critiqued.

“Unbiased?” Was never the goal. That’s a populist myth. Humans are always biased. Journalists are human. Critics are, in fact, paid to be biased, to form an opinion.

No, fairness was the goal. We went in — if we were good at our jobs — ready and hoping for a good book, a good show, even a good dog act, God help us. That was the correct frame of mind: open.

Gatekeepers? You bet. But are consumer reviews today not gatekeeping? Of course they are. And is it fairer when somebody like Mr. 1-star goes on a junket of revenge?

If you are making deals for reviews, you’re rendering the review system — and a lot of your own integrity — moot.

(5)  You could do the right thing. And pass it on.

Rothman:

When honest feedback is sought, provided, and accepted, both the writer and the product improve. The reader has done a service, and the larger audience of potential readers will benefit from honest reviews and ultimately a better read. Even better, the eventual earning of a 5-star review—or a 4-star, again, nothing to sneeze at–will mean that much more for everyone, and help the author reach greater success.

Me:

One day when I was very young (this sounds like it’s going to be ridiculous, doesn’t it?) my parents walked me and my sister down to our elementary school on a Sunday afternoon. My sister and I had no idea why. We hated the idea because it was school, it was Sunday, and were kids — everything was hell on wheels at that age. As soon as we saw white uniforms, it was even scarier. We were there for a shot, damn it. But no, in fact, a nurse gave us one sugar cube each, with a drop of something on it. Tasted fine. Just sugar. Pretty not-bad. And on the next two Sundays, in Denny Terrace outside Columbia, South Carolina, we would take that same walk to the school, line up with the other kids and parents, and get our sugar cubes.

This was the polio vaccine. And although there is still a presence of that horrible viral disease, it was turned around in those years in the United States by that vaccine. One sugar cube at a time.

Can putting a truthful star rating on a single review mean anything at all in a world badly infected with “best ever!” superlatives and back-slapping substitutes for genuine friendship? Sure it can.

Try it. And mention it to somebody else you think might be ready to hear the idea. If an author friend is fretful because you didn’t come up with those high-five stars for a book, explain why. Help that writer with the truth. And help readers understand the real genius of literature. It’s not perfect. And that is perfect.

5-star reviews are, in the end, no better than those awful 1-star reviews advocated by that tweeteur who goes around assaulting people with low ratings.

If you run into Daryl Rothman, thank him for all of us. His post was helpful.

And just do the right thing. You’ll read better, you’ll write better, you’ll be better without all those stars in your eyes.

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