Monday, April 7, 2014

[OM] What to consider when reviewing books/Also, how to review a book.

What should one consider when rating and reviewing a book?

With ratings (the 1-5 stars for this book) so ubiquitous now that we have the internet—though I like that ability to have a say—it seems that all books are being considered on the same field. Yet I have the inkling that some stories simply shouldn't be rated on the same five star system as others.

I'm going to discuss what I look for in a book when I'm ready to rate it. In the end such matters can only be idiosyncratic (some people look for a riveting plot and neatly tied ends, while others look for prose and nothing resembling a plot), but I hope to at least provide a template for a rating scheme that will possibly address all of these issues.

Now, a lot of these items have been dealt with here, my piece about using certain criteria to pick out a classic, as well as to pick out classics from the contemporary lot (some of it has been cut and pasted here as well). Now for rating, we can expect that the same parts of a book are looked at, but I can't expect every book I read to measure up to classic status, nor would I want that.

Nevertheless, I sometimes find that rating one book that's for entertainment is not the same as rating it for other reasons. This especially goes for those 'great' or near classics of today that tend to feature in our elitist chatter, and yet seem to get low ratings elsewhere. I think this is because there's a certain level of expectation from the readers (did a reviewer compare it to Dostoevsky? Okay, let's compare it to that) and that, when it's not met, results in a lower score. I personally think that this is unfair.

So the second part of this essay, is my hope to create a new type of reviewing system for readers like myself. I hope that I am even somewhat successful.  

Prose or form. For me this is to consider what kind of prose, whether it's short terse made for page turning material, or long eloquent words for the literary crowd? The concept of voice (arising from the prose) must also be considered. How strong is it (can it completely enclose you in the story, or can it allow you a wry grin every now and then)? Does the voice lend itself to the story? The language and voice must combine to hum in my ears.

Story. There doesn't have to be a page turning story here, but that it should ring with some truth (though to be fair many of today's page turners are based on old classics) and originality. This is a very personal item, as I expect that some people prefer formula more than anything else. On the other hand, I'm a fan of books that leave certain things unanswered. In the end, the story must simply be interesting enough to shuttle me from one end of the book to the other.

Characters. More important than ever. They must be strong. They must stir up feelings inside (hate or love) me. They must live through the range of life that I know is possible. I must be allowed to delve deep (usually through a view at their psychology, but it can be through their actions) into their minds. I must live their lives on the pages like they were our own.

Questions. The book must speak to some philosophical questions that arise on this rock. As I see it, of course—though most of humanity sees them. This does not have to be overtly done (usually it's better that it's not), but the book should at least point to the (moral?) issues that we have in modern life.

That an author can raise certain questions, is a very important part of the rating system, as if he or she raises something deep, I expect depth in the answers, or attempt to answer (though sometimes, in this genre driven world, that a person can and will ask tough questions allows them much leeway in my view).

And so how do we rate all this? I believe there should be a multiple star item, whereby, represented in a circle, one rates the different aspects of a book: The prose/voice, the story, the questions, the characters. Is that it? No. The expectations for each of those. So was it meant to be supremely good, with regard to prose? Did it fall far below expectations?

Game of Thrones: Prose/voice 3/3, story 4/4, questions 1/1,  (so 100% @ 8)
The Son (Meyer) : Prose/voice 3/5, story 4/5, questions 3/5 (so 66% @ 10)
These are just two recent books I've rated at 3/3 stars (on the normal star system). I'm not sure why I've been so brutal, but that's the truth. Yet, I'm willing to give Meyer's a chance by reading anything else he puts out, while outside of the Game of Thrones series, I'm not so certain I'll read Martin.

Other examples would be books like The Magicians and Last Werewolf, that use prose and deep characters and seem to end up with very genre like 2ndhalves, or other books that don't ask big questions when they seem like they should, seem to fall hard by this system.

Of course, of the above two rated, which one is better? One has more points, but less of a percentage, while the other is better for what it aimed for. I hope that this system would allow other readers to see (with a more in depth explanation for each?) if they would like this book or not...

By this method I hope to clear some of the issues I have with the five star system (not better or worse than the system by which we have to read the entrails in the version of a review in some literary magazine, and they have positives and negatives sprinkled throughout for every goddamned book).
This might be an act of solipsism and no one else might see the issue. But I think it exists. I also think that it's very possible that big data solves this and gets us the best possible books; though currently everything I see in the "also boughts" or "recommended", hardly works for choosing my next book or even a book I'll like.

I understand that this can be different for different people (genre lovers will hate the idea of rating a formulaic story lower than something else), but I feel certain that we can reach some standard with this route.

As usual this is a discussion in progress. Please feel free to jump in.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can contact me at if you have any questions or wish to discuss something or just to say hi. Look forward to hearing from you. 

Some articles you might also be interested in reading:

# List of the 5 best international novels out there
# 5 Best scifi novels
# An article on what makes a classic book.
# Best books of the 21st century
# Best books of the 20th century
# A review of the Diary of a Man in Despair

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1 comment:

  1. Like what you've done here, but it needs to be pointed out that no one, or few people, will take the time to review a book in this many ways. They may write a review and give it a few stars, but I think that will be the maximum of what they will want to do. So this idea will die from a paucity of users (unwilling to work so hard for a star rating(s)).

    Better to use some method of users like you also liked, or perhaps simply tell people what users like them rated a book, or what their friends rated a book. This will properly use human and social networks for what they're good for.

    Even better would be to create an algorithm that (in the absence of above factors) can properly see what in a set of prose is what a certain reader, from what they already liked, will like. I'm still waiting.


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