Category: lies

Ratings are Bullshit

by Jason on

I have become bullshit, destroyer of words I have become bullshit, destroyer of words

I recently purchased and read the science-fiction series [Redacted] (books 1-4) by [Author Redacted]. I emphasize purchased because in an age of Amazon Prime, Amazon Unlimited and free giveaways a purchase indicates confidence in selection. At this point I will malign the books, not because they’re bad (though I think they are) but because of the reviews and the reviewers.

Before I get to the ratings I’ll explain why I didn’t enjoy these books. If I were forced to give a rating on the standard scale I’d give these one out of a possible five stars and my rationale would be that they were legible and contained relatively few obvious errors. Things did improve by book 4 so I might possibly stray as high as a 2.

There is nothing terrible in these books however there is also very little of anything else within. Immediately after I began the first book in the series a small coal of loathing alighted on soul. By the 2nd book the warm loathing had grown into a mild hatred and I plodded through more out of a duty to my wallet than for enjoyment. In fairness, with these books it is appropriate to say that each was better than the last.

Normally, at this point after a bad read, I’d chalk it up to just an unfortunate purchase but I believe this series is indicative of a problem. Ratings on practically everything have become bullshit. The ratings for this series on Amazon and Goodreads are simply ridiculously off-kilter with the quality of the works. Perhaps readers were interested, as I was, by the author’s ideas. (They are decent and sometimes original.) However the death of these books is in the pacing and structure.

For illustration purposes I have provided a plot synopsis from any one of these books: (no spoilers…)

That thing happened you were kinda interested in and then something else happened and then something else and then something else and then Jason Statham jumped out and shot a few guys and then that thing you were kinda interested in was referenced again and then someone kissed somebody. The End.

All fire, no smoke.

As I’ve said, for me, 1-2 out of 5. For hundreds of other people however, this is, apparently, fantastic. A significant number of people give these books 4 and 5 stars.

I believe it is safe to assume the 5 star people do the same thing I do with books I believe are of that quality: Buy a physical copy to go along with my digital read; give them out as presents; think back fondly and often on them; consider what the book says about me and about you; try to bring it up in conversation so I can recommend it to others; consider placing closer on a shelf in my office just so I can see it every once in awhile, even if I don’t have time to read it right then; if I’m in a used book store: look for signed copies; etc and etc…

I’ve re-read some of these reviews, worrying that maybe these books were actually parodies of something I wasn’t aware of or perhaps I should be reading them as an acrostic and there’s an entirely different story I could reveal hiding just below the milquetoast surface. Maybe I’m just too shallow to “get” it? I don’t think that’s the case. Here’s an example 5 star review:

5/5 - It lived up to my expectations of it.
– Some guy on Goodreads
Aha! Perhaps I’m far too judgmental!

When I read House of Leaves I was enthralled by the winding storytelling. I was deeply uncomfortable while at the same time being enraptured by the process of reading it. In every aspect it defied my expectations. When I read The Road the characterization was so real that for two years after the movie adaptation came out I argued with Cynthia that I had already seen it. It remains that vivid in my memory. Trying to compile a list of my 5 star books would be practically impossible: A Confederacy of Dunces, Dune, Snowcrash, The Shining, Ubik, Hell House, Slaughterhouse Five, Neuromancer, Shame, IT, The Magic Mountain, A Stranger in a Strange Land … (Going back to childhood: Watership Down **, Bunnicula, Indian in the Cupboard, an endless list of wonder … )

How, in a world where a 5 is “lived up to my expectations”, is it possible to rate these, some of my favorite books?

It’s not entirely fair to pick on this single 5 star rating and use it for illustrative purposes. I’m sure there are many other reasons to rate a book 5/5. For me to rate a book a 5 (since this is the highest possible praise I can heap on it) means that this book has attained a permanent place in my life. I know that my 5 is not your 5 and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I believe there is something deeply wrong with a 5, or even a 4, being expected for the overwhelming majority of books. (Or something deeply wrong about a 4 or 5 being “met expectations.”)

Of course, I haven’t officially rated the aforementioned sci-fi series anywhere and I won’t. I understand that the process of gaining positive reviews is currently the gateway to financial success for self-published authors and whom am I to stand in the way? (I appreciate that trashing them publicly is probably mean, but I doubt it’s financially impactful, who reads this blog anyway? I also recognize that I’m part of the problem by not giving these books a bad review on Amazon but I’ll get to why I’m more than just that part of the problem in a minute.)

For me the issue with these was pacing and structure. As I’ve said: all fire, no smoke. Tension, character development, world building, all practically non-existent. If someone wants their novels and novellas just crammed with action, written at an easy reading level and short enough to get through in an evening, whom am I to say their taste is lacking?

Recently I was fortunate to sit in on a talk by splatter-core author Tim Miller and someone asked why his books were relatively short compared to standard novel formats (30k-40k words as opposed to 50k-70k.) And he mentioned that as a reader he enjoyed action. I believe he said something like this: (I didn’t take notes, so my apologies if I’m quoting you incorrectly Tim):

I want to know what happens next. I don’t want to know that they went home and made a sandwich, what kind of sandwich it was etc.
– Poorly remembered Tim Miller quote
… And right then I knew I probably wouldn’t enjoy his books. (Sorry again Tim! However I will purchase one since I name checked you.)

See, I’m the kind of reader that wants to know what sandwich was made and why. I want to know that the heroine used mayonnaise. When she was growing up all her father would buy was mustard because when the power was turned off the mustard never went bad. No matter how she was sometimes nostalgic for her father’s bologna, American cheese and French’s mustard sandwiches she just can no longer tolerate the vinegary smell and the memories of poverty they evoke. It’s not that she preferred mayonnaise. (It’s nothing as casual as a preference.) She was of mayo, she lived it.

So, for me, a book that lacks the “middle” parts between action simply cannot attain a 5. In fiction I can’t connect with a series of events on the same level I can with a character that participates in the events. And I can’t connect with that same character if I’m just provided a few short facts about them.

I began thinking about this due to the combination of listening to Mr. Miller and reading the, now, much maligned sci-fi series. If I remember correctly this post was originally titled something I thought witty about action, action, action etc. It grew into a rant about ratings as I reflected why I purchased those books in the first place.

You see I decided to check out some of my public ratings and reviews. I won’t link them out of shame but you can find them easily enough. As an example: I gave Hugh Howey’s Wool a 5. I really liked Wool when I read it but it’s not a 5. At best it’s a 3 and the series is, perhaps, a 4. Wool is imaginative and fun but it is a bonsai in a forest of redwoods compared to many of my favorite books.

Cynthia and I joke about my Netflix ratings the same way. Officially the 5 stars on Netflix mean the following:

  1. Hated it.
  2. Didn’t like it.
  3. Liked it.
  4. Really liked it.
  5. Loved it.
In practice my star ratings on Netflix mean the following:

  1. It was absolute garbage. There’s no 0 or I would rate this 0.
  2. They tried really hard. It was on film and everything! (Their mom did a great job as the casting director.)
  3. This was a complete waste of time but had professional actors doing their thing.
  4. Pretty decent!
  5. This changed my life! It should be on your bucket-list.
Here is the crux of the problem: I lie. I lie to myself and to the small stars. I inflate everything. It’s as if I know the guy who starred in it is out of work and would be super sad if I rated this craptastic independent docu-drama 1 star so I give it 2, maybe 3 stars.

With books it’s exponentially worse and much more personal. With a book there is a singular author. Not a huge film crew and group of actors, but a real, flesh and blood, individual who has dedicated a huge gulf of their life to this work. When I start to rate the book unless it is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors I start at a 2. Then I think: hey this book was free (+1), didn’t I see somewhere that his kid has lupus? (+1) and I didn’t fall asleep immediately while reading (+1).

Bam: 5 out of 5 stars. I’m a monster. I am ruining literature one rating at a time.

An original version of this post listed a particular sci-fi series and I felt bad about the guy’s lupus kid** so I removed these references. Hint: It’s about nano technology, artificial intelligence, spaaaaaaaaaace, and freakin laser-beams.

* I read this as an adult and loved* it.

* This is a joke.