A Schoolmarm Ponders Star Ratings & Grades

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Call me “Schoolmarm,” but I deplore star ratings at customer reviews.

According to NPR, The Guardian, and Forbes, the new physical Amazon bookstore in Seattle carries mostly books with at least four-star ratings from customer reviews at Amazon and Goodreads (which Amazon owns).

I am not one of Amazon’s critics.  It is my favorite bookstore.  It has everything: reference books, small-press books, out-of-print books, classics, mysteries, poetry.  I cannot be forever flying off to New York or London to buy books.  I wish we had an Amazon bookstore here.

But many of my favorite books get less than four stars.

At Goodreads, Erica Jong’s new feminist novel, Fear of Dying, gets an average of 3.10 stars.

Oh, come on!  It should be at least a four!

One Goodreads consumer who gave it three stars writes,

I haven’t read Fear of Flying or anything else by Erica Jong to compare it with, but I’m not sure what I just read. I feel like I read a long meditation – perhaps a thinly veiled autobiographical one – about aging and death.

Yup, I’m going to read this reviewer regularly because she’s so brilliant.

Holly LeCraw’s stunning novel,The Half-Brother, recommended as an under-the-radar read by the librarian Nancy Pearl, receives a 3.32 average rating at Goodreads.  Amazon reviewers give it a 3.6 star rating.  Pretty good, right?  But not a four.

Great Expectations gets a 3.72 at Goodreads but the Amazon reviewers know their stuff:  four!

Lawrence Durrell gets high ratings at Goodreads because only extraordinary people read him.

But how did:

L. P. Hartley end up with 2.86 stars for My Fellow Devils?

Anne Beattie with 3.10 stars for The State of Things: Maine Stories?

Edna O’Brien’s with 3.76 for The Love Object: Selected Stories?

I am also not keen on grades at reviews or blogs.

As a former schoolmarm, I know that “A” means “brilliant and worked hard,” “B” means “breezed in with fairly good work that didn’t take hard work,” and “C” means “barely acceptable.”  The true meanings of grades do not apply to book reviews.

At Entertainment Weekly, which features brilliant, lively, thoughtful, short book reviews, the grade is a gimmick.  Lucia Berlin’s brilliant posthumous collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, gets an A, as it should, but Mary Gaitskill gets an A-  for The Mare and Isabel Allende a B- for  The Japanese Lover.  All three are “A” writers, so it’s absurd to grade them. Judge the book and  review it, but the grade undercuts the review.

And what if Virginia Woolf had given Persuasion four stars?

In her essay, “Jane Austen,” in The Common Reader, she wrote,

There is a peculiar dullness and a peculiar beauty in Persuasion. The dullness is that which so often marks the transition stage between two different periods. The writer is a little bored. She has grown too familiar with the ways of her world. There is an asperity in her comedy which suggests that she has almost ceased to be amused by the vanities of a Sir Walter or the snobbery of a Miss Elliott. The satire is harsh, and the comedy crude. She is no longer so freshly aware of the amusements of daily life. Her mind is not altogether on the subject. But, while we feel that Jane Austen has done this before, and done it better, we also feel that she is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted. There is a new element in Persuasion, a quality, perhaps, that made Dr. Whewell fire up and insist that it was “the most beautiful of her works.”

She did not mean Persuasion got a B!