Monday, March 22, 2010

Grading Books...

...and why I wish reviewers would stick with the star, cup, heart, etc. system. :)

Okay, I admit it, I'm something of a perfectionist. No, really. Despite the little typos and rediculous bits that slip past me and my copyeditors, I am about as Type A as you can get on some things and grades are one of them. I was a straight A student in school - all the way through school. At university, my GPA dropped a tad to the A-/B+ range, but I was working multiple jobs while putting myself through a tough private university. Went back up into the solid A- range in grad school for my MBA. (Marriage was good for me. ::g::) Grades have just always been a big issue for me. They are for a lot of Americans. There are social conventions and judgements made based on the use of our grading system, and this is not something most of us can or even try to dismiss entirely after leaving school.

Grades in school represent the final judgment on your work, a hopefully objective measurement of both your knowledge and effort. And unfortunately, when given in a review, they produce the same angst as a graded paper used to do for me. The difference is, a review is one person's opinion, not the final word on my books. I do know that, but another part of my brain reminds me that grades are final and anything less than an A is unacceptable. Getting a C might as well have been getting an F as far as I, or my family's expectations of me were concerned.

So, like many other people in America, grades carry emotional baggage that a numbered, starred, etc. rating system does not for me. I see a two star review amidst a bunch of 4 and 5 star ratings and think, "S/he is not my target reader." Just like I'm not Stephen King's target reader. He's amazingly talented, but his topics aren't something that I enjoy reading. But the same review given with a B-, or gasp ... C ... triggers an emotional response a lot less pleasant for me.

In addition, there is an assumption of comparison standards used for grading that simply cannot exist in the world of reviewing books. I'd forgotten this, but one of the comment on this post prompted me to add it: I know of a book of mine that got "flunked" by a reviewer and savaged in her commentary, but RT gave it 4 1/2 stars and I got dozens of reader letters saying how much the book had moved them. (It also had a really stellar sell-through. ::g::) If I'd had any respect for that reviewer/site prior to this, I certainly lost it at that point. Her opinion was so totally divergent from *my* reader (that elusive individual who communes with my Muse telling it what will connect to my readers hearts) that I cannot take it seriously. In addition, her clear need to mock the hard work and emotional effort that goes into writing any book (whether mine or someone else's) said something to me about *her* character.

No writer gets it right for every reader. I get that and hope that both readers and reviewers do too. That's not my point. It is that in *my* ideal world, those who choose to review my books would use a metric that does not imply they have the right to fail or pass me at my chosen profession. :)

You see, teachers earn the right to give grades, not only by having learned the topics they teach (and measure a student's competency in), but by holding the job that gives them that right as well; they do get to pass or fail a student (well in most school districts). No matter how many books a reader or reviewer reads, that doesn't make them a novelist. More importantly, it does not make them an acquiring editor either - the only person who really does get to pass or fail a novelist's work.

Do they have the right (and for some, the responsibility) to review and judge books? Absolutely.

But using the grading system shared by the education system has never felt right to me. And now as a published author who gets graded reviews, it bothers me even more.

I don't know if I'll change anyone's mind about using grades instead of a less culturally loaded metric in their reviews, but I'll give my effort a B+. :)

Your turn: how do you feel about grades versus other standards of measurement for reviews?

27 comments:

Stacy~ said...

I tend to agree about the grading system. I don't feel comfortable with it. Numbers/stars for me hold a stronger appeal because they don't seem quite as harsh.

Besides, books are not homework assignments, they are the blood, sweat and tears of an author. I can't imagine "failing" someone on all the effort that went into their livelihood.

Judy F said...

I don't care much for the grading system. Reviews are more objective, my opinion or anothers. A grade would be comparing it to like or similar writing and no two people write alike.

Judy said...

I've been baffled by the grading system in reviews and a little frustrated. What? They don't want to be like everyone else and give stars or hearts? Do they need to feel superior because they give grades? What is the criteria for the grade? How do you know it isn't your calculus teacher grading your English? Whenever I see a grade in the review, I ignore the whole review because I feel like the person needs something I cannot or will not give.

Lucy Monroe said...

Stacy~...that's a great point, wish I'd thought of it, but books aren't any kind of assigment, or even final exam - they are beyond that and treating them like one has never worked for me. I've gotten more sensitive to how much I dislike this since publishing, but I *never* liked reviews with grades.

And flunking a book - no matter where it is in an authors career - is petty and mean. I know of a book of mine that got "flunked" by a reviewer, but RT gave it 4 1/2 stars and I got dozens of reader letters saying how much the book had moved them. (It also had really stellar sell-through. ::g::) If I'd had any respect for that reviewer/site prior to this, I certainly lost it at that point.

JudyF...I hadn't thought of that, but I think you've exposed one of the reasons the grading system carries such emotional baggage with it, it implies the comparison of one book to another - to a standard that can in no way be universal - and that's not what reviewing is about. At least not to me. :)

Judy...now you sound like my husband. He finds the grading system incredibly arrogant. I think some reviewers use it because they've seen others do so and it struck a chord with them. While others? Unfortunately, are no doubt more along the lines you and my husband see. ;-)

I mean there is a tremendous amount of power behind giving a grade that does not exist with other metrics of measurement.

But I want to say that other than a couple of sites/reviewers I am convinced would have made great petty dictators in another life, most graded reviews/reviewers simply don't recognize the potential negative emotional impact using a grade over another metric might have. I think people are far more decent than not! :)

Andrea Becraft said...

My grades in school were always good. I didn't try to hard but I also had an ease in school. Other then in English I always sucked at puncuation and spelling. Hense why I make a better reader then a writer lol. Grades were never an issue so I never looked at them as a problem although getting F on something can be devestating.

As for reviewers of your book a very wise woman said -Nobody can make you feel inferior without your concent-. You have wonderful fans and your books are great. Just because she doesn't like your book doesn't mean oters don't. I know I loved the ones I have read!!!!

Judy F said...

Another thing I don't care for is when a reviewer gives a low score like a 3.1 but then gushes about the book in the review. I don't get those ones.

Or the ones that do an all out attack on the author.

I just like to review the books I like.

Lucy Monroe said...

Andrea, you are so right. And a HUGE thank you! :)

I'm reading a wonderful book on emotion by the renouned psychologist Paul Eckman and he says there are those first moments when certain things trigger emotional responses from us over which we have little to no control. I don't have that gut wrenching moment with a two star review. ;-)

JudyF...I've noticed that too and I always have a "what in the world?" moment. Happened watching "Thin Ice" this weekend too - one of the judges (who was just a card - Dick Button) would criticize the skaters and then give them higher scores than his counterpart judges. They gave him that (pardon the expression) WTF look too. LOL

As for savaging the author - something else is going on there than a book review and frankly, I don't really care what. I just don't want to read it - about anyone. :)

tschlaack said...

I have a hard time with grades and stars as I always want one that is in the middle. If it is 1-3 I want a 2.5 but if it is 1-10 I also like a 8.5. I guess I just have a hard time with ratings in general. To be honest I do review for a site that we don't give rankings we give honest reviews good and bad. Specifically we do not belittle or tear into people, writing is VERY hard work. What we do a little different is that we will recommend books that blow us away. I may have 3 a month or I may go with none for a few months. If it blows me away I am so impressed with the book that I want to read everything by that author (yeah I can become a stalker fan girl). Oh and the 3 a month is after probably an average of 8-10 books a week (audio/ebook/print combined to get the 8-10)
Oh and yes I LOVE Lucy's work.

(arugh why can't I remember my google password) -
Tanya

Tura Lura said...

I will never do graded book reviews. To this point, I haven't even used a rating system on my book review blog. I am thinking of incorporating one in the near future. Probably a ten-point scale, but I haven't decided for sure yet. I may find some cool little image to use...

I'm not only an aspiring writer, I'm also working on my degree in Mathematics Education. I'd much prefer to keep the grades in the classroom. ^_^

Lucy Monroe said...

Tanya...isn't that frustrating? Hubcap fought with Google for hours one time until he realized he was using the wrong email addres for his login id. LOL Thank you for your kind words! I like your take on recommending books that wow you. I'm the same way, when I find a new author I just love, I can't shut up about him/her. :) And I'm not sure what it is, but when I'm given a sliding scale, I always want to slide between numbers too! Maybe that's our right brain tendency poking it's nose in. ;-)

Tura Lura...a ten point scale gives you so many more options for the overall rating, doesn't it? What do you write, btw? :)

Marilyn Shoemaker said...

I always held my breath in school waiting for those grades to come, so I agree with most, I'm not fond of the grading system.

As for a book review, I've been criticized I grade too high and at first that hurt because I love to read romance and share it with others. I understand what I might like, others might not.

When I really get angry is when I read horrible reviews written on Amazon. Nasty doesn't cut it for me! I feel that an author takes the time to write it's with the intent to give something to their readers or why would they do it? If the book didn't work for you, in a kind way say why and then move on.

Chantal said...

I've always used letters, but after reading your blog today I am having second thoughts.
It's just been easy for me to use, so that's why I've done it. Plus, I'm a homeschooler, so I'm used to the letter thing. LOL.

I don't like using stars because so many of the 'for author' review sites use equivalent to stars. They use tea cups or lips or angels, etc,.

I don't pay attention to RT reviews or professional reviewer sites or magazines because I don't trust what they have to say. I care more about reviews from the blogger who went to the store and purchased a book with her own money and is reading because she likes to read, and is posting a review because she wants to tell the world what she thinks of it. Those are the reviews I read and look for.

Often, if I have not yet decide if I want the book or not, I'll skip the review and go right down to see the over-all grade (or number) If an over-all something is lacking, then I'm not happy. Not sure why, LOL. That's why I add an over all grade--those are the types of review I want, so it's what I give :-)

Judy F--I understand. One of the reviewers on blog-land is like that. Her grades never makes sense. An example; She went on and on about how great a book was, didn't have a single negative thing to say about style or story, but them gave it something like a 3.75.
What the heck?
Anyway, I don't read her reviews anymore because what she initially says doesn't match her over all rating.

So Lucy, what your blog said today made me open my eyes. This is what I love about a good opinion... it sometimes changes my stubborn one
Thanks for bringing this up :-)

Lucy Monroe said...

Marilyn...I've never understood the need to criticize someone for giving her honest opinion. Is it less honest just because it isn't negative? I don't think so, but then I've read tons of books I'd give 4 and 5 stars to and a lot less I'd rate below a 3. I've been criticized for being too positive, accused of being insincere because what comes out of my mouth is usually complimentary. My response? If I don't have something nice to say, I often won't say anything. LOL So, beware my silence and stop doubting my sincerity. ;-)

Chantal...I hear what you are saying about trusting other bloggers like yourself rather than professional reviewing entities. I trust very few people for advice on books, but those I know share my hot buttons and visceral reactions get a ton of credence when recommending a new author or book. :)

For me the ultimate success of a book is measured in sell-through (how many readers actually bought and read it) and reader letters/reader reaction directed to me. That's personal and that's measurable for *me*. :)

lidia said...

I agree that assigning grades to books just don't work. Books are not assignments and should not be graded as such.

I like reading objective reviews especially if they are for books written by authors who are not "auto-buy" for me. The reviews will help me decide whether or not to purchase a particular book (I'll find out if it includes my "hot buttons" and won't buy the book in that case.). This is a positive for me because it helps me save money and keeps me from getting frustrated by reading a book that includes for example "cheating" -- something that I avoid.

For auto-buy authors I don't bother reading the reviews -- since I'll buy the books regardless.

I don't mind reviewers stating things that they didn't like about a particular book as long as they don't "attack" the author. It is OK not to like a plot, or the way a character behaves/is portrayed. It is not OK to pick on the author.

Qutie frankly we all have our likes and dislikes and I'd be amazed if someone likes/loves every single book they read.

A pretty long time ago there was a discussion on the I heart Presents site about how a person's life experiences can affect how the author portrays the characters. I found this fascinating because I agree. If an author doesn't have a particular life experience then he/she needs to do a lot of research to portray a character properly.

A few years back there was an HP where the h suffered a miscarriage. I found the way the H spoke to hear/treated her to be appalling. It occurred to me that the author had never sufferred a miscarriage, otherwise she could never have written the H as such a callous person. The h was dealing with the loss, her hormones were all over the place, of course she may have said things that might have been "not rational." So while in general, you could like a specific author, you could still find "fault" with something that she wrote -- and that's OK.

Therefore, I appreciate reading a review that's open and honest even if it does include a statement about something the reviewer didn't like. It is all "in the execution." Author bashing is a no-no and I don't respect people who feel the need to "attack."

Tessa said...

Many good points here. I'm quite ambivalent to book reviews, reviewers can, I think, have a power to destroy for te author, as well as the opposite. And at the same time it's only one person's opinion.

Valerie said...

I really don't read reviews when I purchase a book. I do glance at the stars sometimes. But at the end of the day the review is not really going to impact my purchase of the book. The reason for that is because a review is subjective and often the reviewers underlying pet peeves or agendas influence the review. For instance, I read a review for one of JR Wards books, Lover Avenged I think, and that review completely trashed the book with a lot of incorrect info. I almost chose not to buy the book. When it came out I glanced through it and found the storyline was completely different than I head been led to believe. Another concern I have is that people who do not enjoy romance will weigh in with derogatory revies on romance novels. If you don't like the genre, do not write a review. Leave that for individuals that do enjoy the genre and actually understand it. So at the end of the day take the review with a grain of salt. :)

Valerie said...

Please excuse my typos, typing from my Palm Pre is challenging. :)

Toni said...

I'm going back to school right now but they don't give out grades as such because it is an Applied Technical College so you just see wheather you have mastered the skill or not but still I wish that they would give some idea of how you did on each unit. I was never a straight A student but it still is nice to know how you are doing.
Toni

Lucy Monroe said...

Lidia...I've found reviews helpful in just the way you mention. I *like* knowing in advance if a book hits a hot button for me, on the other hand - as someone mentioned, reviews do not always accurately reflect a book.

Tessa...you are so right. Depending on the author, reviews can truly impact her writing. I choose not accept what does not resonate with me, but I still have those moments of hurt when something I love (my book) is not received with warmth. LOL I refused to let that feeling last however. :)

Valerie...you were the one that mentioned that reviews are not always accurate. Sometimes personal prejudice, or hidden agendas play roles that influence what should be as objective a process as possible. I can appreciate the strengths in a book that would not ultimately be a re-read for me. :)

Toni...I know some schools don't do grades and that really works for a certain type of student (like my son), but would drive me personally nuts. LOL Good on you going back to school!

I absolutely think reviews, done by readers and professionals, are helpful to the whole industry. I just don't want grades used as the standard of measurement of the books overall success. :)

It's just *my* own personal opinion. LOL

sherry said...

I really don't like the grading system, I agree with you and some of the other people this is not homework. I think it's just nicer with stars or even coffee cups.

sstrode@scrtc.com

Karen Kelley said...

Very well said. You're A+, in my opinion :) Which is how I wish the reviewer would start their review--in my opinion. It is their opinion, one person. They need to say what worked, what didn't and leave it at that. Thanks for a wonderful post, it worked for me.

SiNn said...

as a reviewer i have a hard time giving a rating scale most of thetime is ay two thumbs up or what works and doesnt work i never say a letter grat

Karin said...

While reading your comments about grading I had to ask myself how I decided on a grade for a term paper (I am a retired teacher). I could grade on many different areas (spelling, grammar, accuracy, etc.). I COULD NOT grade on whether I liked or agreed with the topic of the paper. I think this is what some book reviewers seem to do.

Lucy Monroe said...

Thank you, Sherry...it's really interesting to me to hear what readers think of the system as well. So far, for the most part - they don't seem to be any more enamored of it than I am. :)

Thanks, KarenK! Coming from a talented author like yourself, that just makes me blush. :) Smooches!

Karin...that is fabulous point! When I was working as an assistant professor during my years in graduate school, when the professor had me grade papers, exams - the standards he stressed were always knowledge of topic, analytical skills, etc. Not whether I liked the papers or agreed with the premise in an essay answer. :)

erahime said...

Since I wasn't a "perfect" student during school, I really think that the grading system sucked big time.

As for book reviews, I don't get the five star thing. I mean, yeah, it is based on a lot of things, but it is really REALLY hard to just simplify a book and grade it with five stars. Someone should break it down and grade each component (i.e. grammar, plot, entertainment, etc.), grade them, and the avg. of that will be the final grade. AND if there is actually one of those, I wish that it was more widely used.

For me, if it grabs me, I'll read it, no matter the stars or reviews. A reader's review helps, but it really doesn't sway me because I rather be the one to see if that certain book applies to my interest or not. I'm picky in my books so I got to have it in my hands and see if the book grabs my attention/interest or not.

There are so many readers out there who are either a fan or not of authors' works that if I had read each bad or good review, I would have been turned off by the negativity of the bad reviews. Why, I read this sorta-negative review of an author that I've been reading and I can understand her points about the book she was reviewing but it really didn't make me sway to her side. I did read the comments and it made me realize that there are some author's fans who had stepped down from avid readers to readers who'll read the author's works now and then, or not become the author's fans anymore. It opened my eyes, but did it really sway me away from being that author's fan? No.

So to conclude, I don't see the point of the grading system other than that it is good for acknowledging an author's works AND it is sorta based on personal preference.

Lucy Monroe said...

Erahime...it is interesting to see how other readers respond to certain authors. I remember seeing a review of one of my favorite author's recent books in which the reviewer said the author had gotten stale for her. I, on the other hand, found the book a wholly different tack for this author to take and absolutely refreshing in the genre. It's a truly subjective business and I think most reviewers (whether they be professional or readers) realize that. Those that don't come off as arrogant and even spiteful, no matter what kind of metric they use to measure a book's "quality". :)

erahime said...

And Lucy, that's why I rarely let the reviews determine if I'll read/buy that book or not.

However...reviews DOES help the authors. Even if they are bad or good, they give insight to the author's works, and it helps encourage the author to get better/work harder/continue writing more works. I'm saying this because of the personal works that I did share with others, who gave their reviews to me and it helps me and makes me happy to realize that others appreciate my works and give me criticism for improvement.

Thus, reviews are good AND bad. It has pros and cons, but in general, it DOES help. Somewhat.