Recommend What’s Good, Never Mind the Stars

Recommend the books you like, and stay silent on the books you don’t. If a book’s content offended your sensibilities in some overwhelming way, and it was somehow a surprise, and you can’t help yourself, then write a negative review if you must. There are places and times for negative reviews, but mostly not. Otherwise, here are the best things that anyone can do to help the book industry, help their favorite authors rise to the top, and improve a culture of reading:

  • Write good reviews about what you like.
  • Recommend those books through social media and in person.

It’s that simple, nothing more than a two-step process, but it’s critical to improving book culture, and the quality of the books which rise to the top. If I could wave a magic wand, I would force Amazon, as well as Barnes & Noble, to abandon their five-star rating systems in favor of a mere “Recommend” system. Someone can either recommend a book, or not; there would not even be a thumbs-down option. Then, if if a reader is so moved, one can leave a review. That’s it.

Why? The five-star system leads to some peculiarities which now dominate book culture. For example, one of the best-written and most important science-fiction novels of the twentieth century, The Handmaid’s Tale, has an equal rating to Fifty Shades of Grey.1

Recommend _The Handmaid's Tale_.
How is it one of the greatest science-fiction novels of the twentieth century earns the same rating as a badly informed masturbation fantasy filled with dangerous BDSM advice? Look to the culture of bias.

How can this possibly be so? Are these two books, then, truly on equal footing? No, not even close, and this can be explained by understanding that we live in a culture of bias. With respect to five-star-rating systems and ranting reviews, the culture of bias tends to over-celebrate books which probably don’t deserve the hype, and under-respect books which have incredibly important or difficult things to say which could inform the dialogue of a mature society.

The five-star rating system, and its associated rant culture, encourage a leveling to the lowest common denominator, a regression toward the mean, and a celebration of mediocrity. It can’t help itself—the system mathematically demands that this be so, because a five-star system appears quantitative and official when in fact it is entirely subjective and largely arbitrary. This is its deceit. The four stars of Grey do not equal the four stars of Handmaid’s, and they never will, but it sure appears that they do in a list of books on Amazon.

The rant-reviews, too, do not help. One- and two-star ratings accompanied by “this wasn’t for me” or “this book was too difficult for me” or “I just didn’t get it” are of no help to anyone, and they encourage a culture in which categorical errors and misapplied subjectivity draw down the ratings of objectively better books. No book deserves a one-star review because someone thinks it “just wasn’t for me.” No book should ever receive a one-star review because it was challenging, and yet challenging books garner one-star reviews all the time, for no other reason than that they are challenging. This, and other such fallacies, cause many book-shoppers to choose what probably doesn’t deserve their time and to gloss over what probably requires a closer look; worse, it causes them to down-rate books and drive other readers from those books, for the worse.

I don’t know what to do about this. Amazon and Barnes & Noble aren’t going to abandon the five-star system, not unless legions of readers were to agree with me on this point, to perceive the harm of the five-star system, or there were to be a major shift from inside the industry. I think that’s unlikely.

Instead, let’s agree to write good, generous, frequent reviews of the works we hold most worthy, and to recommend what we truly believe worthwhile to others, both online and in person. It’s the only way that book culture can grow, especially a culture of good books. If we must critique, then truly critique—try not to rant—and let’s be sure we’re not simply spewing our own inner failings and disappointments. Be thoughtful. Read more.

Reader Bias, Analysis, and the Lie of Five Stars
Reading no. 1—Carrie Vaughn & Laurence MacNaughton


  1. An even better comparison is between Fifty Shades and Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, both of which are erotica but only one of which is good. See my discussion.

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