We all know ratings are subjective. How did YOU feel about that movie? Did YOU like the food at that restaurant? Even when moving into objective territory (e.g. the product did not work as advertised), there’s still the subjective facet that there could have been user error.

I remember watching a movie with a friend that I thought was fun. I didn’t delve too deeply into the plot (holes or otherwise). To me, it was an enjoyable hour and forty minutes. Afterwards, when she spent the next hour enumerating everything that was wrong with the movie, I disagreed with her on many points. But that movie is now tainted in my memory.

And that was with context. With her explanation of why something made sense to her as part of the magic system or didn’t. Why a character’s actions seemed genuine or trite. Imagine if I’d only seen her star rating for the movie (“ONE star. Would NOT recommend!”) Would that have saved me time because I wouldn’t have bothered seeing it? Or would I have missed out on a movie I actually did end up liking even with her objections laid bare?

Star ratings, while a quick shorthand to try to get a quick sense of other people’s feelings about a movie, food, book, product, etc. without having to read too deeply, end up entirely missing the boat on the complexity of those feelings.

Thus, to choose a book (or restaurant, or movie, etc.) by ONLY star ratings — which are subjective without context — seems like a big mistake for a number of reasons.

  1. You can really miss out. It’s easy to fall into the “I’ll only read a book that has over 3.5 as a cumulative star rating” trap. And this is absolutely a trap. It’s the same trap as randomly asking people on the internet whether you’re going to like a thing when they don’t know you. Even people who do know you, who usually understand your tastes, might disagree with you on one particular story.
  2. Star ratings are still subjective. They give you a quantitative value, which tricks you into thinking they are an actual measure, but it’s just an accumulation of opinions. Someone might be assigning ratings based on whether it included a particular archetype or trope they love or hate. Another might rate based on how action-packed a book was, while another might rate on the poetry of the language. Yet others might be afraid to hurt the author’s feelings (skewing positive), or might realize they get more engagement when they rate poorly and make hilarious jokes at the author’s expense (skewing negative).
  3. Sometimes, you just love what you love. There are plenty of books I’ve enjoyed, that spoke to me for reasons I can’t articulate. And others I’ve disliked in the same way. I can pop a quick five star rating on Goodreads, but my five stars literally means nothing about you. The only way to really know if you’ll like something is to try it.

My advice, should you choose to accept it, is not to ignore star ratings altogether (if there are enough ratings — a large enough sample size — it should at least make up for the subjectivity a bit). But if you’re someone who needs to hear what others thought of a book before you pick it up, I urge you not to take that number at face value. Read a few of the one- or two-star ratings to see what people disliked; maybe that particular thing doesn’t bother you. And a few of the four- or five-star ratings to see if they seem to like the same sorts of things you do. And the blurb for the book.

Once you actually read it (NOT BEFORE; there will absolutely be another post on people who sh*t on something before they’ve consumed it), it’s great to share your opinion — that’s what social media is for — but please don’t berate others who disagree. You’re allowed to unashamedly love or hate your things, and others are allowed to do the same.

As for me, if you see that I haven’t rated a book I’ve marked as read on Goodreads, it may be because my feelings were too complex to adequately capture with a number of stars.

How about you? Do you always give star ratings? Always write a blurb? Neither? Both? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Photo of stars in a jar by Suzy Hazelwood on Stocksnap


  • 5 stars.

    This post gave me a reason, other than just not doing it, for why I don’t write reviews. Or it’s because I’d only give fives to make the author feel good.

    • Agreed! It’s nice to share your opinions for other readers, but you are certainly not obligated to. On the flip side, if you really loved a book it’s helpful to the author if you do rate and share — good ratings always help.

  • Some people save 5-stars for their very favorite book ever. I’m freer with it, usually if I read the book in one sitting, it gets 5 stars even if it’s not my very favorite novel of all time.

    • Meg, thanks for sharing! I can’t imagine having only one “favorite book ever,” so I’m with you. I give fives based on whether the book kept my attention, whether I couldn’t wait to get back to it, whether I wanted to know more about the characters, etc.

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