I’ve been going out of my mind over book grades lately. I start comparing every grade I’ve ever given, wondering how it makes any sense to give one book with some fabulous writing a lower grade than another with more conventional prose. Wondering what the hell the difference between “like” and “really like” even is. Wondering if I’m too harsh or too soft. All I know for sure is I’m too confused.
It used to be fairly simple to translate a feeling about my reading experience into GoodReads stars, basically a numerical grade. I’d often know within a page of starting a book where it was likely to end up on the scale — not that I wouldn’t ever be surprised, because sometimes a seemingly fluffy book will pull out some real depth, or a gorgeously written book will just go nowhere. The first situation is fairly simple: hey, this fluffy 3 star book is really good, guess it’s a 4 star after all! (My recent review of Sleigh Bells in the Snow is a perfect example.) The second has always been more troublesome, because how much did it hurt to give Duke of Shadows three stars? I initially thought it might be one of the best book I’d ever read.
And now, suddenly it’s all difficult. I think a big part of the problem is that I’m reading riskier books, and they’re more likely to be a mixed bag. And I don’t know how to allow for that. Do I grade up to reward the author for taking the risks? Do I give more weight because of the book’s special qualities? If I do that, am I misleading readers?
It seems that I’m trying to analyze what I used to just rely on, my gut reaction. The quality of the writing matters to me, as does the general intent — I won’t expect great depths of characterization in a Harlequin Presents, for example, but it damn well better deliver on the gut-twisting. (Another way in which risky books make this harder, since it’s not always as obvious what the intent is.) But ultimately, I think it comes down to the reading experience for me. That’s the place I want to grade from, the place that says yes, in this context it makes perfect sense to give the same grade to Emma and to The Brazillion’s Blackmailed Mistress.
And the weird thing is, flaws in an otherwise fantastic book often stand out more than flaws in a book that’s “a great read.” I gave 5 stars to On the Island, a book I seriously thought initially that I might not even finish, because the writing seemed so pedestrian. But it quickly become one of those incredible sweep-you-away books, and the fact that I had an issue or two seemed pretty irrelevant. And now I’m worrying, is that fair to the authors who got 4 1/2 stars? And what the hell is the word fair even doing in a discussion of something as subjective as book reviewing?
I just need to tuck my brain into bed with a soft blankie and a pacifier.