A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

I Flunk at Grading

on October 30, 2013

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.



10 responses to “I Flunk at Grading

  1. MD says:

    Fair shouldn't weigh into it IMO. I grade based on how much I enjoyed a book and that's it. Fantastic prose but bored me silly: 2-3 stars. Terrible writing but couldn't put it down: 3-4 stars. I've given 1 star to Judith Ivory just because I hated everything about the story and characters. I gave 3.5 stars to Fifty which I read in one sitting because there was just something that compelled me to keep reading. If Ms. Ivory and Ms. James want to take something from that which I didn't intend that's on them. My rating is merely how much I enjoyed reading that particular book, flaws, merits, and all.

  2. farmwifetwo says:

    My grades are 100% emotional. I might give an extra half or even full star for something technical but it comes down to "will I read this again or not".

  3. Jessica says:

    As a reviewer, I don't grade. I think it's just too hard to boil down a complex experience into one letter, for all the reasons you state here. But as a review reader, I really like grades. I'll always read an A or an F review, because that one letter tells me the reviewer felt very strongly, and I want to know why. I guess it's a little hypocritical, but there it is!

  4. vacuousminx says:

    Oh, how I hate blogger. It ate yet another of my brilliant comments. 😉 You'd think I'd learn to copy before clicking by now. Short version: I grade students every day, so I feel like I should be able to grade a book I read for pleasure. I approach it using the dog show method: does the book do what it is supposed to do, and how well does it do that, both in terms of craft and in terms of emotional punch *for me*? So a screwball romance and a literary history can both get 5 stars or 1 star, that doesn't mean they're the same types of books. Then I sit on the grade for a bit and see if it feels fair. Sometimes a B- will turn into a C+ or vice versa. The A grades are hardest, the D grades are probably the easiest (because I don't finish the books that would earn F grades).

  5. Jen says:

    I struggle with this too. I was just writing a review today for a book that I kinda hated for the first 2/3 but then liked a bit for the last 1/3. I didn't want to give it too low a grade because in the end, I did come away thinking it wasn't so bad, but at the same time when I wrote out by review I mostly had negative things to say. Do I grade based on my overall impression, or based on whether there were more bad things than good? For me, I just try to balance based on my gut instance. I find the A/5 star reviews hardest, though. Does a 5 star mean the book was perfect? If I had a couple issues, can I still give it 5 stars? I'm really stingy with giving those 5 star reviews for that reason.

  6. willaful says:

    I've gotten the copy before clicking *down*. This blogger/wordpress thing is like the DRM of blogging.

  7. willaful says:

    Yeah, to all of this.

  8. AJH says:

    Well, grading books isn't like, for example, grading students – although to be honest, I think grading students is kind of problematic as well because, as I said in my endless ramble on this subject, nobody can actually agree what grading (and more broadly education) is *for*. Partially the reason I don't grade books is because I'd rather, well, read books and write about them, than have to fuss about this type of thing all the time.My general feeling on this subject is I wish people weren't constantly obliged to worry about it. Don't get me wrong, I think it behoves us all to occasionally wonder what we're doing, and is it right, but I think reviews are as open to interpretation as texts are.And when I see you've given a book an A, I don't immediately start interrogating that and trying to contextualise it scientifically against other grades you've given, I just think "wow, Willaful really liked that book, maybe I should read it, because I tend to like books Willaful likes."If I happen to dislike the book I don't then wail and gnash my teeth and write letters to my local MP about the fact Willaful has given a book an A I would personally consider only worthy of a B. All that matters to me, as an avid consumer of reviews, is that the reviewer makes a coherent case for the grade they've given. And reading is both emotional, subjective and a journey – I think to a degree reviews chart the journey, since where a book *leaves* you is perhaps the most impactful part of the whole experience. Which, perhaps, is why books that don't live up to their initial promise do "worse" (grade-wise) compared to books that initially frustrate you and then sweep you up.I think this is why well-written reviews engage me so much – because it's this wonderful synthesis of emotion and intellect, and both have their place.I think what I'm trying to say in my fatally verbose way is don't worry, be happy 😉

  9. willaful says:

    I wonder how much money it would take to convince Bobby McFerrin to sum up one of your posts in song. 😉

  10. willaful says:

    P.S. Bobby McFerrin's version of book reviews wouldn't do anyone much good. "It's great, spend your money!"

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