The Yellow Wallpaper, the problems with star ratings, and escapist fiction

Posted by Shannon Haddock on September 5, 2014 in Rants, Reviewing |
Cover of "The Yellow Wallpaper and Other ...

Cover via Amazon

In college I briefly was an English major.  During this less than enjoyable time, I had to read many, many depressing stories.  “The Yellow Wallpaper” has come in my mind to represent all of them, partially because it was one of the final straws in me changing my major.  It was a brilliant story, an important story, a well-written story.  It was not, however, a story I enjoyed at all. Because of this, if I were to give it a rating somewhere like goodreads or amazon, I’d give it only two stars if I were to try to be honest to what the stars mean.

You see what many people don’t realize, unfortunately, is that those stars are supposed to be a rating of your enjoyment of a story, not its technical merits.  They’re supposed to mean, on goodreads:

1 — didn’t like it

2 — it was ok

3 — liked it

4 — really liked it

5 — it was amazing

and on amazon:

1 — I hate it

2 — I don’t like it

3 — it’s ok

4 — I liked it

5 — I love it

You notice how all of those, except possibly “it was amazing” are opinions, not an actual rating of the quality of a story?  Annoying, isn’t it?

Now, for some people, like the founder of one review group I’m in and most English majors I’ve known, this isn’t a problem.  Their enjoyment seems to be based on how well-written a story in and have nothing to do with whether or not the story itself is actually enjoyable.  For me, however, this creates a serious issue when it comes to reviewing things.

You see . . . oh, screw it, I’ll let Neil Gaiman explain it:

“And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

That’s what I enjoy in fiction:  escaping from reality.  There’s nothing fun about reading about depressing situations that have no hope of getting better which is what so much literary fiction seems to be about.  It may be brilliant, but I can’t say “I love it” when I come away from the story needing to watch hours of The Guild and play fetch with my dog to remind myself that there is still such a thing as happiness and joy in the universe.

This is presently causing me a serious dilemma.  I’ve got a book of short stories I agreed to review.  From a technical side, they’re wonderful.  There have been a few punctuation errors and a typo or two, but other than that, they’re nearly perfect.  Unfortunately, they’re also all depressing.  Every one of them is about loss and despair and other such cheerful subjects.  So do I give the collection four or five stars for being well-written and doing exactly what it set out to do (four because some of the shorter pieces are too short to really tell the story they’re trying to tell), or do I give it only one or two because it is so very, very much something I’d never want to read?

I know what I’ll do this time, since it’s a book for a review group.  I’ll give it four or five because of all the stuff I talked about in my last post on reviewing.  But, what if it was a book I’d bought because I’d been interested in it?  What would I have done then?  I’m not sure.  Because I wouldn’t want people to get the impression it’s poorly written — and let’s be honest, more people pay attention to the stars than they do the actual reviews, but on the other hand, I’m lying to say it was something I enjoyed.  Maybe I should just do what one of my favorite authors did on a book, say something like “The star rating system is inadequate to explain my feelings on this book” and then review it without leaving any stars.  Doesn’t work on amazon, but it does on goodreads, which probably has a more intelligent user base.

I don’t think I’ll be doing any more review groups.  They are a great way to get reviews, but my experiences have not been great, and I’m way behind on my for pleasure reading.  Unless anyone would be interested in starting a space opera specific one?  Maybe I could get behind that . . .

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