Tuesday, September 08, 2009

scoring reviews and other bullshit

Harry Markov over at Temple Library Reviews has an interview with Paul Stotts, the blogger at Blood of the Muse. I've enjoyed the interview series so far, but one particular response of Paul's just bugged the shit out of me.

Paul was asked about his system of rating books on a 100 point scale. Paul's response:
I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors. So they write reviews that are open to interpretation, using nebulous terms like good, overemphasizing the positive aspects of the book, trying very hard not to have an opinion. It’s okay, you’re entitled to have an opinion, you’re entitled to take a stand and let people know what you think.

See, words lie; numbers don’t. And I don’t want to lie to my audience. So I score every book on a scale of 100. Like any review, the number is completely subjective; there are no underlying components. I score books by ranking them against other novels I’ve read in the genre. It’s rather simple. But effective.
I call bullshit.


It's not cowardice and it's not a cop out. It's not about appeasing publishers.

What it is about is being as honest as you can about the book you are writing about while understanding that the number doesn't mean a damn thing if I can't convey my thoughts clearly. And many times I can't, and giving an 87/100 on the bottom of a poorly written review of mine would be nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

What it is about is understanding that in something so subjective as talking about books, numbers don't mean anything. They lie as much as words. The review is based on your impression of a given book at the time that you write the review. If you change your mind later and think the 87 should really have been an 82, do you go back and change your score? Do you think that nothing deserves a 100/100 because no novel is perfect, but something comes along that is so good that you feel is just this side of perfection and you want to score it a 98 to reflect that. Except that you've given 97's before and this is so much better than that 97. Do you change your 97? Do you bump the new book to a 99? Does this new book shine so brightly that the book you gave a solid 80 to is now a 75 in comparison?

I don't want to lie to my audience either. So I don't. It's that simple.
I think writing a review, and not giving it some sort of numerical score is a cop out; it’s cowardice—pure and simple—since many online reviewers don’t want to upset publishers or authors.
The arrogance! Are your numerical reviews so superior to Larry Nolen's unnumbered reviews? Is Larry a coward who doesn't speak his mind? Was I unclear when I reviewed Ammonite? Do the reviewers at Strange Horizons lie to their readers? Did I try to appease the publisher when I reviewed Sung in Blood? Do others? Who?

The thing is, Paul, you do a good job with your reviews. Your review of Warbreaker is solid. It tells me what I'd want to know. The 91/100 you gave the book? Superfluous. If it wasn't clear for the rest of the review, the last two paragraphs sold your opinion. If you want to slap an arbitrary number on the bottom of your review, feel free. If I was feeling uncharitable I might call giving a numerical score lazy, because I believe the review should really stand on its own and clearly state the opinion of the reviewer. I'm not feeling that uncharitable, though, and your reviews wouldn't deserve that because they do stand on their own and clearly state your opinion.

You see value in your numbers, fine. The text of the review backs that up. But to describe reviewers who don't slap a numerical score on their reviews as cowards sucking on the teat of publishers and authors*, well, sir...

That's just bullshit, lazy, and arrogant. I can't speak for anyone else, but I don't score my reviews because the numbers wouldn't mean anything to me, let alone another reader.

I find that opinion of yours to be a 1/10 and my response to be a 77/100.

*that last bit of imagery is mine.


Anonymous said...

I thought a lot about this when I started reviewing and for me it's just an elaboration of the binary, "Is this good or is it not." For me, it's nigh impossible to answer unequivocally yes or no.

One solution to this is to increase the number of buckets to 5, 10, or 11. Hell, you could go ape shit and use an even bigger number like 100.

Another solution would be to rate more things than just the book as a whole. You could assign that yes or no to everything from the cover to the plot to the adverb density. If you did that for 100 different elements then that 100 scoring system acutally has meaning.

The problem with the 2nd system (which I tried my darnedest to implement) is that your ratings are flawed in a few ways. You can end up with a 99/100 for a book because it was perfect, but didn't make convincing use of zombies and that was one of your 100 ways to rate a book. If you avoid the above by just averaging the rating you give each element that the book contains, you can end up with a very high rating for a painfully simple book that just avoids the elements you normally like. And whatever happens, you're losing a TON of data when you collect all of that into a single number.

The SINGLE thing that a number does well is let you sort reviews by a reviewer according to their opinion, which is basically what Stotts was saying. Using numbers subjectively irks me a bit, but as long as I think about it in terms of "this reviewer thinks x is better than y is better than z"

Using x/100 as your system IMPLIES to anyone who went through the public school system that you're grading something on many different factors and then coming up with a percentage. The interviewer obviously assumed this.

Where I ended up in my musings on rating books led me down a further elaboration of the second version I listed above... and thus I was plotting Science Fiction vs Vampires over the weekend.

I would SERIOUSLY like to debate this issue further.

Chad Hull said...

I couldn't agree with you more. I don't use numbers on my reviews. I also don't take "hand out" books from publishers. Does that lend more crediblity to my reviews than Paul's? I don't think so.

The whole 'numbers don't lie' thing is comical. If you mean 2 plus 2 equals 4, then yes, numbers are irrefutable. But by sayings his reviews are subjective and numbers are an exact science doesn't add up.

For the record, I like Paul's reviews, but you have to read enough of them (the words he writes) to understand what the number--grade--means.

97/100, or whatever the score is doesn't mean anything on it's own in terms of a book review. This isn't a math test. If 97/100 did mean the same thing to everyone reading a review than Paul wouldn't bother writing all those lovely words (the actual review) above his score.

Valashain said...

I don't add a rating to the reviews on my blog. I do at librarything, but there I frequently notice that my ratings don't make a whole lot of sense in light of what I have recently read and enjoyed. What I think is good, or very good, or excellent is so fluid and so easily influenced by my reading that whatever rating system I could come up with wouldn't make sense to me after a few months. And if I can't make sense of my own system, how on earth is it going to help anyone else?

Adele said...

I never check numerical scores and I don't use them. I find them meaningless. I realise that some people might find them helpful, but I am looking for something in the text that tells me whether "I" will like the book or not, rather than how much the reviewer liked it on a 1 - 10 scale.

I also have certain reviewers who if they say "buy this" I do because I have read their reviews and thought, "yep that's what i thought too" often enough that I trust them to pick books for me. Others, I read because I enjoy their reviews but have no interest in the books so the scoring is totally irrelevant.

Joe said...

Val: I agree. I don't think I'd be able to trust my own numbers.

Chad: I double checked some of Paul's reviews before finishing the entry, and I think Paul is a solid reviewer. I've no problem with his content OR his scoring.

I've got a serious problem with that statement, though.

Mentat: I would have to work way, way, way too hard to come up with a solid ratings system that I could justify using. I'm not convinced I would ever be happy with it, and I'd be more frustrated working with it. Paul mentioned that his numerical score is entirely subjective and is only based on his impressions of comparison against other genre books. And that's fine for him, but as a reader, if I don't know that you (generic) think that Christopher Paolini is a 100/100 author...well, then I'm being misled by numbers.

Larry Nolen said...

*psst* My last name is spelled with an e, not an a :P

As for the post itself, I agree, naturally. I almost thought about asking if I could borrow EM for a more thorough dissection of the asinine comments, but I think the invective I imagined on my own will be suitable enough. Hope you enjoy my one and only use of a rating system, Joe! ;)

My response, with R-rated language

Joe said...

Lerry? Oh, LAST name!

I give my spelling of your name 1 out of 10 hair's of Terry Goodkind's beard.

And...bless you with a solid 9.25 of of 9.2675 acres of farmland, I rather enjoyed that.

Larry Nolen said...

Will that level me up now? :P And to think I've never played a game of D&D in my lifetime! :P

Joe said...

I haven't played one off a console, so I'm not sure how that would play on a 20 sided die.

I think it makes you a level twenty elf-orc-omancer or something.

Marc said...

I agree with you Joe. I wrote Amazon reviews before I started my own blog, and I often had trouble with their scale. I'm sure most people reading this have seen Amazon reviews where the reviewer states something like, "this is really a 3.5 star book, but I rounded up/down."

I try to give my views on a book via my statements in the text, pointing out interesting features along the way. These features may be the highlight of the book for some readers, and may ruin it for others. Does that make it a good book, or a bad one? Not at all. And in some ways, my opinion of the book doesn't really matter. For that reason. I always try to set the book (or whatever I'm reviewing) into some sort of context, so that the reader of the review has a basis for judging how that work will likely suit their own taste in books or music (or whatever).

Ronnica said...

I do use a 5 point scale, for my benefit and the benefit of my readers. Doesn't mean that I begrudge someone else for not. It's a way for me to give the gist of my opinion simply, but without getting into the nitty-gritty. The bottom line of sorts. When I read a review, it's not always clear what the reviewers opinion is (whether it's more positive or negative), but a number helps me realize more clearly what they thought. We're very clear at our blog that the number is one person's opinion of how well THEY liked the book. I also like being able to sort through my reviews by stars. If someone wants a suggestion? I turn first to my list of 5-star books and go from there.

Perhaps I'm more analytical than most book lovers, I don't know.

Joe said...

No problem with that, Ronnica. My only issue is with the inherent superiority of Paul's comment, not with the actual use of numerical scoring.

Use them or not, no skin off my back. :)

Harry Markov said...

First of all thank you for the compliment. I didn't suspect that these interviews to catch on to be honest, so to read a reaction on so many blogs is kind of a surreal moment for me.

I use a rating system, when I feel like my review is treading in unclear water, mostly if a book confuses me enough to not be sure exactly what to think. With a rating I cement on what side I lean, like it or hate it. A strange way to deal with it, but helps me push through.

Nick Leshi said...

"Numbered reviews" are a sham. They're arbitrary. It looks like a mathematical or scientifically valid scale, but it's completely random based on the tastes of the reviewer.

People are just too lazy to read a full review. The review itself should be clear enough, with enough examples, for the reader to gauge how well the reviewer "liked or didn't like" a review.

Joe said...

No problem with those who see the value in a ranking system, arbitrary or not, and they are definitely a conversation piece (see Joe Abercrombie talk about ratings of his books...), but I don't like them for my own use.

I started with Amazon and I never felt comfortable with them. Too arbitrary.

Nick Leshi said...

Agree. I don't see a value in it, but if it helps some readers and if certain reviewers like to use it, then fine. But it's silly to criticize writers who DON'T use it. I agree with the point you were trying to make and didn't intend to diss anyone who uses numbered ratings. :)

Joe said...

Didn't think you did. I just wanted to be extra clear on my position since I was a bit blunt with the blog post. :)