Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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Open spaces in the dialog: why "I didn't like it" and "bad" aren't the same.

I will now reveal a little secret: I don't like numeric rating systems. Actually, let me rephrase that: I hate numeric ranking systems. Unless we're talking about something completely objective, like "did 2 + 2 = 4 in this equation" or "did this wolverine do a satisfactory job of clawing off your face," they lose a major component of any rating: a view of the person who's doing the ranking.

These are things I really, really like: studying viruses. Horror movies. Collecting weird old knives I bought at flea markets. Monster High dolls. X-Men comics. Candy corn. My Little Ponies. Talking about dead stuff. Snakes. Octopi. Coyotes. Watching television.

These are things I really, really dislike: sports. Serious romances, the kind where someone gets hit by a car or catches a wasting disease and I wind up sobbing into my ice cream. Shopping for shoes. Bratz dolls. High heels on small children. Coconut. Mango. Bell peppers. Going to the dentist. Dishes. Leeches. Clowns. Most shoes that are considered "fashionable." Watching the news.

Now here's the thing. None of the things I like are inherently better or morally superior to the things I dislike. Nor is the opposite true. My little sister loves shoes (although we both hate and fear clowns). Her room is a shrine to shoes. She finds the fact that I own between two and four pairs of shoes at any given time faintly horrifying, although not as horrifying as the fact that I wear them until they are literally falling apart before I'm willing to break down and buy more. If my sister and I were asked to give a one-to-five ranking to the same shoe store, you'd see one of the two following combinations:

Seanan: "This store carried one style of shoe! It was so easy! 5 of 5 stars!"
Seanan's sister: "This store had no selection and no style. 1 of 5 stars."


Seanan: "Oh Great Pumpkin it was huge and confusing and I was there for hours and I HATED IT. 0 of 5 stars."
Seanan's sister: "So many shoes! So many styles! Best shoe store ever! 5 of 5 stars."

It's the same store in both cases. It's not changing to suit our rankings. It's either a store that sells one kind of functional shoe (my ideal), or a great many kinds of fashionable shoe (her ideal). The problem is that we wandered into the wrong stores, and our current critical dialogue only seems to have two settings: "it was good" and "it was bad." "It wasn't right for me" is nowhere in the equation, and that's sort of a problem for me.

What does "3 of 5 stars" mean, anyway?

Also—and this is, I fear, unfixable, because the internet is big, and we're all coming from different social and educational backgrounds—we have no common understanding of what "good" means. For me, ranking something 3 of 5 should mean "it was good, I liked it, I will keep the book/may watch the movie again/enjoyed the meal." For some others, ranking something 3 of 5 means "it failed in every substantial way, but the words didn't slide off the page when I shook it, so I guess I may as well give it something."

For some people, 1 of 5 means "it wasn't available in the exact format and language I wanted it to be in, exactly when I wanted it," or "the main character didn't get with the guy I liked in the last chapter, so even though I liked the rest of the book, it sucks." It means too much sex, too little sex, and, in the case of one review that made me want to throw the website across the room, not enough rape (thankfully, this review was not of one of my books). For others, anything below 4 of 5 means "this book is not worth my time."

This lack of standards is why I had to stop keeping up my Goodreads page. I found myself giving inflated scores to everything, because I had no way of explaining that from me, 3 of 5 was a really good rating, and I didn't want to be the one who hurt the ranking of a book I really loved. When I realized I was giving dishonest 4s and 5s, I walked away. It wasn't fair...and yet, giving 3s, when most people seem to view anything below an aggregate 4 as a bad book, also seemed unfair. I had given up context for convenience, and that didn't work for me at all.

The problem with "it's not for me" becoming "it's not for you."

"I bet you'd love to criticize that, wouldn't you, you critics! But you can't."
"It's not for you."

Penny Arcade.*

One of the issues with saying "I don't like a numeric rating system, it's too arbitrary because it doesn't tell you anything about the people spitting out the numbers" is that sometimes, people hear that as "you can't criticize this because I didn't write it for you." That's bull. I can criticize my sister's taste in shoe shops as much as I want, and I can tell you for a fact that they didn't build that shoe store for me, or for the other people like me in this world. They built it for her, and for the people like her. And yet, at the same time...

There's a book I really love called Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures. The word "gross" is used in the cover text of the edition I have, several times. The cover shows a super-magnified blood-sucking mite, staring at you, thinking about whether you might have some blood available for sucking. It is not a book that drapes itself in pastel colors and tries to trick you into thinking it's about unicorns. And if you go and read the reviews on the various numeric review sites (Amazon, Goodreads, etc.), the low reviews are almost universally going either "it was icky" or "it was full of science and also icky."

It's a book about parasites, written by a scientist, as part of a popular science series. If you don't like a) parasites, b) being a little grossed out in the pursuit of knowledge, and c) science, it's sadly a fair bet that this book? Isn't for you. Even if you're a critic, it's not for you. It's for the people who like parasites, being a little grossed out, and learning about science. Does this mean you can't criticize it? No. But it does mean that I wish there were some option for saying "this book was not my cup of tea, I made a mistake when I picked it up" that was not "1 of 5 stars icky book is icky."

Why book bloggers counter this trend.

Part of why I love book bloggers is the meatiness of their reviews, even the terse ones. When someone says "I didn't like this book, 1 of 5," they follow it up with a substantial why. They let me see their love of shoes, dislike of bell peppers, and love of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. They show me their biases, and by doing so, their review becomes relevant to me. Yes, even when it's of one of my own books, and even when it's negative. Because nothing in this world is perfect for absolutely everyone. Some of the best reviews I've read, of both my own books and the books of others, have been negative. It's seeing why that matters, and seeing what else the reviewer has listed in their like/dislike column.

Because that's the other thing: a lot of the time "it's not my cup of tea" becomes "I won't give bad reviews, and you shouldn't, either." When I see a horror movie that's a bad horror movie, I say so. I just don't review it the way I would review a comedy, just like I don't review a comedy the way I would review a musical. I would never call Glee a bad show because people break randomly into song—it's a musical! But I've been calling some episodes bad episodes, because the character choices don't make sense, and the entire current season is based around something that isn't supported by the show's canon. If something is bad, say so. But we need to say why it's bad...and admit that sometimes, the problem isn't the thing we're reviewing, it's us.

I do think we need to remember that "this isn't my thing" is a column on the good/bad metric. I am currently slogging through—and yes, I mean that—the latest Stephen King novel, 11/22/63. If you know my tastes at all, you know that he's my favorite author. I'd read his laundry list. And that's why I'm still reading this book, rather than chucking it across the room. It's a time travel story about trying to prevent the JFK assassination, and I. Don't. Care. That happened so long before I was born that I can't imagine what the world would be like if JFK hadn't died, and thus basing an entire doorstop of a novel around trying to keep him alive just doesn't do it for me. Is it a good book? Objectively, it's written with the same style and skill that King brings to all his books. All the reviews I can find are fantastic.

And I still don't care. This book is a good book. It is well-written and well-researched. It is not for me. Something I love very much—maybe even something I've written—probably isn't for you. And that's okay.

It'd be a boring world if we were all of us the same.

(*Yes, I love supporting my points with old Penny Arcade strips. Around here, that's just how we roll.)
Tags: contemplation, literary critique, stephen king
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