Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Grading Curves: They Don't Belong in High School, and They Don't Belong in Book Reviews

The Curse of Grading Curves:

If you rate books by comparing them to others, you're doing it wrong.

     Most people don't realize that just a few decades ago, figure skating judges were allowed to go back and change scores they had already made when they felt that a new skater had preformed better than the one prior. In other words, a better skater came along and "wrecked the grading curve." Suddenly, a performance that had been considered a 6 was now a 5.5, and so on. Judges said things like, "A few years ago I would have given this performance a 6, but that was before [insert awesome skater here] came along." The rules eventually changed, however, and judges were forced to be more technical in their assessments once they were no longer allowed to go back and alter scores. Still, in the world of figure skating, skaters are indeed judged against one another. One skater is better than another, gets a higher score, and that skater wins. 

     This works for athletics, but does it really work for literature? Can books be assessed according to comparison? If one goes by the star rating systems that dominate almost all online selling and reading forums, you would think the answer is yes. 

     How many reviews have you read that featured some variation of this statement?: "I would have given this book four stars, but I recently read Such-and-Such and it was awesome, so I had to give this one three stars." Or a better play would be, "I really REALLY loved this book!" followed by a middling three-star rating. Does it make sense for someone to say they really liked a book, to even gush over it, and then give it the rating equivalent of a big "meh"? No, actually, it doesn't. Is this a case of rating books according to some grading curve that exists in the reader's mind? Reading as many reviews as I have over the years, and participating in countless online discussions, I think that it is. 

     I am guilty of this myself. I went back through my own Goodreads account and noticed that years ago, when I first got online and starting rating books, I was much more generous. I was making it rain with 5-star ratings! And then, I started getting stingy. I started giving books that I had really enjoyed, that I had even gone back and reread, threes or even twos. Why? I think it's because subconsciously, I was beginning to feel like I couldn't give every book a five or a four, no matter how much I liked it. I started to think to myself, "Well, if I gave Such-and-Such a five, is this new book as good as that one was? Can I give it a five too?" By inches, I caught myself comparing books to one another, even books that were radically different from one another in both content and tone. 

     In short, I had stopped rating the books based on how they made me feel, and had instead started rating them on how I felt they stacked up against one another. It's a good thing I wasn't rating plays, because if you let Mr. Shakespeare wreck the curve, everything by comparison is trash. Right? 

     No. This is my opinion, true, but I think it's a valid one. It's pointless to rate books by comparing them to one another, by thinking that only the greatest book you've ever read warrants 5 stars, and therefore everything else must get less. Literature doesn't work that way. Literature is not a perfectly executed triple-axle or some other rote move that can be judged because the other writers/skaters are performing the exact same moves. They aren't. This isn't a waltz. It's free-form dancing in a night club!

     So, how should books be rated and reviewed? By one measure and one measure only: How they made you feel. That's all. Every person is different and has different standards. For one reader, realism might be a big consideration when it comes to whether or not they liked a story. For another reader, realism isn't very important. The ONLY thing that every reader has in common, the basis from which ever reader can rate a book, is simply whether or not they liked it and enjoyed reading it.

     So, you loved The Shawshank Redemption? You thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread? Awesome! Give it five stars! Did you also like Random Title, by Smashwords Indy Author? You thought it was amazing and you read it all in one 10 hour sitting? Great! Rate it according to those emotions. Don't worry that you gave 5 stars to The Shawshank Redemption. Just because that 'A' student came along and wrote an awesome paper doesn't mean that all the other students are suddenly dumb, suddenly deserving of much less, and it doesn't mean the teacher didn't enjoy reading their papers just as much. 



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