On Rating Books Without Reading Them

A common issue within the book community is the question of whether it is appropriate to rate a book without having read it. Some readers say that it’s never okay, which I think is lacking in nuance. There are bad reasons for rating a book without reading it first, but there are also good reasons to do so.

Basically, I think it’s all contingent on how much you actually know about a book and your motivations for giving it the rating you did. If you’re just giving a book five stars because your favourite author wrote it, that’s kind of ridiculous but doesn’t really hurt anyone.The reason I mention it at all is because, often, these ratings are ignored when the issue of rating books without having read them comes up in discussion. People complaining about ratings of unread books are typically referring to low ratings and fail to see that, really, if you’re categorically slamming low ratings, you should probably at least pay some lip service to the high ratings as well. Isn’t that the whole principle you’re trying to convey? That books should never be rated unless you’ve read the things? Talking about one and not the other when making that kind of blanket statement shows a huge hole in one’s argument.

Besides, there are good reasons to downrate a book you haven’t read. Namely, if other readers have provided enough evidence to prove that the book is a huge mess of bigoted misrepresentation. Often low ratings in this case are provided to try and attract the publisher’s attention so they’ll do something about it. Maybe delay release and revise the book or, if that’s not possible for whatever reason, at the very least stop acquiring books like it.

A book that has been at the centre of this to rate or not to rate furore is THE BLACK WITCH. A reviewer live-tweeted the issues they had while reading the book and later wrote an 8.7k review detailing, with textual evidence, the sheer volume of problems with the book. The book is racist, sexist, homophobic and ableist. Many readers who, for whatever fucking reason, actually like the book try to claim it’s about a bigoted character learning to not be bigoted, but Shauna’s review clearly points out this does not succeed. The fact such a book is being held up as some great anti-racist story, which it isn’t, instead of promoting authors of colour writing their experiences is pretty damn shitty in itself. The community has been downrating this book to hopefully get some kind of action from the publisher, but the publisher didn’t really give a shit and were even caught shifting the blurb on Goodreads around to put praise for the book at the top, before it was readjusted by Goodreads librarians.

But, hey, the book hasn’t really been heard from since publication so we must’ve done something right. Yeah, I was one of the one-star raters. Because the book damn well deserved it and we had more than enough evidence to figure that out without having to read the damn thing cover to cover.

I think that’s the kicker: is there enough evidence out there to rate the book without having to read the whole thing? In THE BLACK WITCH’s case, yes, there was. Shauna didn’t write a fucking 8.7k word review for fun. She wrote it to inform the rest of us so we wouldn’t have to put up with that shit.

A book where this wasn’t the case is RAMONA BLUE, where biphobes decided the concept of a lesbian character realising her sexuality is more fluid than she first thought was somehow lesbophobic. Like, to be clear, this wasn’t a lesbian being turned straight by a dude, but that’s how many people took it based on a blurb. The blurb has since been changed to more accurately reflect the book, but the whole downrating in this case was uncalled for. It was as if entire swathes of the world’s population collectively forgot bisexuality exists. Or maybe they never acknowledged its existence in the first place. If you read the blurb now, it is blatantly obvious the character isn’t turning straight because of a dude. She still likes girls and she’s still fucking queer.

There are books that take supposedly queer characters and then go “teehee the character was straight the whole time,” such as LOOK BOTH WAYS, but apparently readers would rather focus on a book like RAMONA BLUE that doesn’t even come close to that level of bullshit. I guess LOOK BOTH WAYS, being blatantly biphobic, doesn’t offend them or something. Who the fuck knows. I’m over it. Someone actually tried that “read it before deciding” shit on LOOK BOTH WAYS but I’m fucking bisexual and don’t need that bullshit in my life. Actually, the tweet exchange was so goddamn incredible I’m gonna post it here because you need to read this. I’m not hiding any twitter handles because the person in the wrong doesn’t deserve it and Natasha’s handle has changed anyway.

and then she blocked me 1

She blocked me after I pointed out her fuckup. It was amazing. Not wholly relevant to my post, but I’m still gobsmacked by the exchange and wanted to share it. It does hit on an important point while talking about book reviews, though. There’s been a strange pattern of actual book reviewers saying reviews shouldn’t actually make you decide whether or not to read a book, which is the most hilarious accidental self-deprecation I have seen in my life. Amazing the mental gymnastics people will engage in to excuse supporting bigoted books.

It also hits on a reason book reviews are important: not just to demand action on the publisher’s part, but to warn people when books might hurt them. I had LOOK BOTH WAYS on my Goodreads TBR. If Tasha hadn’t warned me, I could’ve spent money on that book only to find it blatantly disrespected who I am as a person. Book reviews are important for this reason, among many others.

Back to the point of this post: the question of rating a book before reading it is more complex than blanket statements make it seem. It needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. THE BLACK WITCH was the first book I downrated without reading and I was a little nervous about doing it at first, but the book community was trying to make a point that they won’t tolerate books about bigotry that a) centre privileged perspectives and b) end up being bigoted messes because the author has no idea what they’re doing. We don’t need that shit. Just read THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas instead. It’s better-written anyway.

Book reviews and ratings are an important tool. Sometimes, you’ve got to go for the nuclear option to just make publishers notice something isn’t right. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s important that we try. We’re trying to sculpt a fairer, more diverse industry here. Change doesn’t happen by being nice. While focusing on positive rep is also greatly important, you’ve got to criticise the assholes, too.




5 thoughts on “On Rating Books Without Reading Them

  1. I’m so glad you talked about this issue! I got into a huge argument with a friend of mine about this recently. She noticed that I’d rated TBW as 1 star and shelved it as “will not read” – a shelf I created for the express purpose of point out extremely problematic books. I do this very rarely, when a book has been pointed out as racist, homophobic, etc. I think really hard before I rate a book I haven’t read. I think what it comes down to is, like you said, recognizing that a particular book may hurt someone – and deciding that a marginalized reader’s potential pain is more important than sticking to arbitrary rules about rating books on a social media website.

    It was interesting too that my friend pointed out how harmful negative reviews can be for writers. As a writer, I understand this. And yet, I don’t write racist trash that hurts people. If I had written something problematic that somehow made it to publication, I would want people to call me out. In fact, I would hope people would call the book out BEFORE it gets published. But ultimately as reviewers, I think it’s our job to send a message to publishers whatever way we can.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes to all of this. I’m also a writer and there is a time and a place to be upset about one-star reviews, but I really don’t care if a one star reviews hurts an author who wrote horrible rep. In most cases it doesn’t even affect them. The Black Witch is one of the few cases where the average ranking is low because of it. Other books such as Carve the Mark just keep on trucking anyway.

      If the author of The Black Witch had actually made an attempt to make amends, things wouldn’t have been as serious for them. Maybe one day authors will learn it’s easy to assuage hurt if they just show they care about fixing mistakes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think non-marginalized people (especially white folks like myself) tend to be terrified of admitting when they’ve messed up. But by not admitting when we may have hurt people – especially in the case of an author who’s hurt multiple people – we make everything worse.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. OMG yes! I’ve always been a bit on the fence about giving one-star or five-star reviews to books I hadn’t read (a lot of the time I don’t even give star ratings to books I HAVE read – I just don’t like the star system!). But you’ve made a lot of really good points 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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