Do You Have Trouble Giving “Lighter” Books 5 Star Ratings?

August 30, 2016 Discussions 51

Do You Have Trouble Giving "Lighter" Books 5 Star Ratings?


As I’ve mentioned over the past few months, lighter books have been working well for me this summer. I’m not sure whether it’s because of the season, my overall slumpy reading year, or the general bustle of my life, but lighter books are hitting the spot more often than “serious” books. Some of my very favorite reading experiences could probably be considered “brain candy” and selecting lighter books overall has pulled me out of my 2016 reading slump.

So, if a book is among my favorite reading experiences of the year, it should probably have a 5 star rating and be a contender for my Best Books of 2016 List, right?! Unfortunately, it turns out that I’ve been giving these types of books 4 stars instead of 5. If those same books had been more serious, I likely would have given them 5 stars. It’s like I’ve unintentionally self-imposed a 4 star ratings ceiling for “light” books. Or like comedies not being nominated for Oscars…instead being relegated to the Musical or Comedy category of Best Picture at the Golden Globes. I hate that this happens with movies and I hate that I’ve done it with books.

Why do I have such trouble giving “lighter” books 5 star ratings?

Am I really that much of a snob?! Do I think my favorite books of the year must all be serious and important? I would answer a vehement no to both of these questions if asked, yet my data proves me wrong. Of my twenty 4 star books this year, a quarter of them are light reads that I’d probably have given 5 stars if they were more serious books. A few of them are among my favorite reading experiences of the year (The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Siracusa). 

What about the blogging echo chamber? Am I feeling subconscious pressure to only give top ratings to serious books? 

Have I changed over time? When I look back at my Best Books of the Year lists, I included “lighter” books every year until 2015, which was also the year I started blogging more regularly.

So, what should I do now?

  • Change my ratings mentality moving forward? Make a conscious effort to be more open to giving “brain candy” a 5 star rating if it was a top notch reading experience.
  • Retroactively change the ratings of light books that I regret not rating 5 stars? I don’t like the idea of retroactively changing ratings, but I’m also short-changing these books. Hmm…
  • Keep an ongoing recommendation list of Top-Notch Light Reads? I’m pretty sure I’m going to do this one.
  • Create a separate “Best Books of the Year” list for light reads in December? Or just make sure to include my favorite light reads of 2016 in my overall Best Books of the Year list?

Do you ever find yourself hesitating to rate a lighter book 5 stars? How do you handle it?

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51 Responses to “Do You Have Trouble Giving “Lighter” Books 5 Star Ratings?”

  1. Heather @ Bits & Books

    Of my top 10 new releases from last year, exactly half of them were books I’d consider ‘light’ (especially when compared to the rest of the books on the list). Sometimes I hesitate; ‘The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend’ was a tough one for me. I flip flopped between four and five stars. I ended up on four, but even now I question whether that was how I really feel about the book – I had such a great time reading it that even the predictability of it didn’t bother me. It was nice to have the predictability, actually – it was comforting. I still think about changing it to five stars.

    I think if you can honestly say to yourself that there wasn’t one thing you didn’t like about a book, then it’s deserving of five stars regardless of its level of seriousness (or non-seriousness).

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I like your suggestion in the second paragraph…if I can pinpoint one thing I didn’t like, then it’s not getting 5 stars. But, then there are those books that, while there’s nothing I can pinpoint that was really “wrong” with them, but they just didn’t hit the next level for me.

      And I hear you about plot predictability, yet loving a book anyway. That happened to me with You Will Know Me!

  2. Shannon @ River City Reading

    This is why I try not to place so much weight on star ratings – putting a number on books can just be too arbitrary. I think part of the problem with the blogging echo chamber is that we worry too much what number someone gave a book instead of actual opinions. When it comes to year-end lists, I look back at the books I chose as my monthly favorites first – those 12 usually help me narrow down for my overall favorites.

    I agree with Heather – if it’s something you really, truly enjoyed, it should be reflected that way in how you recommend it 🙂

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yep – I think monthly favorites are a great place to start for EOY lists. And then looking at those months where multiple books could have won “best book of the month” any other month than the month I read them.

      I tend to like ratings, despite their issues, because I sometimes can’t tell through the words in a review how much someone really liked a book. Sometimes I’ll get to the end of a review and think “so, did he/she like it?” This doesn’t happen often, but has definitely happened to me more than once.

  3. Meaghan

    Wow, interesting thoughts. I have definitely noticed that trend with the Oscars, other awards.
    I’m thinking back and I don’t remember ever downgrading a book that I really liked just because it was lighter or funny. For me, if you don’t bring your A-game in a drama or a comedy, you don’t get five stars. I especially enjoy witty books like Jeeves and Wooster and Jasper Fforde. Those are top notch even though they are silly.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I don’t like to think of it as downgrading…more like I have trouble kicking a lighter book up to that next star…with no really good reason other than that it wasn’t serious enough. BUT, I’m going to change this!!

  4. Carmen

    Making a list of great lighter reads sounds much better than changing your ratings because you no longer feel comfortable with them. For me, a five star book is one that makes me say Wow at the end. That almost always happens with literary books, though I don’t think I shortchange a book based on it being lightweight reading. At year’s end I make a list of the books I rated four stars or higher and that’s the list I publish regardless. I do the same with movies. My ratings always reflect how the book made me feel, not how serious it was, but I guess you can write that in your post as disclosure.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I don’t think I’m going to retroactively change any ratings – that just feels icky to me. But, I will likely be open to putting a light read that I gave 4 stars on my Best Books of the Year list over another book I gave 5 stars. I’m not going to keep a 4 star light read off those lists just because it wasn’t 5 stars.

      I love your point about rating based on how a book makes you feel…I’ll be keeping that in mind 🙂

  5. Katie McD @ Bookish Tendencies

    I am totally this way too. I feel like I can only give a 5-star if I enjoyed the hell out of it, ANNNNDDD the writing was spectacularly special. If I just really enjoyed it, but it’s missing that little something extra, I will likely only give a a 4-stars as well. I do the same with YA, which I rarely read, but still… just can’t seem to give a YA book 5-stars even if I loved it. It seems super judgey, like you said… but I can’t help it.

    With my year end lists, I look back through the books I read, and the ones I still FEEL something about make the cut. Often, this leaves off several books that were initially a 5-star read, but which faded away over time with little lasting impression.

    I definitely like the idea of “Top Notch Lighter Reads” list, FOR SURE. Sometimes lighter reads can be super formulaic or tropey, so a compiled list of lighter reads that don’t have those things would be AMAZING. 🙂

    Great topic, and good food for thought.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yay! I’m so glad I’m not alone 🙂 I literally never read YA anymore, but I bet I’d do the same if I did.

      And I agree about the EOY lists…making sure you still feel “gushy” about a book before putting it on.

      The list of light reads minus tropes & formulas is being drafted as we speak! Coming in a couple weeks…

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Interesting that you hardly ever use the 5 star rating. So have you rated a book 5 stars this year? If so, which one?! Just curious 🙂

  6. Gabby

    I actually was just thinking about this lately as I rated “The Last One” on Goodreads! It’s not “light” reading, but it’s not especially literary either. It was also the only book I’ve read in ages that actually kept me awake reading it, so I gave it the five stars, but I had to think about why I was initially inclined to stick it at four stars when I enjoyed the hell out of reading it. I’ve got the internal idea that five stars is supposed to be for the “important” stuff.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Glad I’m not alone 🙂 And I like your categorization of “not being literary enough” better than my “light reads.” I think you better captured what I was getting at.

  7. carrie

    definitely 100% it’s harder for me to give a light read 5 stars. part of me feels like I should’t, but i’m getting better at rating books the more i read. if a book is extremely beachy and light, but i was dying to pick it up each time, then it’s worth the 5 stars. i have to remind myself that books don’t have to be literary genius to receive 5 stars.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I like your thought of giving beachy reads that you were dying to keep picking up 5 stars. I definitely have some of those from this year that I gave only 4 and now I’m annoyed 🙂

  8. Catherine

    Hello, reading twin. I think you already know how I feel about this- I gave Swans and The Improbability of Love 5 stars and never looked back. I question it sometimes, the same way you do, but mostly from the perspective of ‘will other people who only read significant books think I’m a fluff ball?’ And then I put on my big girl shoes and decide who cares?! If I loved a book and thought it was amazing for what it is, be it a thriller, mystery etc then I’ll go with 5 stars.

    I would only ever doubt myself if I was rating everything 5 stars. That’s a problem. But you don’t have that- you know great writing when you read it. And I know people complain about ratings, but I find them helpful when I’m cruising, looking for my next read. Knowing a reader I trust loved a book is a pretty good indication that I will too.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I, too, find ratings very useful 🙂 B/c sometimes (thought not often) I get to the end of a review and still don’t have a clear idea of whether the reviewer liked it or not or how much they liked it.

      And I commend you for giving Swans 5 stars…I wish I had 🙂 May have to make up for that on my Best Books of the Year list 🙂

  9. Priscilla

    I ask myself this all the time! I wonder if I should save five-star ratings for books that could be considered classics–but then I have to ask myself, who am I to make that decision? How many big prize winners, for example, have fallen off the radar? I think the echo chamber is part of that problem, for sure: we take books more seriously if we think others do so as well.

    But what about the opposite: What if you give a light book you loved a lower rating just because it wasn’t “serious” and that keeps readers away? I think the bottom line is trying to share what you believe is a book worth spending time with.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I totally agree – who in the world knows what will end up standing the test of time and ending up a classic?! So many classics were not even celebrated during the author’s lifetime.

      I definitely don’t want to keep readers away from a lighter book…the lighter books are some the books I recommend most to people!

  10. Madeline

    Good question!

    It’s difficult to rave about a “fluff” book. But then, assigning a ranking to any book is tough. What is the difference between 4 and 5 stars? Or 1 and 2?

    I ask myself if I would recommend the book to friends: yes or no. For “lighter” works, I don’t answer that question because I think people who enjoy “serious” books all enjoy fluff at times, but everyone’s taste for it is different.

    Then I review my list periodically and highlight those I’ve felt are truly special; those that have stayed with me over time.

    Hmmm, I suppose that means my rankings are “very good,” “recommended,” “not recommended,” and “unranked fluff.”

    I have gotten better at allowing myself to give up and not finish a book. Those I do finish are (almost always) ones I’ve enjoyed. There are a few books I recently finished but can’t recommend: “The Adventurist,” “Sweetbitter,” and “If I Forget You.” The first two I should have given up on. The second was OK but overly schmalzy.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I totally agree that even people who generally enjoy more serious or literary books sometimes crave some fluff. I guess I’m one of those! And sometimes what’s going on in your life calls for something a little fluffier.

      I’m sorry you didn’t love Sweetbitter 🙁 I did, but I’m also a foodie, lived in NYC, and have worked in restaurants! I know it’s been a book were opinions have varied widely.

  11. Bri @ Transported By Books

    I have this same problem except I tend to rate any YA contemporary lower than I would an adult fiction book. I think my problem is I can’t help comparing them even when I know I shouldn’t because they serve completely different purposes. I’ve been trying to be better about rating books higher that just genuinely stayed with, no matter the genre.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I think you’re right on about different books serving different purposes. I tend to crave lighter reads after a string of serious books, to get rid of a book hangover, or when my life is particularly hectic and I don’t want to have to concentrate too hard on my reading. And I think this concept does come to my mind when I’m rating lighter books…because I often end up thinking “that was a 5 star read for a light book” and then end up giving it 4 stars b/c of that “for a light book” part.

  12. Allison @ The Book Wheel

    Ooh, what an interesting question! I’ve been enjoying some lighter books this year, as well, due to life being crazy and my mind needing a bit of a break but I have a feeling I might have a similar self-imposed ceiling and am afraid to look at the data, now. I think having an ongoing list of recommended lighter reads works, especially if you’re having trouble pinpointing exactly why you’re doing it (then again, I also have a hard time changing ratings, retroactively).

    • Sarah Dickinson

      That list is coming! It’s mostly drafted and will go up in the next few weeks!

      And glad to know I have some esteemed company in my dilemma 🙂

  13. Susie | Novel Visits

    Wow! This is all really good food for thought. I think I also rate “lighter” books lower, unless the writing was just amazing. (A light book I thought was wonderful and gave a high grade to was Lily and the Octopus, where I loved the author’s creativity.) Anytime I see where the story is going early on or if the end is just too neat and tidy then no matter how much I enjoyed it, the book’s rating will drop. I think those two things happen more often with lighter books. Still, many people prefer to read light fiction and I guess that’s important to keep in mind.

  14. Lindsay

    What an interesting topic! I was actually JUST thinking about this yesterday, when I finished up “The Things We Keep” by Sally Hepworth, which deals in part with early-onset Alzheimer’s but is overall a light and positive women’s fiction novel. I really enjoyed reading it and felt happy when I closed the cover, but I never even considered giving it 5 stars (it got 4).

    Maybe this is because I went to school for journalism and worked for a time as a reporter and copy editor, but quality writing is very important to me. Maybe since the lighter books are designed to be easy reads, the writing isn’t always as beautiful or intricate — or as well-edited? And sometimes they just lack the plot depth of more serious books. So lighter books really have to have a special something to get me to award them the highest rating. Sometimes they succeed, though! This year I gave 5 stars to “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik and “Letters to the Lost” by Iona Gray, both of which were fun and easy.

    • Lindsay

      P.S. One last thought! Even if I give a book 4 stars (which to me means I enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it), that doesn’t mean I won’t put it on my best-of-the-year list. For example, I only gave “Ready Player One” 4 stars because I thought the writing was rather plain and could’ve used some personality and zest to it, but I still put it on my 2015 favorite books list because I loved the story so much and it managed to stick with me all year.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I didn’t realize you have a journalism background! And that’s a great point about the writing not always being amazing in the lighter books…but I love finding those gems that are light AND have smart writing.

  15. Megan @ booksandcarbs

    Goodreads ratings are frustratingly difficult for me to assign. I try to go with this general guideline: liked it (3 stars), really liked it (4 stars), and LOVED it (5 stars). Some of my five-star reads have been exquisitely written, some have been stories that I just loved reading, some have been just what I needed at a particular life moment. I try not to get caught up in what’s “worthy” in the greater context of literature. I will admit though that I am stingy with 5-star ratings and promiscuous with my 4-star ratings, but I don’t think I deny lighter books 5-star ratings when I LOVED reading them. I’m in a mood lately where I’ve been writing a couple sentences and not assigning stars. I can never figure out if people even see those blurbs when no stars are assigned, but who cares.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I’ve been super promiscuous with 4 star ratings this year too! And I think trying not to get caught up in literary “worthiness” is good advice 🙂

  16. Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf

    This is where the text on the GR stars helps me. I look at that text and think about how it applies to how I feel about the book…did it feel like an amazing read? Ok, 5 stars! I try to remind myself that star ratings aren’t a competition between books. This method helps me.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I think remembering that it’s not a competition is good advice…I tend to forget that sometimes.

  17. Megan @ Reading Books Like a Boss

    I’m this way too, though not intentionally. I don’t say “Oh! A light read! It automatically doesn’t get a 5-star.” But like others have echoed before I chimed in, for me to give a 5-star rating the book was to be truly exceptional on every level. I’m not saying it’s perfect but it has to be one that I will remember for years to come and be truly wonderful. I haven’t found a ton of books that reach that level for me among the lighter reads, so I tend to give out 5-star ratings way less.

    I used to read mostly romance and in that genre I kept having a ton of issues with the conflict, which really affected my enjoyment and, as a result, my rating.

    I can still love a book and give it 4 stars but there may have been something about the book that just didn’t click for me or something off with the writing or characterization.

    So far, this year I’ve only handed out 2 5-star ratings. That was for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys and Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick. Both YA. 🙂

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I think your point about longevity is a great one. For me, it’s not only about remembering it for years to come, but also how long I go on recommending it to other people. For example, there are some lighter books that I’m still recommending a lot years after I read them (A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams is one).

  18. Nish

    I suffered from the same problem. I tended to rate books based on how I thought “I should” feel about them. A Man Booker nominee should obviously have a higher rating than a Sarah J Maas, right?

    But earlier this year, I got terribly suffocated by this rating dilemma that I quit rating altogether. Funnily, I feel it has helped me getting my thoughts in order and actually write better reviews.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I know some others who don’t rate on their blogs either. I like rating, but it is fraught with complication, isn’t it?!

      It’s not so much that I feel like I “should” like certain books, it’s more that I have this weird compulsion to think a fantastic lighter read still can’t get 5 stars solely b/c of its “lightness.”

  19. Tanya Patrice

    I absolutely think that lighter books should be given 5 stars – if that’s how you felt about it. The most important thing an author tries to make us do with a book is feel it. And if you feel it intensely – then it’s a 5 star read.

  20. Bryan G. Robinson

    I don’t do reviews on my blog but I do give starred ratings on Goodreads and I don’t have a problem giving five-star ratings to “lighter” reads. For example, I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette. In answer to your questions: Yes, yes, yes, and no. 🙂

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I read Bernadette prior to joining GR, but that’s an example of a light book I would absolutely think deserves 5 stars! It’s actually going on my upcoming list of Top Notch Light Reads…working on it now.

  21. Alice

    Ratings are a tough one, because they are so subjective. To wit, I advise doing what makes you most comfortable, and don’t worry what anyone else may think 🙂

    Personally, I decided I would only give 5 stars to books I know I will think about and remember. Any book that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but don’t get much mental situlation from, get no more than 4.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I agree about trying to make sure 5 star ratings go only to books that will stick in your head. But, some of my favorite lighter reads have absolutely stuck in my head and I continue to recommend them to others all the time!

  22. Akilah

    I think yes to all of your questions at the end.

    I don’t share your problem. If I love a book, I give it five stars. I don’t care how heavy or light it is–just how I felt about it.

  23. Rae Cowie

    If lighter books are well written, include fascinating characters I’m still thinking about after I’ve finished reading the novel, have plots that leave me thinking ‘wow’ – then I have no problem allocating a well-deserved five stars.

  24. Marisa @ The Daily Dosage

    Great post and agree with much of what you’ve said. I try not to think too much about star ratings because I have loved books (5+ stars) that only average about a 3 on some sites. I think my mood factors in a lot of it and if I picked it up at the right time in my life. I do like ratings, though, to help me weed out some books I should just skip. I decided a while back that if I’m going to rate something, I do it within it’s genre. I’ve loved more literary books and romance/lighter books so much and gave them both 5 stars. It probably makes me look like a weirdo BUT within their own genre, they were amazing. AND like others have said, if I liked 99.9 percent of the book, than it deserves my gushing.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I love your thought process of rating books within their genre. Basically my entire brain candy list could also be titled “5 star light reads.”

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