Book Rating PhilosophyIt has come to my attention that I rate approximately 9 in 10 books as a nice, safe, inarguable 3 out of 5 stars. I've also come to realize that this is an almost meaningless rating, even to myself. Some of these 3 star books I consider really very good, and would eagerly recommend to a friend. Others I would never bother to recommend, let alone re-read. About the only thing the books in this forest of 3-stars has in common is that the writing mechanics and storytelling were good enough that it didn't feel fair to assign a mere 2 stars, and that they simultaneously lacked that certain something - a je ne sais quoi - that made me feel good about assigning 4 stars.
Reviewing my few 5 star books, I do see some common threads. The most obvious of these is world view. In most cases, the authors of my 5-stars share a deeply Christian philosophy, which when combined with superior writing mechanics, plotting, and characters create a thought provoking, even convicting work of art that calls me back time and time again. There are exceptions: I've rated a small handful of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan stories at 5 stars, and even a few Heinleins. Neither of this authors could be counted Christian or even conservative, but their characters and worlds so captured my imagination - and I've in most cases re-read the stories so many times - that to give them fewer stars would seem disingenuous.
This is the clue I needed to figure out why I have comparatively few 4-star books. Something checks me when the worldview of the author does not align with my own, and unless every other metric is truly superior, I hold back that last star. Except when I don't, of course. (Recently my kids using my account for their reviews throws off this metric. They tend to consider whatever book they've just read to be "the best ever," and while I've drawn the line at 5 stars, I've stopped arguing about 4!)
This long, rambling discussion is here simply to introduce my magical solution to this problem: all books I review will contain a sub-rating in several categories. For the moment I will stick to the out-of-5 metric.
The categories as of July 2019 are as follows:
Writing Mechanics, Characters, Plot, World Building, and Truth Value
Writing Mechanics:This most basic measure includes word choice, grammar, adjective use - artistry. Ability to hint, insinuate, and otherwise show what a inferior author simply tells. A 2 indicates the author writes so poorly as to distract from a potentially decent plot. A 3 means the author writes at least as well as I do. No distracting tell-vs-show. a 4 or 5 indicates true superiority. Snappy dialog, humor, artistic place descriptions, etc.
Characters:It starts at "do I like them," but goes far deeper. Are they presented as truly, believably human, regardless of how much they resemble me Or the author? Do they grow and change as a result of the story. Do I care what happens to them, or are they merely tools of the author to tell his or her story?
I greatly prefer stories about People as opposed to stories about Events. I don't even Remember stories that have no interesting central character. Stories with an excellent one - i.e. Bujold's "Miles Vorkosigan" - may end up with 5 stars even when the author's worldview is in opposition with my own. Or as a counter example, Kim Stanley Harrison's "Red Mars" seemed like a book I should enjoy, but nearly all of the characters were distasteful at best, and hateful at worst. The worldbuilding in this book was pretty interesting (although others have pointed out its serious scientific flaws), but the characters were so uninspiring that I had a great deal of trouble caring long enough to finish the book.
Plot:This goes beyond whether or not I was able to guess the "whodunnit" in a mystery. Encompassed in this metric is whether the story lagged, or sped too quickly. It also involves believability, innovativeness, and uniqueness.
World Building:Primarily a characteristic of sci-fi or fantasy novels, encompassed in this metric is the imaginativeness of the world the author draws - whether it is simply a carbon copy of Tolkien or D&D, or whether it draws more deeply on less widely known mythologies and/or the author's own imagination. It also measures internal consistency and believability.
Tolkien, of course, would receive 5, as his worlds are detailed beyond all belief. Narnia, despite being my favorite series of all time, might receive only a 3 since there is a shallowness to certain aspects of the world that niggled at me even as a child. (Where Are those female Dwarves?!) Harry Potter similarly comes in at a 3, since there are certain aspects of the wizarding world and especially Hogwarts simply too fantastic and irrational to swallow. They are not followed to their logical conclusions, and therefore are far less believable.
Truth Value:Last, but certainly not least, is the what I've decided to call "Truth Value." In this measure I am most strongly influenced by John Eldredge, who taught that all art (inclusive of story, song, movies, and everything else) could be evaluated by its adherence to, or reflection of, capital-T Truth. In evaluating this, a useful rubric is "How does this piece of art reflect (or possibly deny) the capital-S Story of the humanity," which itself may be very succinctly distilled as "Perfection, Fall, Redemption, and Return to Perfection."
Some of the questions I might ask when evaluating the Truth Value of a piece of fiction are "Do the characters embody key virtues such as loyalty, bravery, kindness, self-sacrifice, and integrity?" "Is redemption, either of situations or preferably of characters, a key plot element?" "Are characters aware of their weaknesses and striving, through whatever means, to improve?" "Is there something more than crass romantic / sexual emotion at the root of the relationship between the central characters?" "Does the story seem to be in touch with the basic human condition of fallenness and selfishness, and do any of the central characters choose the hard work of rising above this default condition?" Finally, "Does the plot or characters point either explicitly or allegorically towards the True God?"
It is important to note that works by authors who no-one would ever accuse of being Christian may, in fact, score very highly. In many cases, the true state of man is seen quite clearly by those who have not embraced the Redemption of Christ. The late Terry Pratchett, for instance, made no end of poignant (not to mention hilarious) observations of the human condition. The "Emberverse" series by S.M. Stirling, who I believe calls himself an atheist, includes some very powerful pictures of the endless struggle between Creation and Disintegration. In the character of Father Ignatius, he also draws one of the most deeply Christian men you will find in current fiction.
On the flip side, there may be many works written by ostensibly Christian authors that would score less highly because they ignore, gloss over, or even deny certain fundamental truths that would give their art the ring of Truth.