As part of compiling an index of my book reviews, I thought it would make sense to explain again, for the benefit of those who haven’t read the entire blog, how I assess books. And I thought that would work better as a separate post, rather than clogging up the index.
What Are the Scoring Systems?
I use two scoring systems. Firstly, I score each book by seven criteria. These are marks out of 5:
1=No redeeming features in this category
2=Well, it could be worse, but if this category really matters to you I wouldn’t recomment the book
3=Yeah, about par for the course
4=Noteworthy, and if I knew you cared about this category I’d recommend it
5=As brilliant as could be expected from a book (though not necessarily perfect).
The seven criteria I judge by are:
Adrenaline: This is for how exciting the book is. High marks for thrilling, gripping, tense reads that pull you along and don’t let you put the book down, and that set the heart racing. Low marks for plodding, slow, ponderous, ruminating works.
Emotion: This is for how much the book moves me as I read it. High marks for anything that makes me cry, and sometimes for books that are elating or joyous, though those are rarer. Low marks for books that are dry, dispassionate or clinical.
Thought: This is the category for how much the book makes my head hurt. High marks for books that make me think again about the world by discussing interesting issues, but also for books that force you to think ahead, force you to reconsider what’s going on all the time, don’t let you rest on preconceptions. Low marks for predictable, trivial, ham-fisted or fallacious works.
Beauty: How beautiful is the book? Very simple. Prose, metaphors/analogies, plot structure, and the images themselves. No real way to describe this, I guess, beyond ‘beauty’. Felicity? Symmetry?
Craft: How well-written is the book? Obviously, the other scores tend to tell you this anyway, but not necessarily. For instance, the prose might be perfectly constructed – but if it’s the prose of an accountant as related by a semi-literate, it may well not be beautiful. Some moments of excitement may be there by pure luck (as in an autobiography), or else may be the sort of exploitative clunky plot device that excites in the short term but also produces resentment. In a book with great craft, the reader feels safe in the hands of the author, willing to put up with a lot of stuff that doesn’t appeal immediately because there is that faith that the author knows what they’re doing. High marks for books that feel constantly under the control of the author, low marks where it feels that the author doesn’t know what they’re doing at all.
Endearingness: This is the “how much do I like it?” question. One way to phrase it might be “it’s raining outside and I’ve got a cold, and I want to curl up in an armchair in front of a fire and read a book – would I pick this one?”. There’s a difference between how much you enjoyed reading the book overall, and this particular kind of enjoyment – it’s the kind of enjoyment you get that makes you want to read the book, not the kind that you only get after you’ve read the book. Some books are like long, gruelling runs in the rain – incredibly satisfying when you get to the end, but not necessarily something you look forward to. Others are like spending a few hours in front of TV – fun, and you know you’ll be there again tomorrow, but sometimes you’re left feeling you’ve wasted your time. Of course, some books can be both…
Originality: This isn’t a historical judgement about how novel the book was when it was written – I’m not a scholar, and you shouldn’t have to be a scholar to enjoy a book. This is about how unique the book is. How little it reminds you of other books. How unfamiliar and exotic it feels. How little chance there is that you could have written anything like it, even if you were a great author.
There is then an eighth criterion, marked 0, 1, or 2:
Impact/Echo: This is really hard to explain, and I’m not going to really try again. Some books, when you get to the end, it feels as though you’re still reading. They’re books that make you walk around in a daze when you’ve finished them. That put an emotion into you that you can’t get out, a sort of emptiness that you need to fill, but you can’t. They make you see everything in the world in a different way, not intellectually, but emotionally. They make you be further away from the world than normally. You may behave somewhat oddly after reading them, because the world feels bigger and less limiting than before. Most books don’t have this, and I don’t bother scoring them for it. I only decided to score this partway through the year, so some of the early reviews don’t mention it.
The second scoring system is just an overall score out of 7:
1: Really, absolutely, utterly, completely bad, just truly awful.
2: This is bad. Can’t deny that this is bad. Could be worse, sure, but it really is bad.
3. This… OK, this is bad, but it does have some redeeming features! There might be reasons to read this book…
4. Err… you know, this actually isn’t a bad book, if I’m honest. I mean, it’s not great, but… it’s not actually BAD.
5. This is good! Actually, genuinely, good. You should probably read this. Or it should be on the list to read, at least. Though it might be a long list.
6. Ah, now you actually SHOULD read this, unless you really hate the genre or the style or something. Because this is better than those good books. This is one I’m going to remember the title of!
7. Brilliant! A masterpiece! This is fantastic! The author is a genius! Wow! Goes on the “best books I’ve ever read” list!
8 out of 7 (hypothetical, not yet awarded). This may actually be the best book in the universe.
How do those systems interact?
The original idea was for the overall score to be impressionistic, and to be used for me to check the composite score of the other categories to see how well those categories matched my general impression of how good the book was.
Theoretically, that is still the case. In practice, however, I now derive the overall score from the category scores, because I’m confident that they do indeed model my general opinions well. In theory, I might be willing to disobey this relation, but so far I haven’t had to.
If you’re interested, I calculate the overall score by adding up the category scores, but awarding an additional point for every 5/5, because I think that a book that is exceptional in one category is more worth reading than one that is just good all-round (ie, 4-4-4-4-4-4-4 loses to 3-5-4-4-4-4-4).
Why do you do all this?
There are four obvious directions to disagree with my system. One is to oppose all scoring systems and just give impressionistic descriptions. A second is to say that it is too complicated, and just give a simple mark-out-of-ten. A third is to say that it is too simple, and enumerate more categories. The fourth is to accept the degree of precision, but argue for more technical criteria: plot, characterisation, etc.
Regarding the first: that seems to be wholly wrong-headed, as it leads to useless reviews. It may lead to a deeper understanding of the text (ie genuine criticism), or more likely it may lead to a wider appreciation of the pseudo-critic and his writing skill. But it doesn’t help people much who haven’t read the book and are wondering whether they should – that is the purview of reviews, not criticism. I do not pretend at the latter.
Regarding the second: fine, if everyone has exactly the same tastes. But what if a person really, really like excitement from his books, and doesn’t care about beauty or craft? Then my reviews aren’t very useful. By breaking down my overall impression into particulars, I hopefully can be more helpful to those who weigh different criteria differently. A good analogy might be boxing. “Pound-for-pound” rankings and “all time” rankings – even rankings within a weight class – are great tools for debates about which boxer was best, but they’re worth little when it comes to betting on a fight. Because as the adage goes, “styles make fights”. Everyone might agree that A is far better than B, but if B is a canny counter-punching southpaw and A has major difficulty with canny counter-punching southpaws, you could have the match ten times and the “better” man would lose each time. When you’re deciding which boxer to bet on in a fight, you need to know more than the raw ranking, you need to know details – what’s his hand-speed, what’s his foot-speed, how good is his chin, how much power does he have, and so on?
Regarding the third: feel free to try, but this is as “precise” as I can analyse my own impressions.
Regarding the fourth: if I were reviewing a friend’s novel-in-progress that he was preparing for publication, I would focus more on the technicalities, because they are what matter when you’re building something. But when you’re using something, the effect is what matters most. The plot, after all, has no value in itself, if it doesn’t have an impact on you – if it doesn’t thrill you or intrigue you or move you, or just make you think “shit, this author is good!”. So I evaluate the consequences, my impressions, rather than the factors that cause them. If nothing else, I’m rather better qualified to talk about my own opinions…
Anyone further interested in my reviewing philosophy, and in particular a defense of quantisation in reviewing, can see this post here.