Friday, April 13, 2012

On The Miniscule Differrence Between 4 and 5 Star Reviews: Your Thoughts?

Another random blog before the whole family - including in-laws and cousins - treks down to Lancaster to see a Sight and Sound production live, a Christmas gift from Abby's parents to the whole family. And again: this is a random blog generated by sleepy, half-formed thoughts after I finished writing for the morning, so if it rambles, please excuse...

So.  Before I start - reviewing. They're opinions.  Critiques.  Preferences.  Impossible to predict or control.  Can be helpful or hurtful.  Illustrating the duel importance of a writer having both thick-skin and a swell-resistant head.

And, of course, there's severe oddness in being a rabid reader and reviewer who doles out reviews - but also being a writer who GETS reviews.  Ironically, becoming the latter has not tempered my honesty in being the former, although writing LOTS of reviews and reading LOTS of reviews has convinced me that above all, in the middle of being honest, it's important not to trash or belittle a work and its writer.  At least in my opinion.  

That having been said, onward....

I find it difficult, sometimes, to articulate to myself the difference between four and five star reviews. Three star reviews are usually pretty easy to identify.  A three star book could very easily be written capably on the prose level, but for me, I awarded it only three stars because of a serious issue with something in the story itself: plot development, characterization, resolution...something like that.  I'll be reading along, then hit a major snag in the story that just screams to me: THREE STARS.

But the difference between a four and five star review is very narrow, while some fives are easy to spot.  For example, I recently read a book that my gut (and future review) immediately and clearly classified as a 4.  That was followed by a Ramsey Campbell collection, which had identified itself as a clear 5 about halfway through.

Right now, however, I'm in the middle of a book that could go either way. And it's interesting how much that decision hangs by a thread. I thought about it for a bit - as I was drifting on a haze of half-sleep after writing this morning - and I think I zoned in on two major things that differentiate between a four and five star review:

1. balance, rhythm, variance...and lyricism of the prose
2. overall uniqueness of the story

A brief explanation.  And YES, these judgements are completely preference based. 

1. balance, rhythm, variance...and lyricism of the prose: I very much appreciate tight prose.  If it's tight, controlled, observes all the fundamentals of grammar and structure, I automatically give tons of points to that. In fact, that's why my 3 star reviews aren't 2 star reviews.  Because if something in the plot really jarred me, I'm giving the writer props for their actual prose.

But tightness in prose is not enough for a five star review.  Maybe the writer's prose is tight and controlled, but didn't vary the sentence lengths enough.  Or there's very plain word choice, or not very detailed word choice.  Or not enough variance in their word choice.  For whatever reason, even though I can't FAULT the prose in any way, it simply didn't achieve that sensation of flowing, balanced lyricism.  So in other words, even though I found nothing wrong in the writing, there was nothing there that stood out. Nothing there that made me stop, re-read it and think: Wow. Now that's really something. 

2. overall uniqueness of the story: now, I will say this: I take AWAY points when people try to be way too original and fail at it.  I'll award more points a - 4 over 3 - for a writer operating in a well-used trope that we've all seen before, but everything is contained and makes sense, characters operate the way the author has created them to, and there's nothing in the plot that makes me think: WAIT. How is that even possible? My biggest pet peeve here are unthinkable plot-twists.  To me, if they've been done well, I shouldn't think: Wow. This makes no sense, I should be thinking Wow. I totally should've seen that coming.  How did I miss that?

However, sometimes writers craft prose that hits the requirement in #1, and their story is unique, different AND meets the requirements of #2.  Then, we're talking a five star review.

So, in the long important is all this?

Not that important, I suppose.  The only thing that makes it even noteworthy is it not only clarifies what type of fiction I love to read, but the kind of fiction I'd love to write, someday.  Past that, I'll admit: the above judgements are  highly based on preference.

In any case, here comes the rare question, so show me some blog-love: what does it for you? What nudges that book or short story or novella you're reading over the edge from a 4 to a 5 star review?