How do we rate and review books and short stories? What makes you say, "Wow, that was a good book"? Well, the question comes down to what we value the most in a story. For me, it's the following: story, characters, setting, and writing. Yes, I agree that this goes for probably every reader in existence, but within each category everyone has specific preferences. People like different stories, different character types, different settings, and different styles of writing. I'm extremely curious as to what you value the most when reading a story, which is why I have created and will show my own rating system in this post, to begin reviews of books and short stories, and to also see what it is you look for. My system rates books and short stories out of 100, resulting in a percentage as a final score. Each one of the aspects I mentioned above will have a different weighting out of the total possible 100 points.
Plot - /30
There is nothing more important than story and plot. This, in my mind, is a fact. Story can save the final product, and I find this to be true in both books and movies. It's the foundation of any narrative piece. If you find a plot to be terrible, or at least not enjoyable, but the characters good, do you still recall the overall story experience as a positive one? I would say no. A personal example is Yann Martel's Life of Pi. The character of Pi Patel, I've always liked. The animals, I've always liked. But the plot-line just didn't do it for me, and for that reason I often recall Life of Pi as one of my lower ranked books.
In short, without a good plot-line, there's nothing. No book, no movie, nothing. To quote the character of Nikolai Stepanovich from Anton Chekhov's A Boring Story, "I think, if a play is good, there is no need to bother with actors for it to make the proper impression; it's enough to simply read it. And if a play is bad, no performance will make it good," (Chekhov 71).
Characters - /20
The first thing I recall when looking back on a good book, aside from its plot, are its characters. Characters are those we connect with the most. They are often reflections of people and personalities we know and understand, making them a story's primary method of establishing an, all-important, emotional connection with its readers. Whether we love them or hate them.
This is where F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I feel, serves as a fantastic example. It is one of my favourite books, yes, but it also features a mix of characters I love and hate. Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, I love for their pureness, innocence, and all around kind-hearted nature. Some will debate me on these views when discussing Jay Gatsby, but I never found him to be malicious, just lost in his love of Daisy. Whereas the groupies, Nick and Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker I cannot stand, with their superficial, shallow, and pompous way of life. Just thinking about them now gets me worked up! But you know what, that's a good thing. It shows that regardless of whether I love or hate a character, that spark of emotion has made the story experience a memorable one.
Now, I still don't feel that characters can save a book from a poor plot-line, but they can partially redeem it. For this, I'll briefly return to and end with my example of Life of Pi. Pi Patel is what redeemed Life of Pi, when I read it. As I mentioned in my plot section, I found the book to drag on, to be boring, to be improbable, but I felt for Pi. I could almost feel the pain of his situation. I've never been stranded at sea in a small boat with animals, but having sailed with family as a kid, and at times in open waters with little visible land around us, his situation stuck with me and I continuously prayed for him to survive. Again, the character didn't save the book, in terms of my enjoyment, but it definitely kept me reading.
Writing - /15
Writing is a tricky one. Obviously, if a book or short story is riddled with errors in spelling and grammar, we have a problem. After that, stylistic taste becomes the defining factor. I prefer stories to be written with a higher level of depth and detail. I believe it adds an extra layer of... not legitimacy, but experience. Immersiveness. I find that the more an author provides, the more I invest in their story. The more I become a member of their world. This begins to go back to my criticism of short fiction, and its inability to generate the same level of investment and entry to its respective worlds.
A prime example of this that comes to mind is in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. When our protagonist, Raskolnikov, meets the drunken public official Semyon Marmeladov, we take part in a conversation that lasts roughly 7-10 pages, of just Marmeladov speaking. I remember reading this for the first time and being slightly overwhelmed, only to re-read the conversation before continuing on. It was quite lengthy, but I believe it instilled a sense of authenticity in the sense that I truly felt as if I were there, listening to this drunkard ramble on, and feeling his most personal troubles. The length generated a sense of reality, while also learning so much about this supporting character that whenever he was mentioned in or entered later scenes, a specific tone was set via understanding.
Setting - /5
I've given setting a low weighting, just because it has never really turned me away from completely rejecting a book. For some it might, and fair enough, but I can't recall having done that. If I do remember, I'll make sure to bring it up, but whether a story takes place in a fantasy world, in space, in a city, in nature, or even in a single room, as long as the plot entices me, I'm quite open to reading it and whatever else.
That being said, I definitely have preferences when it comes to settings. As a lover of the classics, I typically prefer plots that remain grounded on Earth and deal with issues of humanity and society. But again, I'm not firmly attached to anything.
The 'Gut Feeling' - /30
This probably caught you off guard, though you were also probably wondering why my weighting had added up to only 70. The 'Gut Feeling' score is simple: did I like the story? And most importantly, will I remember it? Would I read it again? There are some books that we like and never read again, never even consider, unless someone brings them up in conversation. Those are good books. Then, there are books that we like, read again, and consistently discuss and ponder. Those are great books. And this is why I have given the 'Gut Feeling' such a significant rating. If a book is good, but we forget about it, then it wasn't that good. Those that stand the test of time, are remembered and recalled for good reason.
This is how I consider and review the books and stories I read. It's in no way meant to be stated as the objective. Creativity and its perceptions are members of the subjective and we all have our preferences and creative laws. These just happened to be mine and I wished to share them with you, as I begin to review books and short stories!
Starting next week, I will begin reviewing a list of the top short stories of all time, and see if my concerns with short fiction hold up. I will publish the list of stories, shortly before my first review.
In the meantime, now that you know how I go about assessing books and stories, what's your approach? How do you separate a good book from a bad one? A good one from a great one?
Till next time!