On my post about 5-star ratings, I mentioned that I was getting more picky about which books I give full marks. This isn’t the case with the lower ratings, though. I’ve been called the ‘Darcey Bussel’ of my book club because I’m very reluctant to give a book the lowest score (for those who don’t watch Strictly Come Dancing, Darcey was considered the most lenient judge on the panel). I like giving a book the benefit of the doubt and believing that there is no book that doesn’t have some redeeming qualities. A book takes years to write and make its way onto shelves, after all. How could the author not put a bit of effort into making it good? How could the publisher put it into print if it didn’t have something going for it?
So, as you can imagine, a book has to offend me pretty badly for me to give it just one star. Here are six ways it can put my back up and drag the star rating down.
1 ft: Bad Ending
I’ve mentioned in my 5-star list that a good ending is a deal-maker for me. So, it stands to reason that a bad ending will be the absolute last straw. Now, by bad ending, I don’t mean a depressing ending, though it can be if the author was being depressing for the sake of it. I mean an ending that didn’t feel like any thought was put into it. The sort of endings that feel more like the author just ran out of pages or ideas and wanted to disguise it at an open ending (which are very hit and miss for me anyway). The sort where the payoff just wasn’t worth the build up. The sort that just didn’t feel right and didn’t match the tone of the story. If I’ve slogging my way through a book I absolutely hate because I need to do a CROWS review, complete a reading challenge or out of pigheaded stubbornness, a terrible ending will be the mouldy, green-fuzzed cherry on top of a terrible time I could have spent reading something better. A bad ending will be fresh in my mind when it comes to rating and will not incline me to be generous.
2 ft: Too Much Sex
I’ll be honest, I am a massive prude. I don’t like explicit sex scenes and much prefer a tasteful narrative cut-to-black. One sex scene isn’t too bad if it’s well done, isn’t put there for the sake of it and doesn’t intrude on the story too much. I can just skip it. If the author insists on putting sexual escapades on every other page, however, I am going to be turned right off. Yes, Cape May, I am talking about you. It’s one of the reasons why I’m not the biggest fan of romance novels because I know that, if it was written for adults, it’s going to contain at least one ‘adult’ scene just because it can. It’s annoying when authors do this. There are so many more sweeter ways to show affection and intimacy that don’t involve doing the dirty. Sex scenes are definitely not a requirement for a romance novel/subplot in my book. So, if the story is nothing but scenes with graphic sexual content, you can bet I’m going to resent giving it the time of day.
3 ft: Unlikable Characters That Are Supposed To Be Likeable
I’ve mentioned in my previous list that I’m a reader that loves a good character-driven story. So, like the bad ending, unlikable characters are an absolute dealbreaker. I’ve read stories that I would have otherwise given three stars that I gave one star simply because I just couldn’t stand the characters. Are you squirming in your seat, Twilight series? They could be characters that are plain stupid for the sake of the plot (see my hated cliches list), characters that are mean to other characters for absolutely no reason, characters hold offensive viewpoints (see below) or characters that are just completely one-dimensional. These are bad things in themselves but they can be less offensive it if it was clear the author knows these are bad traits. What tips it into one star territory is if the authors don’t or won’t realise how terrible their characters are. Instead, they try to make the characters out to be wiser than their years or to be misunderstood geniuses or the only decent character in the world and try to force the reader to like them. Some readers (which, I must admit on more than one occasion, included me) might be fooled on the first read but you can bet that they won’t be fooled forever. All it takes for it all to come crashing down is the reader to find something better that throws the bad elements of the character into sharp relief, a re-read without the hype-tinted glasses or the reader just growing up, becoming more certain of what makes a good character and realising that, no, this main character isn’t just misunderstood. They’re just a narrow-minded prat that pushes everyone away for no good reason. And the author wants me to like them? No thanks.
4 ft: Nothing Happens
This is one of the reasons why I tend not to like literary fiction. I may be a prolific reader but I wouldn’t say I have very sophisticated tastes. Even if the characters aren’t great, just give me a good story and I will be happy enough to give it three stars. If the book can’t even give me so much as a good story, however, I will not be so forgiving. A book can be as high-minded, as intelligent and as good at dissecting the human condition as it pleases but, if nothing actually changes, the boring characters don’t learn anything from the experience or the whole experience feels completely humdrum, then I will feel like I’ve wasted my time. And, as I mentioned above, I hate having my time wasted. I just won’t be inclined to follow the author’s monologuing on how the rain outside is an allegory for their life when I’m tapping my foot, wondering when the plot is going to get going. Despite what some authors may think, it is possible to be clever and tell a good story at the same time.
5 ft: Offensive Content
One of the big drawbacks of being a fan of the classics is the increased likelihood of stumbling across something that did not age well e.g. racism, sexism and homophobia. Of course, if it’s obviously shown as a negative or the book is including it as a way to make a good (and intentional – no using the ‘satire’ defence to deflect criticism after publication) commentary on these issues, fair enough. If it’s just a throwaway reference, something that’s not a big part of the story or it’s just an unfortunate implication, I might just let it slide but that’s on a book-by-book basis. If it’s a big part of the story or, worse still, if the book was written in the modern day, I will not be nearly as generous. Putting blatantly backwards content in a novel, unintentionally or not, is unforgivable. Not only is it a bad reflection on the author for thinking writing that sort of thing is okay but, if it was traditionally published, it’s an even worse reflection on the publisher. Editing staff are supposed to know what the general reading public don’t want to see in their books and to realise that the public are clever enough to pick up on offensive implications (are you listening, publishers of Breaking Dawn?). They should be pulling authors up on offensive content and letting them know that it needs to be cut out. They should not be allowing this sort of thing to be put in print in this day and age. It doesn’t matter if the author is well-established or sells a million books a day. A good author won’t mind being told if they’re writing something offensive. In fact, they’ll be grateful. Better to hear it from an editor than a thousand angry readers and via a one star rating.
6 ft: No Potential to be Good
There are ideas that could have been good if they were more polished, if the author was a bit more experienced or even if the book was written by another person. Then, there are ideas that make you go ‘what made them think that was worth the effort to write?’ Sometimes, it’s a sequel that only happened because the first book was too popular. Sometimes, it’s an author jumping on a bandwagon (*cough* battle royale tournaments) and failing to grasp what made that particular trope so popular. Sometimes, I have just have no idea what the author was thinking. Now, that doesn’t mean an author shouldn’t try making a bad idea into something good. If they can make it work, it’s absolutely awesome. Where would we be if a writer hadn’t thought ‘I want to write a series of books about saving the world by throwing a piece of jewellery into a volcano’? How many times have you read a great book and thought while shaking your head in delighted disbelief: ‘this really shouldn’t work but does’? If they can’t make it work, however, it’s tragic. It makes me feel like it’s not just me that’s wasted my time but the writer and the publisher as well. If I can sense that there was a good idea and some honest effort under that dross, it might let me up the rating to two stars. If I don’t get that feeling, it’s not going to rise above one.
So, the common thread of these points is I don’t like having my time wasted. A book can make me happy, sad or angry but it can never bore me. So, before I start boring you, do you agree with my list? Let me know in the comments below!
I hope to see you again very soon.