Should We Rate Books Lower if They Have Objectionable Content?

There are many things I love about the reading and writing communities. Overall, I've only really interacted with kind, genuine, encouraging writers and readers. The passion for the written word connects us all, and the reader-writer community is one of give and take.

But of course, when you have a community, there are bound to be disagreements. Sometimes these are private, other times they gain hundreds of comments, some of which can be quite hurtful. Recently on Goodreads I stumbled on a review where a reader had picked up a book, and finding it held objectionable content, stopped reading it a few pages in, and rated it one star, as well as writing a full book review on the issue.

The comment section was a war ground. Larger issues were debated, and both sides in my opinion could have handled the situation better. After reading the review and skimming the comments, several questions entered my mind:


Should we rate books lower if they have content we find objectionable?
Should we rate them higher if they make a political stance that agrees with our own?
Do people have a right to rate books if they don't finish them?
What are we rating when we rate books -- the story, the author, or the content? And can these elements be separated?


DISCLAIMER: I don't have the answers to these questions. I only have thoughts of my own, that are based on my experiences and beliefs, as a human, and as a Christian. This issue is a subjective one, and you can take my standpoint, or a completely opposite one. That's your choice, and your right to do so. :)


Book reviews and ratings are subjective. Some people may love a book and declare it the best ever, and another might hate and discard it. I think that's the first thing we need to understand -- others are going to have opinions different to our own. That's their right. We might not agree with their opinion, but just as we don't want others to scream at us for ours, we shouldn't scream at others for theirs.

The second thing is that 'objectionable content' is also subjective. An issue that others may champion as the next step for equality, may be something others consider wrong. When I say 'objectionable content' I mean something is included in the book that promotes something you think should be discouraged, or vice versa.

I have read many books, that I adore. I LOVE them. But, they hold ideas that I don't agree with; this might be in relation to side characters, for example. Yet, I still gave them high ratings.

Personally, I don't think it would be right of me to take off so many stars because I disagreed with an issue the author was trying to promote. In the case of one book, I loved the plot. I loved the characters. The world-building was superb. My heart was racing by the end. But there was that one character, those small mentions of something that made me frown a little, and think "hold on, I don't agree with that". 

I gave it five stars.


As a Christian, I often find myself walking a fine line. In this instance, I wanted to promote this book I enjoyed, I wanted others to enjoy it too, but I didn't want to promote one minor topic in relation to a side character. The reason I gave it five stars? Because if I only read books that didn't showcase some form of sin, I would be extremely limited in my choices. 

We live in a sinful world. It doesn't mean we should agree with or ignore sin, but it's near impossible to engage with any kind of book, movie, or TV show where you aren't faced with promoting sin of some kind. Wouldn't you still rave and love the latest superhero movie that made many kinds of violence seem justified?

Would it have been great if the author of that book addressed that topic more indepth and showed its consequences? Yes! Should I downgrade the rating of a story I enjoyed because it doesn't support my beliefs? In this case, I said no.

Some of the stories I hope to one day publish contain Christian elements, references, and beliefs. If someone read only a few pages in, spotted something resembling Christianity, and said "ugh no, I don't believe in this. This is so wrong and hateful. One star!" I would be upset. I would ask them if they liked the plot, or the characters, and if they said "yes", even more so. They would be dismissing all the hard work and effort put into creating a story, because it went against their political or religious views. 

If we decide to rate books lower because we disagree with the content, we have to accept that others will in turn rate our books lower. We can't have it one way. 

Now, I'm going to add something on that contradicts myself somewhat.

If the focus of the book I gave five stars was focusing solely around the one side character and the objectionable topic, I would have likely given it a low rating. This would be because the core message of the book would be, in my opinion, damaging to the readers if they took it on and believed it. I likely wouldn't have given it one star -- I would have given it three or four, maybe, and explained in my review why it lost stars.

This would be because the story's core, its whole heart, would be around the objectionable content. It would be the story. They would be inseparable. I perceive ratings as judging the story, not necessarily minor content or sly political stance. There will always be politics or the latest movements in stories -- sometimes for good, other times, for bad. Drawing the line between judging the story, and the ideas it promotes, is the very difficult part.



Should you drop the star rating if books support ideas you disagree with? I don't think there is a clear yes or no. It's something that each individual needs to put thought into, pray about if they're a Christian, and come to their own conclusion on.

Questions I ask myself before rating a book, if it holds objectionable content, are:
1) Was the content I disagreed with the heart of the story?
2) Can the content be separated from the story?
3) Am I convicted to speak about the issue in my review?

One great solution to the overarching question of the post is the rating system over at Rebellious Writing, a group of which I'm proud to be called a member. For each review, there is an overall rating, then an individual rating for lust, abuse, and language. These separate reviews tell readers of the review the rating for the story components (characters, plot, message, etc.) and then ratings for any content that others might find distressing or distasteful.

With a topic so subjective and almost only applicable on a case-by-case basis, I would say, find where you stand, whether that be on the far sides of the scale, or in the middle. Talk to others on the opposite side. But most of all, remember that not everything is about politics, and to keep reading!


What are your thoughts? Do you believe we should drop our book star ratings if we disagree with their content? Is it clear-cut for you, or in the grey area? Let me know what you think!
Please keep it civil in the comments, and have a fantastic day! <3 

Comments

  1. A.M. Homes wrote the disturbing "The End of Alice". Vladimir Nabokov had "Lolita" and Bryn Greenwood has "All the Ugly and Wonderful Things". All these books share in a premise that makes my stomach queasy, but they are also beautiful in their own way. Each of these books earned five stars from me because they forced me to ask questions and form opinions. They forced me to think and feel. They forced me to ask, Why? Why does this bother me so much? And how did this opinion grow? And once I cleared the path to forming that opinion, at the end, there was only me. My opinion, shared by many or no-one, but it in the end it's mine.

    As readers, we look to books to entertain, encourage and learn from, but I also think we look to books to appreciate language. To feel something. And if, as readers, we start reprimanding with ratings because of the content, and ignore the questions the pose, or the language they use to transport us to another place or time, what hope is there for our reading future? What hope is there to be entertained but instead read a safe, clean or worse, cliché, story that we've read hundred time before? I can only hope there are fearless writers who write what they want regardless and readers who read openly and without prejudice.

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    1. You have some great points here! I think a couple of questions you've asked are especially interesting in the context of our world today, which tends to lean towards punishing those who say something that doesn't agree with their political standpoint. Reading definitely should be valued for its prose, and ability to transport us. That's why I try and consider that too when rating books. :) I do think it's important to balance the appreciation with considering the book's message, however. :D

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  2. Thank you so much for posting this! I agree with everything you said. Spot on! It is really hard to balance good story with good morals. But a story deserves to be rated by its quality, not by its religious and/or political promotions.

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    1. Thank you! <3 It's very hard indeed, since everyone is subjective and holds their own opinion. It makes everything thrice as complicated. xD

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  3. These are such good points! I tend to want to completely decide to not like the book if there is something I don't agree with in it. My little sister has been trying to convince me that I need to look past those things, and I agree with you and her.
    Some books that I looked past but have wonderful messages: To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series, just to name a few. On my blog I review things by points. 10 points is the maximum. So if there are only one or two things I might only lower one of the ratings by a point or a half point.
    Once again, this post is amazing and so true. Thank you so much for writing this wonderful post!!!

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    1. Aw thank you! That's so sweet of you to say so! <3
      10 points does definitely allow more flexibility in rating! I'd feel better taking a point off, than a whole star, for example. So maybe part of the problem is the star rating system, haha! xD But yes, I think it's important to not necessarily ignore problems with a book, but see if there's still something we can learn from it!

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  4. This is a really interesting question. I keep my own private record of what I've read (as in, not even on Goodreads) so no one ever sees my reviews, but I've definitely had to think a bit about this myself. Personally, I find I lean towards marking books down for content I don't agree with if it affected my overall experience reading the book. I try to treat it the same as I do when I read a book from a genre I don't usually enjoy. Is my opinion formed on the fact that it's just not what I usually enjoy and maybe I'm biased against it? Or was it actually a badly written book/badly presented idea. I'm still trying to make sure my personal reviews are fair, and it's a question I'm still trying to find my own answer to. But you raise some really interesting points that I'm going to have to think about more!

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    1. That's a really good comparison about rating a book from a different genre, Imogen! I really like it. Personal bias is something to definitely reflect upon when giving ratings. It's hard to be completely fair, but we can try our best! Thank you, and thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

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  5. I can understand exactly where you are coming from, Melissa.

    I firmly believe that a book gives a bad example, bad morals, and could damage my soul as well as others, then I have no business reading it or giving a favorable review of it. No matter how well written or constructed it is. As narrow-minded as it sounds, I know how language can be used to manipulate and confuse others (Remember, Satan is known to be a silver-tonged serpent!).

    I do knock off stars off my overall ratings if there is objectionable content (so much so that a 5 star book is rare for me). For me, content is a key part of quality. Which is why I love the RW rating system!

    Wonderful post, Melissa!

    Catherine
    catherinesrebellingmuse.blogspot.com

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    1. Likewise, I can see your viewpoint completely. :)

      Language indeed does have power, and we have to be careful about who we listen to. But in this case I don't necessarily think there is a set "yes" or "no"; rather, each individual is convicted to act in a way that they feel led to, and how God calls them to act. I do admire your stance, though! :D

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

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  6. I've actually never really struggled with this before. I just give books lower ratings because of the content, although if I like it I will give it a three star rating to be fair. These are some great thoughts, and gave me some things to think about when writing reviews. Great job!

    Micaiah @ Notebooks and Novels

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    1. I'm glad I made you think about a few things! Whether or not you hold to your original belief, being able to say you considered other viewpoints is important. :) Thank you!

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  7. I think my rating depends on the book for me, as you said. If I really enjoyed it but it had questionable content, then I'll probably rate it higher. But if the content in question really seems to take over the book to the point where I'm annoyed, then I probably will rate it lower.

    Your thoughts are excellent, Melissa. I enjoyed reading the post.

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    1. Thanks Rachel, I'm glad you enjoyed it! :) It sounds like we're quite similar in our beliefs!

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  8. Such a thought-provoking post, Melissa! <3

    It depends on the amount of questionable content there is whether I let it affect my rating. Which is pretty much what you're saying, I think. If there is, say, one or two instances of strong language in a book, but that's it and the rest of the book is AMAZING, that's not going to bring my rating down because that doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the book all that much. If there are, say, three or four instances of strong language every other chapter, however, that would affect my enjoyment (even if I still enjoyed the story) and probably prompt me to lower the rating.

    Great post, Melissa. Everybody has a different line, and I loved hearing you talk about yours!

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    1. Aw, thank you Lila! <3

      Yes, that's practically what I'm saying. Thank you for summing it up for me, tehee. xD That's a really good way to put it; whether or not the objectionable content affects your enjoyment of the book! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

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  9. Oh I loved your thoughts on this. It really got me thinking.

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    1. Thank you Skye! I'm glad the post made you think about the topic. :)

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  10. Ooh this is an interesting discussion! I find it can be such a frustrating thing, because like (as you said!) everyone's "questionable content" is different! Like someone once asked me if a book had romance in it or was it "clean"...and that really frustrated me. Because I definitely don't believe romance is dirty!? Obviously our morals and standards were completely different, but it put me off a lot. So I do think when it comes down to it: star ratings should reflect what we thought of a book. But like if a reader is just here for the perfect "clean" book ever...well, it isn't even realistic? The Bible isn't even "clean" by those standards haha. So it's definitely a complicated question with a lot of answers, right?!😂But like recently I read a book where a character assaulted a woman and it wasn't dealt with or given proper consequences (imo)...and that definitely made me rate it lower. It might be realistic, but it left me too angry to enjoy the book.

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    1. Haha yeah, the Bible is far from clean! The important thing is it shows what's right and what's wrong, even when it gets graphic. :) Definitely, it's an extraordinarily complicated question and there is no clear black and white! We all have different opinions, perspectives, morals, and limits. Which is another reason "clean" is very subjective, and would differ greatly depending on who you ask! Ah yeah, I can see why you would drop the star rating -- I think when the consequences aren't shown clearly in a case like that, where it's a central part of the book, I would dock ratings too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cait! <3

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  11. This is a great discussion. I agree with what you're saying. If there's a side character that promotes something I don't agree with, then I'm more likely to set it aside, but if it's a story centering around a topic I disagree with strongly such as with "Fifty Shades of Grey" or "13 Reason Why" I would give it a lower rating because it's wholeheartedly promoting a dangerous worldview.

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    1. Thanks Victoria. :) Yes, I think books such as those you listed, with a dangerous worldview, could be harmful to those who read them, so I would give them a lower rating too. If the message is dangerous, then it can't be separated from the story itself, so I would feel justified in giving it a low rating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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