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Starred reviews affix to all works of literature a kind of efficiency rating, which over time average out to a meaningless valuation somewhere between the middle threes and the low fours.

King Lear is valued at 3.87; Paradise Lost at 3.74; The Divine Comedy at 4.0. Although there is a great deal of variation in the five-star reviews, the one-star reviews are overwhelmingly alike, even across genres and styles of literature. I noticed the recurrence of three principal objections: (1) this book was confusing; (2) this book was boring; and (3) this book was badly written.

“Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

As Amazon releases a selection of “100 books to read in a lifetime,” no better time to revisit Eleanor Catton's fantastic essay on literature vs. consumerism. She continues:

Elitism is a standard of discernment that seeks to exclude everything (or everyone) perceived to fall short of that standard. Criticism can be elitist; censorship can be elitist; educational programmes can be elitist; advocacy and propaganda can be elitist; literary prizes can be elitist; communities and clubs can be elitist; bookstores and websites can be elitist.

But literature simply cannot be. A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

The full essay is a must-read.

Also see the greatest books of all time as voted by 125 famous authors

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