Kara Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Ratings are not recommendations

A caveat lector for those who enjoy my reviews: sometimes new information comes to light that changes my opinion of books or authors I’ve regarded highly in the past.

This morning I woke up and checked Twitter and then kind of (but not really) regretted it. See, the hive mind often keeps you helpfully informed of things you ought to know, especially when prominent people are being problematic—yet once in a while, it fails to do this. Such was the case with the revelation to me that Caroline Criado Perez is a TERF and indeed has been for a while, and cue my headdesking because last November I gave her book Invisible Women 5 stars and a glowing review.

GIF of Picard facepalming

This threw me into somewhat of a quandary. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the book. I think it makes salient points about the problems that women (both cis and trans) face in a society largely designed by and for men. But I don’t want to be supporting the livelihood of people who do not include me in their feminism.

Options ran through my head:

  • Remove the review. This feels ahistorical though. I said what I said; my opinion is changing in light of new information.
  • Revise the review to be more critical. Without re-reading the book, though, this feels disingenuous. Also, as far as I recall, the book itself is not overtly transphobic (I like to think I would have noticed that, thanks); it just omits us.
  • Amend the review with an update about my new stance. This is the option I ended up taking. My original review has worthwhile thoughts spurred by reading the book. But I need people who read the review to learn what I learned recently, if they haven’t already.

That left the problem, however, of the 5-star rating. To a lot of people, 5 stars suggests a book is nearly perfect. This has never been my stance. I give 5 stars to imperfect books all the time. To me, 5 stars means I loved the book, loved the experience of reading it. That remains accurate here. Yet if I allow the rating to stand, am I giving people an inaccurate impression, especially if they’re just browsing my site?

I’m not the first reviewer to ponder the necessity and relevance of ratings, especially stars. It’s one reason I continue to review every book I read instead of rating it only. A rating doesn’t communicate anything beyond a rough estimation of someone’s appreciation for a book. My stance has always been, “If you really want to know what I thought about the book, read my review.”

When I designed my review website, I considered ditching ratings entirely. For now, I’ve decided not to do that. I think there is some utility in that rough estimation. But this quandary has shown how there are edge cases that really bite you in the ass sometimes.

So, again, I had a few choices. Do I remove the rating just for that book? Seems inconsistent with my overall rating policy—only the books I don’t finish are unrated in their reviews. Do I give it one star? Again, this seems disingenuous. The book isn’t the problem so much as the author behind it and my concern I’m going to provide traction with the 5 people who will ever read my words.

Hence this blog post! Something I can point people to if they’re ever confused by perceived inconsistencies in my reviews. Something where the title, I hope, points clearly to the thesis: just because I give a book a good rating doesn’t mean I recommend it!

This has, in fact, always been true by the way. There are plenty of books I rate highly but don’t recommend for a variety of reasons: non-fiction that’s just too academic to be accessible to a wide audience; science fiction that I enjoyed but has too many problematic elements for me to feel comfortable promoting; and, indeed, books where I later learned the author is problematic.

When you’ve been posting book reviews on the Internet for as long as I have (humblebrag), you are bound to run into a few that don’t age well. It could be because of issues with the author, like in this motivating case, but I’ve also run into reviews of mine from 10 years ago that no longer align with my views on a variety of topics! Indeed, that’s why any review on my site older than 3 years has a disclaimer on it about how my views might have changed. I don’t want my reviews to “expire,” but I think it’s worth reminding anyone who reads them that the person I was in 2012 isn’t the person I am in 2021, and my review is a reflection of the former person, not necessarily the latter.

I’m human (shocking) and fallible and always working on imperfect information, like the all of us. So I don’t feel guilty for not acting on what I didn’t know. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say something once I became aware. We change. But we need to show evidence of that change. Criado Perez’s most overt transphobic statements seem to be from years ago, but since then, I haven’t found any indication that she has learned, apologized, and become vocally trans-inclusive.

I will close by reminding my trans-inclusive readers that this is why you must be loud and obvious about being trans-inclusive. The phrase “trans women are women” is only a start, of course—we need action to back up the words—but the words at least help me understand where you stand. (Please don’t say “women and trans women” though! This positions cis women as the default, “normal” category of women. Say “women (including trans women)” if you feel you haven’t already made it clear you’ve included us.) Please be vocal, not only because it makes us feel less alone, but because it makes it harder for people who hold transphobic views close to their chests to skate by unnoticed, their books promoted by well-meaning reviewers who are otherwise trans allies (or indeed, are trans themselves, oops!). Those who harbour hate or fear in their heart often hide it because our society is, thankfully, becoming less hospitable towards such views. Your voice alongside mine is what drives that change for the better.

My ratings are not recommendations. Hell, my reviews are not necessarily recommendations. But I will do everything in my power to update, to amend, my words—past, present, and future—to ensure they are as inclusive and caring as possible.