The Stars So Far: Yes or No?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2011

Last year and the year before, people seemed to appreciate the ShelfTalker posts where I gathered starred reviews from Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, the Horn Book, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates). Recently, I’ve received emails asking for the 2011 Stars So Far list, and thought I would share my dilemma about the list and its purpose, and open it up to you.

I had all but decided not to repeat the project this year, in part because it is incredibly time-consuming to collect, reformat for consistency, double-check, and count all of the starred review titles. (I do have another full-time job.) But then I started receiving requests for it, and thought more deeply about my conflicted feelings about The Stars So Far. I realized that, beyond the time commitment, I have other hesitations, not least of which is the suspicion that, in providing a sort of one-stop-shopping list, I am complicit in an activity that actually contributes to the narrowing of readership to fewer and fewer titles.

As I said in one of last year’s posts, “Starred reviews are excellent guideposts, but they don’t tell the whole story. There are amazing books out there that never receive a starred review but are popular and/or critical favorites nonetheless.”

When starred reviews become a primary source for book orders, a lot of worthy books can get left in the dust. Often, these are solid “midlist” titles, the kind that make wonderful meals for kids but may not have that extra hook or flash or literary pedigree to grab the eye of a reviewer. I’ve also wondered if starred reviews influence other review publications’ stars, and even have the potential to sway award committees.

Last year, the final tally of starred reviews reached something around 500 titles. For librarians and teachers, this is already far beyond an affordable number of books to add to a collection. As a book buyer myself, I can see the temptation of using a convenient starred review list to corroborate purchasing decisions. Of course, such a list is no substitute for seeing a whole publishing season’s offerings, knowing your local customer base, hearing rep opinions, and being open to serendipity. I know that buyers aren’t using the Stars So Far list as a replacement for these other methods, but I wonder how much of an effect starred reviews do have on buying decisions. We sometimes forget that a star is awarded by a single person—the reviewer (although, in most cases, the editor of the review publication also must confirm the star). Reviewers and editors take great care assigning stars, but each starred review still comes down to taste. Because of this subjectivity, I think starred reviews might carry more perceived weight than they actually merit.

It’s hard enough for writers — especially debut and less established authors — to get their books noticed. There is something wrong with the system when even a successful, longtime author feels like a failure because he or she has never received a starred review. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard authors confess they feel this way.) I don’t think the sense of failure comes so much from typical writerly neurosis, than the recognition of a hard truth: that with all the noise around us, all the information coming at us from all directions, the thousands of books published each year, it gets harder and harder for a book to be seen and heard without a massive promotional effort or critical attention. To a certain extent, the starred review list seems to play into this problem.

I’m listening for your thoughts pro and con, as I try to decide whether or not to resurrect The Stars So Far. What say you?

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