Rating Other People's Stories (How Many Stars?)

I've already written several reviews for several stories--I've grown concerned about the method I'm using for starring those stories. Mostly, I've noticed that I'm giving out a lot of three star ratings despite contradictory reviews (for instance, I gave Cold Ghost and Breathless the same rating despite the fact that the reviews I wrote were distinctly on opposite sides of the like/dislike spectrum). I haven't given out a five star rating, but I'm considering changing that--the one story I've given the highest rating to is The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, which got a four and a half--I didn't give it a five because I didn't consider the story absolutely *perfect*, but the measure of perfection I'm using is likely an unreachable one.


My thought right now is that three stars indicates ambivalence--either the story didn't strike me as note-worthily bad, note-worthily good, or there was enough bad and good to counteract each other. What methods do you use to determine the star ratings? What are your thoughts on changing ratings? What does a story have to accomplish to earn a five star, four star, or three star rating from you?


Perhaps it's too simplistic to say by how much you liked/enjoyed it?


I'm not sure what other members think, but since there seems to be the capability to write follow-up reviews, I'm assuming it's fine to change your mind and change your rating. The review system set up aside, I think that it's fine to change your mind. When I first started reading Tales of MU, I was really intrigued, but by the time I had gotten through most of the chapters, my mind had changed and I was no longer a fan of the story, and my review reflected that (or so I hope). But it still has a small legion of fans and tends to get high ratings.


I tend to rate mostly based on...


- How much did I actually enjoy the story? (is it a genre I usually read or not, can sometimes play in)

- Characters: were they realistic in their behaviour in their given situation, were they interesting, were they two-dimensional.

- Storyline: Is it "...and then he punched a fish"? Do you believe this can happen, or is it fantasical, but the author MAKES you believe?

- Grammar and syntax: Although I don't use this as a solid yardstick, as there are a lot of writers out there who are writing in a language which isn't their mother tongue. Purple prose comes under this umbrella though.

- Do I see myself reading this again?

- Site design: this only comes up if I feel there are glaring faults, or design issues that detracted from my ability to navigate.


...though I realise that certain likes and dislikes are highly subjective, so if I feel like they could be, I say "I like X; but some readers might prefer Y". Simply so that they know where my bias as a writer and reader lies, and can judge for themselves how useful this review is to them.


If I enjoy the story, but it has some issues or only a handful of chapters as of yet, I will probably rate it lower on the scale, and up or down it more accordingly once there is a bigger backlog of chapters. If a story is complete, or at least a longer running one, I am more likely to give it a higher rating, simply because I have more information to work with as a reviewer. Anything that I've given four or five stars too, I've either devoured their catalogue in a matter of hours, or glanced at my clock and said "...Dinner is 2 minutes? But then I've been sitting here for hours!"


I hope some of this helped!


I've put my rating definitions in my member page, so I won't go into that at great length. But I judge everything I read based on basics: is it original or derivative? are the characters engaging? does the writer have technical skills? is the story world believable (which is different from realistic)? Am I going to continue to read or am I bored?


However, this is my opinion on five stars. Five star stories should be doing something original, that no one else is doing, or a new creative twist that subverts expectations. They should be enjoyable, and they should definitely be technically superb. Occasional typos are forgivable, but you can't get to five stars with half-ass grammar. Five star stories should also be complete, so that the entire work can be judged. Otherwise it's premature, because you don't know if it will go downhill.


I broke my own rule with Queen of Seven, because it's predecessor Alisiyad was 4.5 stars and both novels (by Sarah Suleski) can do something for me as a reader that no almost no other writer can do -- she creates poignant emotions and relationships that I can actually feel, as if it's happening to me. On occasion a good author can make me feel something, from time to time. Sarah does it constantly. Q of 7 is better writing than Alisiyad (see my reviews of both) but it does bug me that I gave it 5 stars because it's unfinished and updating very sporadically. However, Alisiyad deserves its 4.5, so that left only a 5 because Q of 7 is better.


My 4.5 star ratings, Legion of Nothing and Star Harbor Nights, are enjoyable, clever, technicially proficient stories with a variety of interesting characters and plots. They play with superhero conventions instead of just following the standard pattern. The Legion features realistic consequences for superheroics, while Star Harbor has ridiculously original characters and satire. However, the Legion only hints at Jim Z's skills (I think he has more in him) and Star Harbor doesn't get as much of AE's time as the more famous Tales of MU.


So, it's not enough to be well-written and entertaining. There has to be something different, something original. And originality isn't enough, it can be just a gimmick, if it's not backed up by technical skills, continuity and plausibility. Nothing bothers me more than a great concept that breaks down into illogic. For instance, "Simon of Space" features interesting characters, and the problem of identity for an amnesiac in a sci-fi universe. But the character's inherent cluelessness doesn't prevent him from escaping enemies on a regular basis -- enemies with technology, resources and intelligence that surpass his own, because he has amnesia. It makes no sense. It's originality and characters get lost in an implausible story, so my interest got lost along the way.


I immediately detract a star from a story for having vampires, zombies, werewolves, mindless alien monsters, etc. Derivative, over-used cultural icons are everywhere. Some stories earn my respect by doing something new with old tropes, but that again takes some originality and skill. And I'd prefer a talented writer to take their skill and their capacity for originality and use it on something other than a cultural icon. Hollywood recycles that stuff enough for everyone.


I try to match my overall gut reaction to the (rough) standard that the WFG editors use for the stars:


5 - Exceptional (my take: perfection is impossible; but damn did this one steal my life & leave me begging for more)

4 - Solid

3.5 - Fairly solid

3 - Worth a look (usually my "I won't read this ever again, but it isn't horrible, and maybe someone else would like it)

2.5 - Almost worth a look (my take: writing starts to get really bad and/or I start regretting having read the story)

2 - A tough slog

1 - Unreadable


I have the same attitude toward rating as I do toward reviewing: I want to provide a useful suggestion to other readers as to whether or not they'll enjoy it. Not quite the high-brow standards you use, Gavin, but then, I'm also assuming WFG readers are similar to myself in that they're looking for entertainment, and nevermind whether it's totally original or just another really good vampire/werewolf/adventure coming-of-age/cyber hackers/whatever-other-trope tale.


I know that it's totally highbrow, but I can't justify giving 5 stars to something fun (while unoriginal and unartistic) and then give 5 stars to something that's worth the Nobel for Literature or a Pulitzer. They can't coexist for me, so the fun story gets 4 or 4.5 -- I'm just a stickler for definition, and if 5 is the highest I can go, it has to be saved for the best of the best.


Or to put it another way, Schindler's List was powerful, morally challenging and artistic -- and worth 5 stars. I watched it once and will likely never repeat the experience because it was overwhelming. I watch Billy Madison a dozen times a year, and laugh every time -- but at best it's a 3.5 star movie. I enjoy it more, but I recognize it's artistically a lesser film.


Star ratings are very subjective. I, for example, consider 3 stars "good but flawed", while 2.5 or below is bad - simply "meh" would probably be a high 2.5. When you used fixed point ratings for a continuum you will end up with contrasting reviews in the same rating simply because one story may not be quite bad enough to rate lower and another may not quite be good enough to rate higher.


This subjectivity means that I take rating with a pinch of salt. It's the reviews that inform me if its worth a look.


This all makes sense to me..I'm pretty stingy with the 5's too, because I feel I want to save them for the absolutely amazing thing that only comes along once in awhile. I give out a lot of 4's and 4.5's though; I guess because I'm biased towards rating things I think are good because that's what I read.


It doesn't seem like there's that much that's so terrible it only gets a 1 or a 2 - i.e. not even worth a look - maybe people who are serious enough about their work to submit it to WFG are self selected to be a reasonably decent calibre? I've never given lower than a 3 yet, maybe I'm too nice....;)


For one thing, I'm kind of gloomy in nature, so I do make a point of giving high marks to anything that can make me really laugh out loud. I try to show appreciation of humour that is well done as much as something serious and solemn...It's interesting, you feel you have to save the 5's for something that moves you in a deep way --but I try to think I would potentially give a 5 for something for being hilarious, if it was exceptionally well written too.


Somehow I feel it's harder - the bar is higher - for a funny story to get a top rating than a serious one. But maybe funny is easier to do, or is it? Funny can certainly be easier to enjoy. Is that fair?


Funny vs. Serious:


Funny is easy to enjoy because it's more emotional and visceral. Quite often, at a neurological level, it's the product of cognitive dissonance -- something happens in what our neural net determines an "inappropriate" way but it's also cathartic, so it causes a release. And what I mean is, you see The Three Stooges slap each other (socially inappropriate) to an excessive degree (impossible to the mind's understanding of realism) and you start laughing (because your brain can't fit it into a normal structure). Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell say inappropriate things and we laugh because we could never get away with that in real life. Funny is usually because of juxtaposition, blurred contexts -- I hope that makes sense otherwise I'm writing an essay later.


At bottom, funny is instinctive. It's easier to invoke than pathos or sadness, because those things take build-up. A joke is a joke, it doesn't require much context. If you write a novel for the purposes of comedy, you run the risk of making it slapstick and unrealistic. Once a story world stops feeling real to an audience, I don't think it's going to make it to five-stars.


That being said, not all stories need to be deadly serious. Good writers are aware of all facets of life, from the saddest to the happiest, and work different scenes into a story. If something is dry as dust, it's not going to reach as many people. Well-rounded is better than one theme -- that's why Shakespeare fits comedic scenes into his bloodiest tragedies.


Funny is easier to enjoy the same way a burger is easy to enjoy -- it doesn't require much effort. Great satire aside, standard funny fare works quickly. It doesn't require the planning of a dramatic opus. It's easier to screw up a dramatic movie than it is to screw up a comedy -- bad comedies still make money in the movie theatre. Filet mignon takes planning and expertise that a burger doesn't -- and not everyone enjoys them. It's an acquired taste. I could make the same analogy between beer and a century old wine or scotch -- the craftsmanship and effort are totally different, and so are the experiences.


I'm not trying to be highbrow about this -- I'm just trying to recognize craftmanship. It's like the Springfield Film Festival -- the football in the groin was funny (I mean, come on, it's a football in the groin) but it didn't take artistic ability, much planning, or good writing. Barney's movie was artistic (for the Simpsons) but it took creative sensibility, time and effort, to make it. A novel with planned, technical beauty, fulfilling plot, emotions, realistic characters, is going to be better than cartoons on a scale of 1 to 5, even if the cartoon is more "enjoyable" on an emotional level, because of the intellectual effort that goes beyond instinct.


"At bottom, funny is instinctive. It's easier to invoke than pathos or sadness, because those things take build-up. A joke is a joke, it doesn't require much context."


"Funny is easier to enjoy the same way a burger is easy to enjoy -- it doesn't require much effort. Great satire aside, standard funny fare works quickly. It doesn't require the planning of a dramatic opus. It's easier to screw up a dramatic movie than it is to screw up a comedy -- bad comedies still make money in the movie theatre."


Couldn't disagree more. Twilight, Dawson's Creek, every soap opera on TV--are you saying these *aren't* the equivalent of dramatic fast food? They're just as easy to enjoy as your standard shoddily assembled comedy. Bad drama probably makes just as much money as bad comedy.


Excellent humor requires just as much craftsmanship as excellent drama (and, in fact, the best work tends to represent a fusion between the two--using humor to deflate the excessive pretension of drama, and drama to deflect the excessive ridiculousness of humor). As for the neurology of humor versus drama, I'm sure as hell no brain surgeon, but I'd suspect that drama is *also* a product of simple mental algorithms--probably no more complex or difficult to inspire than humor. I'm not going to conjecture too much here (because, again, sure as hell not a brain surgeon), but I'd imagine it's linked to our sense of empathy and projection.


Jokes absolutely require context; the best jokes are the results of steady, slow builds. Scaffolding is one of a humorist's most important tools. I tell a joke, you laugh. I tell some more jokes, you laugh some more; I tell another joke that refers back to the first joke in the structure of the second jokes--reinforcing both simultaneously. This is a very similar technique to dramatic scaffolding (pulling your characters up a mountain so you can throw them off it), and follows the same pattern of building pressure followed by a release.


Ultimately, writing is about creating a new personal language with your reader--a language that communicates both humor and drama. One is not worth less than the other; the division you're creating between the two sounds (to me) illusionary. Both are tools we use to engage, entertain, and instruct the reader in the language of our world. Both require many of the same techniques to inspire, and lead to the same ends (I care more about characters who make me laugh; I laugh more with characters who I care about). As someone who'd consider himself a humorist (but also loves drama--both writing and reading), it bothers me to hear someone insist that either one is of less value--or requires less work--than the other.


As for the rest of this--I appreciate the feedback on the subject! I'm going to give it a little more thought. I think that I'll be a little less stingy with my 5s, at the very least.


@Robert -- Fiona was speculating on why the bar is higher for funny stories, in her own mind, over dramatic ones. I offered my opinion on why I think that is. Funny on it's own is easy, whereas a story you walk away from saying "that was a funny book" is harder -- it takes work to create a novel that leaves that impression without devolving into slapstick. Funny, on it's own, is as simple as a burger, that's why kids like cartoons. However, "Dr. Strangelove" is a filet mignon, and it's a dark comedy. But how many of us can write a story like that?


I agree that there is "fast food" drama as well. Soap operas are a great example, but so are "soap operatic" series like Dawson and Twilight. I didn't say there was no such thing as bad drama. There's probably more dramatic movies that are garbage than there are comedies -- but me personally, I can still find things to laugh at in a bad comedy. Bad drama just makes me feel like I wasted my time. Bad dramas are totally junk food -- and they don't have the creative effort of 5 star movies and television shows. And they do make money -- for the same reason people go to McDonalds. It's accessible, easy, and fits an emotional need of some sort.


Your point about the best humor and drama inter-relating is what I was saying when I wrote "That being said, not all stories need to be deadly serious. Good writers are aware of all facets of life, from the saddest to the happiest, and work different scenes into a story. If something is dry as dust, it's not going to reach as many people. Well-rounded is better than one theme -- that's why Shakespeare fits comedic scenes into his bloodiest tragedies." -- the best stories have both. That's why a PRIMARILY "funny story" is hard to pull off, because it runs the risk of becoming unrealistic because life has both comedy and tragedy. It also runs the risk of losing conflict, which is the gasoline in the engine of a good plot. Fiona was saying that it's harder to think of giving 5 stars to a funny story, and I was sharing my opinion on why. If the story is primarily funny, it's one-sided. Good stories are well-rounded. I'm not trying to create an illusory division between the two -- I think all emotions are necessary in life, and should be reflected in literature.


I'm not saying a five star funny story is impossible -- it's harder and riskier. It requires the scaffolding you talked about -- building layer upon layer so you have a structure. I already said I admire craftsmanship and structure. I think most comedy doesn't put in that kind of effort -- I laugh at "Anchorman" and "Billy Madison," but I don't think they took the effort that "The Godfather" did to make. But they are smarter and funnier (to me anyway) than "Dude, Where's my Car?" Intelligent comedy exists, but it needs a realistic framework and realistic characters. And I don't mean "realistic" in the sense of it should happen in the real world -- the Lord of the Rings is dramatic (with moments of humour) but it's not the real world. I mean "realistic characters" in the sense that I can believe in them in their world. Nothing is shaking me out of the story and going "oh, that's not plausible, I can't imagine that." I can't rate "Anchorman" at 5 stars even though it's hilarious because it's farcical, there's nothing realistic about it. It's fun, but it's not artistically amazing.


I don't think a dramatic story has the same risk of being unrealistic -- good dramatic stories centre on conflict and draw readers into the story-world without as much risk of implausible unbelievabilty. If it's well-written, it's going to have an easier time getting a 5 star rating. That doesn't mean well-written comedy is impossible. Just has a higher bar because it's harder to create prolonged, extended humour that is also a great story. The longer you extend humour, the more it runs the risk of becoming farce.


I'm not creating a division between humor and drama, I already said both are necessary in the best works. Again, look at Shakespeare, who can go from killing the King of Scotland and then have a drunken porter stumble about. I think a PRIMARILY funny story isn't as successful to me as dramatic ones, in literature, because I can't think of any that don't devolve into slapstick. The best books I've ever read made me laugh out loud, and they also made me cry. Serious drama alone doesn't make a story great.


But funny is easier to do at it's most basic level -- just watch my kids laugh at a branch slapping a dinosaur on the head in A Land Before Time. They know instinctively that it's funny. Scaffolded, extended comedy with intelligence is brilliant -- and takes effort. But funny on it's own is very quick and doesn't require a ton of build-up, if a two year old can laugh at it in its simplest form. However, my five year old hasn't figured out that the girl dies in the Bridge to Terabithia movie, or that she should be worried beyond the fact that the boy cries. She doesn't feel the emotional build-up of the drama. She recognizes funny instinctively, and she recognizes sadness in the boy's reaction to drama -- he's crying. But that's instinct. She has no clue of the dramatic story arc that leads to the crying. It takes only a second to make my kids laugh -- making them realize something is dramatically serious isn't as easy.


Anyone can see that dinosaur get slapped by that branch, and know that it's supposed to be funny. It might not be hilarious to me at 30 compared to my three year old son, but I know it's a visual joke. But it takes reading all of Bridge to Terabithia, to see the relationship between the main characters in all it's humour and friendship and fun, before the drama of the girl's death can hit home. The story uses both humour and drama to maximum effect, but you don't walk away saying "that was a five-star funny book," you walk away going "that's a Newberry award winning tragedy." It was funny at times, but the drama is the important part of the story. But no one would have cared if it was a one-liner "Oh there was a girl and she died." That's not drama or good writing. But comedians can make you laugh with a good one-liner. Funny is easier, at a basic level. At the top levels, I think it's harder -- but nowhere did I say one or the other, comedy or drama, was better. Just it's easier for me to envison a five star story that isn't primarily funny -- I've read those. I haven't yet read a five star funny novel.


Maybe Catch-22, but that was in high school and I'd have to re-read it again.


"Maybe Catch-22, but that was in high school and I'd have to re-read it again."


Also recommended: "A Confederacy of Dunces", "Gulliver's Travels", and anything by Kurt Vonnegut (who seems to have specialized in literary farces).


"Anyone can see that dinosaur get slapped by that branch, and know that it's supposed to be funny. ... But it takes reading all of Bridge to Terabithia, to see the relationship between the main characters in all it's humour and friendship and fun, before the drama of the girl's death can hit home."


Try watching the 'Married Life' montage from 'Up' (link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GroDErHIM_0 ) and see if you don't even get a little misty-eyed. Takes about five minutes (a bit longer than your average joke), but the point remains: It's possible to create dramatic impact in a very short span of time. Also, your example of the branch-to-the-face joke misses an important point--like a brief kiss, or a whispered 'I-love-you', this is just one single note in the structure of a story (one that isn't even a comedy). A branch to the face has as about as much comedic currency as two people holding hands has dramatic currency (and like any currency, it drastically increases in value depending on its context).


I think I grossly misunderstood your initial point, and I beg your pardon for that--but I still think you're wrong on thinking that, at its simplest, comedy is easier than drama. I don't think they're absolutely equal, but I also don't think it's possible to break it down into the simple terms you're breaking it down into.


We probably value serious stories more than funny stories because serious stories often take more risks--it's not that they're harder to write, but the stakes (and therefore our expectations) are much higher when you're writing a story about death, misery, or the human condition.


Yes indeed. I guess part of what I was thinking of was the idea that maybe you have to save the 5 star ratings for stories that say something Big and Significant about Life. Which can certainly be done with humour, but it's more rare..Sometimes even the really silly stuff can do this, I'm thinking "Life of Brian".


Or maybe just doing "funny" really well is a noble goal in and of itself. Laughter is a good thing.


True also, many of the best stories can combine both humour and serious drama, so maybe it's a false dilemma I'm setting up here.


In the end I have to go with the concept of Quality from Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance - you can't totally define Quality, but you know it when you see it.


I've read Gulliver, but it's more satirical than funny -- and I mean that in it makes you question your environment, rather than that it makes me laugh. I loved Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, but it was as dramatic as it was funny -- to me anyway -- showing that good writers use both. Catch-22 faces the drama of war, even if the characters face it with insanity.


I'm breaking things down into simple terms because I'm not (yet) writing a long essay about this -- and the more we chat back and forth, the more I learn about what I"m thinking and what you're thinking. But I disagree about the branch and the hand-holding having the same amount of "currency" -- my kids have belly laughs when they see that slap or similar pratfalls. They don't react to hand holding at all. The pratfall causes a bigger reaction, more easily. I've seen my kids react to villains in stories, but only after a tension build-up where they know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and there's music and lighting and mood to help instill fear -- but all of that takes more context, more planning, more effort than a simple joke. I can't get simpler than toddler reactions, nor more visceral.


It is possible to create drama in a short span of time -- but I would say it's harder to do short-term than over the long term. Funny and dramatic almost have an inverse/square law -- funny is easy short term (a pratfall makes people laugh out loud) whereas it's harder to sustain for a prolonged time, and drama is difficult to induce quickly, but easily over longer periods. People can handle drama about the human condition because there are more stakes, like you said: more personal involvement, more conflict -- all of that is easier to generate in a dramatic story than a comedic one.


And I don't think I necessarily said comedy was easier than drama. I might have to double check. I'm certain that FUNNY is easier than drama, because FUNNY can be instantaneous and drama takes longer. A very intelligent primarily funny story is more difficult to sustain than a dramatic story -- but drama almost needs a story to be as effective, since over the short term it doesn't get the same reaction. It depends on length and context.


I have been trying to differentiate between different terms -- instant funny slapstick moments, and the difficulty in trying to create a primarily funny story, versus dramatic stories. However, in discussing "comedy" I'm usually referring to comedic films -- movies that are supposed to be funny. Traditionally, comedies were the opposite arc of tragedies in theatre and literature. Tragedy features people going from prosperity to trouble, while comedies go from trouble to prosperity. Despair cycling to triumph. Shakespeare's comedies are just as well written, arguably, in comparison to his tragedies -- but his comedies aren't "funny" except in particular scenes, and there are funny scenes in the tragedies too. Dramatic comedy is totally different than a funny story -- and like the Tempest could be just as artistically worthy as King Lear.


Plus, I really agree with Fiona -- I like that Zen.


Gavin Williams wrote: I haven't yet read a five star funny novel.

Maybe Catch-22, but that was in high school and I'd have to re-read it again.


Um, Catch-22 is not a "funny" book. It has its comic moments, but it is not a "funny" book.


I had actually been planning to say that I love A Midsummer Night's Dream and would give it a 5 with no hesitation. That a "5" comedy or humor piece that has a point to it--that isn't intended only to be funny--certainly can reach excellence. And then I got to this:


Gavin Williams wrote: I have been trying to differentiate between different terms -- instant funny slapstick moments, and the difficulty in trying to create a primarily funny story, versus dramatic stories. However, in discussing "comedy" I'm usually referring to comedic films -- movies that are supposed to be funny. Traditionally, comedies were the opposite arc of tragedies in theatre and literature. Tragedy features people going from prosperity to trouble, while comedies go from trouble to prosperity. Despair cycling to triumph. Shakespeare's comedies are just as well written, arguably, in comparison to his tragedies -- but his comedies aren't "funny" except in particular scenes, and there are funny scenes in the tragedies too. Dramatic comedy is totally different than a funny story -- and like the Tempest could be just as artistically worthy as King Lear.


This old English Major won't argue that comedy implies a rise in fortune. But the suggestion that Shakespeare's comedies are only sporadically funny, and certainly not as funny overall as a rather bloody and desperate war novel (as I remember Catch-22) leaves me shaking my head. Again--there is humor in that novel. But most of the themes are serious, to say the least. I admit that the ending--well, I don't like to give away endings. But I suspect that if I thought about it more (and reread the book), it would seem to me that it's more like a spoof on the Heroic Quest story than a true comedy.


--Shelley


Catch-22 isn't like "haha" funny, it's meant as a spoof or satire. It's very dark humour, if one wanted to count it as a humour book (which is where I've seen it listed in some places). But that's kind of why I don't think a primarily funny book works, it needs dramatic elements, just like good dramas require humour at times. I don't know why "satire" is considered "funny" because it rarely makes me laugh -- I suppose it's partly because it points out the absurdity of a situation, and enhances it for effect -- but that doesn't elicit a belly-laugh very often.


And not all of Shakespeare's comedies are like rolling in the aisle funny. I love Midsummer night's dream, the best I ever saw it was in Toronto at Passe Muraille, when a cast of women did the whole thing (kind of putting the all -male traditional Shakespearean cast thing on its head). Bottom and Puck are funny, and the situation with the love-flower is amusing -- but I don't find the four lovers in the woods funny, just characters dealing with a problem. I would never say that it was less funny than Catch-22, quite the opposite -- Catch-22 didn't make me laugh, it's just considered a humour book because of it's satirical content, no one looked at war like that before, and now there's been MASH and Dr. Strangelove, etc. I laugh at Shakespeare, but I don't think of "Much Ado about Nothing" as hilariously funny, nor the Tempest (which certainly isn't a tragedy but kind of defies traditional classification). There are funny characters and funny scenes, but I find that the characters' struggles with the conflicts of their plays are still more important to me than what was humourous about the play.


Furthermore - on the subject of Shakespeare -- I would give most of his works a 5 on our system -- he almost deserves his own classification. 6 stars to 10 stars reserved for the Bard, because I like Macbeth better than Romeo and Juliet, and Midsummer better than Much Ado, and Lear better than Hamlet. He still kicks my ass, and everyone else on this site, with the plays I don't like as much as the others. His comedies are 5 star for sure -- find me someone as impressive that writes something primarily funny and I would have no problem rating them the same. Because, and this has always been my point, I respect craftmanship and creativity. However, it is very difficult to get a good conflict and thus plot out of a PRIMARILY funny story that you laugh your way through.


I've never said funny stories aren't worthy, I was just trying to share my opinion on why they are less likely to get 5 stars when Fiona said she found it difficult to picture. I know why I don't think a funny story gets 5 stars with me -- I haven't read one in a long time that creates a believable story world (where I'm drawn into the story and don't question something as implausible in its confines) where the characters stay engaging and relatable, where the conflict drives the plot, and the structure shows deep thought and creativity and talent. All of those things are the bread and butter of serious stories, and are harder to maintain in PRIMARILY funny stories without the whole thing becoming slapstick and cartoonish.


I only have a handful of "funny" examples in my head -- Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy comes to mind, and I haven't read the whole series, Shakespeare (but he's not recent, that's for sure) the afore-mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, some of John Irving's stuff made me laugh but he tends to get dark and tragic... It's rare. And, because it's rare, well written funny stories are like gems.


Here on this site I was reading "Simon of Space," and "Arcadia Snips" -- both are clever, funny, with interesting worlds and characters. I haven't read far into Arcadia, because of time constraints, but I did a review of Simon -- it fell apart on plausibility, and because I couldn't keep my focus on the story world any more, I got bored despite the fact that the writer was creative and witty. I was thinking too much about why it no longer made sense to enjoy the humour. Clever isn't always enough to get to five stars -- though I have no doubt but that the writer has talent and is worth reading.


_Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_ is a great example of a poorly structured comedy; it's a series with very little plot or structure (and its character development moves with the brisk pace of a tectonic plate) and largely exists as a vehicle for Douglas Adams to be a very clever fellow. As Douglas Adams *was* a very clever fellow, this alone is enough to carry the series despite its absolute dearth of any plot or structure whatsoever.


I would probably give _Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy_ five stars though; the material in it is too brilliant not to (but I am an immense, simpering fan). There is no point (beyond that the universe is evil and out to get you), very little theme (though many of the jokes run in the same vein--the incredible self-destructive stupidity of people, the nastiness of the universe)--but it's just a means for Douglas Adams to tell jokes. And the jokes are incredibly good.


As an aside, I think using the reaction of children as a bellweather on what works, dramatically or comedically, is not going to give you the same results for adults. Drama can be instantly affecting, but it's often deeply affected by the life experience of the person watching. A couple of kids might not read anything at all into hand-holding, but the moment I see it I feel a pang because of all the things it's meant to me in my life.


Then again, good comedy also calls on life experience. So I guess my only point is that how you react to both humor and drama is largely going to differ based on what you've gone through. And (for adults, at least), the best humor needs the bittersweetness of life experience to inform it, and is by no means any less nuanced than drama.


(For my part, I prefer to see them intertwined, just like they are in life. There are authors whose work I find unbelievable because their characters won't joke in the trenches. Not every one's going to do gallows humor when they're being shot at, but I disbelieve a universe where no human being resorts to it to relieve tension. Likewise, humor without drama quickly grows boring.)


For what it's worth (and in effort to shamelessly namedrop), my pastor's father-in-law served with Joseph Heller during World War 2 and recognized some of the conversations in the book. Apparently some of them actually happened.


Gavin Williams wrote: Furthermore - on the subject of Shakespeare -- I would give most of his works a 5 on our system -- he almost deserves his own classification. 6 stars to 10 stars reserved for the Bard, because I like Macbeth better than Romeo and Juliet, and Midsummer better than Much Ado, and Lear better than Hamlet. He still kicks my ass, and everyone else on this site, with the plays I don't like as much as the others. His comedies are 5 star for sure -- find me someone as impressive that writes something primarily funny and I would have no problem rating them the same.


You've hit on the problem I'm having; the stuff I really really really like is so good it blows the scale. If I give A Midsummer Night's Dream a 5, because that's as high as the scale goes, and I give a 5 likewise (!) to Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev and Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose because they also blow me away, then it's at least one step down to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which I still like very much, and then another step down to Anne Lamott's Crooked Little Heart . . . Well, just counting downwards that many steps on a five-point scale would mean, what, a 3 or 3 1/2 by this point, and we're talking about a novel Amy Tan called "Absolutely brilliant."


You see my problem.


So far I've been winging it, kind of putting the ringers, as it were, off the top of the scale and trying to factor in how other readers here might feel (judging from what I've seen generally) about the piece in question. Which latter thing I believe the guidelines encourage raters to do. But is that the way everyone else is handling it?