Summary: I have a personal rating scheme for short fiction, where I assign a numerical value from 1 to 5. This is in addition to any review or comment text I may note for short fiction. This was developed for my own personal use and convenience, and is both irrational in some ways yet hopefully internally consistent. I have written this post to make sharing my explanation of it easier when asked, as does happen occasionally.
The Whole Story: I’ve been assigning ratings to books I read for decades in my Book Database. While this is subjective, it is both fun and useful to me in a number of ways. My book database book ratings range from zero, for “Execrable”, to 9, for “A Classic”. I include a brief text field for comments also for each book read.
After I started reading a lot of short science fiction and fantasy (AKA “SFF”) several years ago, I discovered that I really needed to comment/review and rate each story for my own purposes. Among other things, this was really needed to be able to remember the stories from an anthology, discuss the stories, and to identify which were my favorites and least favorites.
With that thinking and observing how others in the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Fiction reading group on Facebook dealt with this issue, I developed a system that works for me. I am not ready to say that it completely rational, as it is not. However, it works for me and I attempt to apply it consistently.
My rating scale for short speculative fiction is from 1 to 5, with 5 the best. This is admittedly a personal, subjective scale.
My criteria for a good story involves quality of writing (grammar, spelling, sentence structure, coherence, etc.), style, interesting characters, interesting plot, and interesting or novel ideas, and that hard to define “sense of wonder”. I don’t go to the extent of assigning sub-values to these different factors or sub-criteria and then aggregating them. I was involved in a lot of that for engineering evaluations of alternatives as an engineer, but that seems excessive and pointless here.
Another aspect that does enter into my ratings and willingness to finish the story are aspects of racism (see my post on this), colonialism, homophobia and related issues, ableism, misogyny, etc. Especially when one of these aspects is really obvious, my rating and enjoyment of a story may be affected. I know I am not as consistent on this as I would like.
Needless to say, my ratings and comments can vary from day to day as my mood and how I interact with a story change. My best strategy for dealing with this is to occasionally defer rating and writing about a story until the next day, to give my thinking and emotions a chance to gel and become coherent.
I attempt to make my ratings internally consistent in comparison to other stories I’ve read, but I don’t put a huge amount of conscious effort into this. This is probably more thoroughly considered when I am looking at what are the best stories from an anthology, collection or group read.
I assign a “2” to a story I could not finish, or “Did Not Finish” or DNF. These are generally stories that I just loose interest in, typically due to crappy writing, uninteresting characters or uninteresting plot, a combination of all three, or where the story just does not speak to me. I have found that I am not generally a fan of post-modern, plotless stories, so these are more typically DNF for me. I do tend to “DNF” stories less than novels, as it’s not as much of an investment of my time and energy.
I could assign values less than a “2” to stories that I think are horrifically bad, and probably should. I don’t encounter or rate many of these.
Although it’s a novel, I think the late career Pellucidar novel “Land of Terror” by Edgar Rice Burroughs would be below a “2” for me if I were rating a similar short SFF story. I encountered this reading for the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards. It was astoundingly bad. I have read a fair amount of other ERB novels, including the first Pellucidar novel, “At The Earth’s Core”. They varied for various reasons, but were all a lot better than this. I tried reading it twice, and did not get farther than page 6. In hindsight, this could have been a “1.5” or lower.
One example of a “2” for short SFF is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Door Through Space” (Ace Double, 1961), read in Leigh Grossman’s great 2011 anthology “Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction”. My comment was “DNF, lost interest. Seems like a C.L. Moore knockoff.” At least for me, I really wonder why Grossman picked this story.
My DNF (or “2”) may be your classic or favorite story by an author if my DNF is a result of just not having the patience to really attend to a story that is taking a long time to get going, that just does not grab me, or that I don’t find any characters I can be sympathetic to or identify with. “Wall, Stone, Craft”, a 1993 novella by Walter Jon Williams in chapbook and F&SF was one of these for me. My comment on this story, which Gardner Dozois loved in the Jo Walton “Revisiting the Hugos” post for the 1994 Hugo, was “A story about Mary Shelley that just did not keep my interest.” I really like Walter Jon Williams and his fiction, but this story was just not my cup of tea.
Between 2 and 3 are stories that I finish but that I think are really pretty deficient in some way, whether it be crappy writing, uninteresting characters, boring plot, etc. These typically but not always occur together. These would fall somewhere in “Poor” or “Okay” for me. I have especially gotten some of these reading for the Retro Hugos for 1943 and 1944 stories and for the “1946 Not A Retro Hugo” (my name, not theirs) project for Chicon 8. For example, I read, “Final Victim“, a short story by Ray Bradbury & Henry Hasse, Amazing February 1946. With a 2.4/5 rating, my comment was “Very ordinary and overwrought tale of murder and revenge in the Asteroid Belt.”
From about 3.1 to 3.5 are stories that I rate as “Good”. Not to pick on him, but Ray Bradbury’s 1946 short story in Thrilling Wonder Stories, “Rocket Skin“, fell into a “3.1” rating by me. My comments were, “Hitchhikers on space ships, like hobos, and a Patrol Man hitcher looking for a man with critical information hidden unknowing in his brain.”
“Very Good” typically is from 3.6 to 3.7. I had Philip K. Dick’s first published SF story, “Beyond Lies the Wub” from Planet Stories in 1952, at “3.7” or “Very Good”.
At 3.8 to 4.0, I get to “Great”. This could typically equate to something that might have been included in a “Best Of” XXXX anthology, but not a requirement. “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury (published first in Saturday Evening Post, then in “The Illustrated Man” in 1951) is a “4.0” for me.
At 4.1 to 4.3, I get to “Superlative”. “Out of All Them Bright Stars” by Nancy Kress (F&SF March 1985) had a 4.1 rating for me, at “Superlative”. I also had “When the Bough Breaks” by Kuttner and Moore (Astounding, November 1944) at 4.3 and “Superlative”.
At 4.4 to 4.9, I rate stories as “A Classic”. One example of this for me is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (New Yorker, July 26, 1948), which I rated 4.5. “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw (Analog, August 1966) is a 4.9 for me.
I do have a few stories that I rate a full “5”, or “Perfect”. These are “Vintage Season” (Astounding September 1946) and “Mimsy Were The Borogoves” (Astounding, February 1943) by Henry Kuttner/C. L. Moore, Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” (F&SF, November 1963), “Huddling Place” (Astounding, July 1944) by Clifford D. Simak, “Flowers for Algernon” (F&SF, April 1959) by Daniel Keyes, “Baby Is Three” (Galaxy, October 1952) by Theodore Sturgeon, and “Coming Attraction” (Galaxy, November 1950) by Fritz Leiber.
So, that is how my rating scheme works. It is arbitrary and subjective, and probably irrational in some ways, but it works for me. See table at the bottom for a summary. Although not directly applicable, I’ll close with the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel from the wonderful movie “This Is Spinal Tap” in 1984, “These go to eleven.”
|Did Not Finish, or DNF||2|
|Poor||2.1 to 2.5|
|Okay||2.6 to 3.0|
|Good||3.1 to 3.5|
|Very Good||3.6 to 3.7|
|Great||3.8 to 4.0|
|Superlative||4.1 to 4.3|
|A Classic||4.4 to 4.9|