I do not rate based on literary merit. I have friends that do, and this is fine because that is their system and not mine, but I do not; instead, I rate solely based on entertainment. This is how books like Pet to the Tentacle Monsters! can get three stars, whereas literary wunderkind Dave Eggers' latest book, The Circle, can get one.
My personal philosophy is that there is no "higher plane" of judgement that makes literature exempt from the entertainment rubric that applies to trashy mass-market paperbacks. Books were written to be read. They were meant to be enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fifty Shades of Grey; I'm pretty sure they force prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to listen to a special audiobook edition narrated by Gilbert Gottfried and Bette Midler when they're trying to draw confessions).
I mean, really. When you think about it, should a book automatically be granted five stars just because it managed to stay in print for 200+ years? That's like giving a student an A just because they decided to come in to class.
And yet, it never fails to surprise me how many people believe this unspoken assumption that all classics should be rated with 4- or 5-star ratings, and how quick they are to judge you if you don't. I have one-starred my fair share of classic and modern literature, and received more than my fair share of criticisms because of it, and the arguments almost always open up in the same way each time (always from someone who has five-starred the book).
Let's briefly go over some of the distinguishing characteristics of literary fiction that make it stand out from its lesser brethren.
Someone--either The New York Times, a professor at Harvard, or Oprah--has deemed this book "literature," which is a weighted term that indicates that the book contains some other quality that surpasses mere entertainment. Usually, this means that it touches upon some relevant, controversial issue (AIDS, racism, sexism, the holocaust) or Areas of Interest in the news (i.e. Africa, the Balkans).
The book is usually written in a certain way: it gets funky with punctuation (Jose Saramago, Cormac McCarthy, I'm looking at you); it uses flowery, convoluted prose (Tea Obreht, Iris Murdoch, Charlotte Bronte); it does the literary equivalent of jumping up and down on a desk, waving your arms, and shouting, "I'm a fucking intellectual!" (I think we all know I'm talking about Dave Eggers. But just to be clear, I'm talking about Dave Eggers.)
This literary book isn't meant to be entertaining, it's meant to be art.
Sometimes, a work of literary fiction can be both. But usually, it is not. And if you down-rate a book that meets these qualifications just because you, personally, did not enjoy it, people get mad.
I have been thinking about this, and I have come to the conclusion that it's because literary fiction attracts a certain kind of individual who reads certain kinds of books because they believe that the books they read say something about who they are as a person (read: "I'm a fucking intellectual!").
I can't think of any other reason why people would get so consistently angry about what other people say of the classics, unless they had some sort of personal or emotional investment in the book. And I think that comes down to the crux of the issue. There is a dark side to the literary fiction community, rife with intellectual snobbery and inferiority complexes. Reading books too complex for the casual reader gives them a sense of satisfaction that is disrupted when they see someone writing a review about why the book is no longer culturally relevant from an entertainment perspective.
Because--*gasp*--what if that means that they were wrong?
The snob reader's opening argument is usually a quick soundbite that reads as if it's been cribbed from a college professor or a dog-earred copy of Cliffnotes. Didn't like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Don't you know it's about "the death of the American Dream"?
The SR generally backs up their argument with an attack on the reader's intelligence.
"You clearly didn't read the book."
"Sorry this wasn't the beach read you expected."
"I've never seen such a willfully ignorant interpretation of a book."
(Watch out; the SR knows how to utilize thesaurus.com.)
Entering into these kinds of arguments is never a good idea, because they tend to be highly cyclic. I suspect this is because the SR often has no idea what the book they are defending is even really about, beyond what they were told it was about, and once they get tired of repeating the soundbite they will just resort to personal attacks, because "dumb slut" is a phrase that most everyone understands.
Ad hominems aside, I do think that part of the reason that literary fiction persists through the ages is because of what the books symbolize, rather than what the books are actually about, and how people apply that symbolism to their definition of themselves. For example, if a person claims that Charlotte Bronte is their favorite author, that suggests something about their character, their romantic inclinations, their worldview. Same goes with Hunter S. Thompson, Albert Camus, or Virginia Woolf. This is a necessary evil whenever something enters the pop cultural lexicon.
However, I do think that a book should also be able to stand on its own as a form of entertainment. If it doesn't, it will never receive a five-star rating from me. Two-star, tops. Clearly, some people are getting enjoyment out of these classics, and that is fine. But what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for all people, and I think shaming people for disliking a work of literary fiction (or any written work, for that matter) is wrong. Last time I checked, the definition of "art" wasn't: "you're a dumb fuck if you don't like this."