Salman Rushdie has a way with words, but he's not so great with star ratings.
The esteemed British Indian novelist, whose work has won numerous awards and provoked controversy, stirred up heated discussion with his posts on the book-centric social networking site Goodreads.
On Goodreads, people share what they are currently reading and give books they've finished a star rating. They also have the option of writing a brief review. Both can be viewed by anyone who follows a given user. That was what Rushdie didn't quite understand when he started giving brutally low ratings to some of literature's most beloved works.
Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize–winning To Kill a Mockingbird got only three stars. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis's award winning first novel, which Time declared one of the 100 best novels published since the magazine's inception, received a single measly star. Only a few novels, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, were deemed worthy of a perfect five-star rating.
Almost immediately, Rushdie's followers on Goodreads questioned his judgment.
Rushdie, it turns out, thought the ratings were private. He responded by writing on Goodreads that:
"I’m so clumsy in this new world of social media sometimes. I thought these rankings were a private thing designed to tell the site what sort of book to recommend to me, or not recommend. Turns out they are public. Stupid me. Well, I don’t like the work of Kingsley Amis, there it is. I don’t have to explain or justify. It’s allowed."
He later told the Independent: "I was just fooling around, experimenting with the site. Pls don’t take [the ratings] seriously." But the ratings, if Rushdie really did think they were private, might be some of his most honest expressions of opinion about literature.
"What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist," Rushdie wrote in his 1988 novel Satanic Verses. Rushdie's expression here is certainly honest, if accidental. It's a helpful mistake, in that it reminds us no art is universally loved.
No one should have to explain or justify not liking a book — even if the person who doesn't like that book is a world-famous author himself.