Opinion: Book Reviews, Goodreads, Literary Criticism + Influence (Oh my!)

{via State Library and Archives of Florida}

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a parallel digital universe, completely counter to the mainstream.

From friends being horrified by the concept of my devoting time to something as “weird” as blogging or Twitter, to proclamations from mainstream publications bemoaning that ebooks are ruining—ruining—our civilization, it’s bizarre that being involved in the digital world is still perceived by a lot of people as a fringe activity.

In that vein, The Atlantic recently turned its critique of digital culture to the rise of online book reviews in the article, Could the internet save book reviews?”*  

In theory, customer reviews are quick, easy, egalitarian, and make the “consumer” (as opposed to the reader) feel in control of his or her reading choices. But there’s a difference between a recommendation and a review. Customer reviews are heavy on opinion and light on insight. They’re reactionary. Fiction customer reviews typically contain “I-loved-it” or “I-hated-it” declarations based on an affinity for or dislike of the characters and discuss them as if they were real people. Customer reviews rarely include plot summaries—even dull ones. They tend to consider books in terms of whether or not they were worth the money and need not pertain to the book at all. 

Generalize much?

I really wonder what reviews the author of that article read before writing this piece.

Sure, if you log onto Amazon or Goodreads or search for reviews on book blogs, you can find all sorts of unhelpful reviews (I’m sure I’ve written some myself). However…

If you spend any time at all on seeking out reviews, you can find incredibly thoughtful and helpful reviews online. You’ll find reviews that contain plot summaries (which I honestly don’t need, since a quick Google search can give me the summary of any plot), reviews with wonderful insights, reviews that tug at your heart because a book really touched someone or light a fire because a book really pushed that reader’s buttons. 

And while in my Goodreads and blogging circle I rarely see someone assessing the merit of whether or not a book was worth the cover price, I read that passage in The Atlantic over and over again, trying to determine what exactly was inherently wrong with assessing a book from a consumer’s standpoint. I spend quite a bit of money on books and sometimes I find myself irked having bought a book and realizing that it probably wasn’t worth my ten or fifteen bucks, simply because the value wasn’t there for me with regard to the story or writing, or the publisher did a horrendous job of formatting the book.** 

But, honestly, books—as wonderful as they are and as important to our collective culture as they may be—are also a product. And, sometimes despite the contents of said book, there’s something wrong with the product. And, as consumers, we have every right to criticize that entire package. (I’ve said forever that it’s ridiculous to expect that books are special snowflakes that shouldn’t be evaluated as the total package. We don’t demand the same treatment of, say, albums; it would be absurd to say that we can’t discuss the arrangement of an album in discussing its merit.) And, frankly, we have a right to question pricing and all the other things that go into our own value equation for that pricing.

Additionally, the author’s comments about quality reviews fail to acknowledge that in the social Web, mechanisms exist for other readers to give reviews their stamp of approval in the form of comments (which helps popularity, credibility and search engine rank), “liking” reviews on Goodreads, voting reviews up or down on Amazon (granted, this appears to be an often- and easily-manipulated system) and sharing good reviews on social media. 

I don’t think that we have a great system (yet) for really ensuring that the most helpful reviews bubble to the top (for example, I have a thing with meanness—and it bothers me that some of the most popular reviews on Goodreads and blogs are often those which border on what I’d consider “mean,” which is a different beast than “negative” or “critical”—I choose not to follow those reviewers, though). However, I don’t think that the most helpful reviews are bubbling to the top via the literary gatekeepers either. (I’m looking at you, The Lifeboat, which every Important Reviewer applauded, yet every review in Important Publications included a wretched plot summary that did not at all convey what the book was actually about, nor did any Important Review in an Important Publication mention that there is zero tension in a book that’s entirely set on a lifeboat adrift at sea. Yes, I’ll be reviewing—and not recommending—this disappointment of a book next week.) 

But there are also signs of hope from pioneers like Nancy Pearl, the Seattle librarian behind “Book Lust.” Pearl tends to recommend rather than review but does so with the expertise that only a librarian or someone who works in an independent bookstore has.

Because only librarians and independent bookstore employees can make quality book recommendations? Oh, really?!

Let me tell you a little story.

The last time I bought a book at an independent bookstore, I was in Seattle to attend a signing with Stephanie Perkins, Gayle Forman and Nina LaCour. While I assumed (rightly) that there would be books available at the event, I thought I’d support the bookstore that was about a block away from the high school hosting the event and buy a copy Anna and the French Kiss since I didn’t have a paper copy.

I snagged the store’s lone copy of the book*** and brought it up to the cashier. 

She made the requisite small talk with me as she entered the information from my Oregon driver’s license to exempt me from Washington sales tax (oh, yeah) and asked me if I was in town for “the signing.” Me being the book geek that I am, I started gushing effusively and breathlessly something along these lines:

OMIGOD. How awesome are Stephanie, Gayle and Nina’s books? And how great it is that there are such strong, unique voices in young adult fiction? Because I totally didn’t have that growing up. I mean Judy Blume was great, but we only had Judy and kids today have so many great, sophisticated authors. And I love Stephanie’s books in particular because she writes about love, but it’s so much more than love… it’s about finding yourself and those themes are so universal, you know…?

And then I looked up at the salesperson, beaming, because I made a bunch of assumptions (about which I felt like a total ass at this point) about her knowledge of YA because of the way the books were marginalized in the store and her kind of hippy-ish appearance and I get in response…

Crickets.

Finally, she sighs, raises her eyesbrows at me, and holds up a dour-looking book with a green cover and what appears to be photo of a rock (yes, a single rock) on the cover and says, 

No. I mean this book. 

 

 Me, smile fading quickly, 

Oh, well, there’s a really awesome author event happening at the school down the street! 

Salesperson, thrusting my book at me,  

Hmmmm… I’m not familiar with those authors. 

 

Me, 

Oh, you should check them out for your teen customers!

 

She chose to not finish the conversation.

(Let’s all pause for a moment to enjoy the humor of her thinking I was in Seattle to see an author whose book had a rock on the cover while I’m buying the pink and purple, scallop-edged, Eiffel Tower bedecked Anna and the French Kiss.)

My point in telling this silly, self-deprecating story is not to criticize this particular salesperson or store, but to point out the reality that being an indie bookstore employee does not guarantee that one can make book recommendations in all genres and categories sold in their store (I have been met with all sorts of eye rolling when asking about the location of YA and urban fantasy sections in indie bookstores).

I imagine that if a young person or a person shopping for a teen reader came into that shop and asked that saleperson for help, she would have handed that customer The Hunger Games or some other popular YA book and been done with it. She knew nothing of the category. 

On the other hand, when I worked in downtown Portland and Borders still existed (RIP), I used to go into a little Borders Express store near my work at lunchtime. The folks who worked in that store—a chain—seemingly knew everything about every book, genre and category.

Librarians are the same. Some are able to speak about many, many genres and categories, while others are only passionate about about Important Literature.

And that’s where every day readers like me, you and your average enthusiastic Goodreader can fill in the gaps. 

I am constantly dishing out book recommendations (and have been for years and years), and I’m yet to have a dissatisfied customer. Lots of people know books, and if we leave the book recommendations to only librarians and independent bookstore employees, we’re effectively saying that only a certain type of book if worthy of recommendation. Right? 

Goodreads is a social network for book reviews, but it’s modeled on a book-club model rather than a journalistic one. For now, Goodreads is basically Facebook with books, but if enough contributors set the bar high with creative, funny, and smart reviews it might become a force of its own. These recommenders offer a vision for Orwell’s hope that there be short reviews of less-worthy titles.

It just might? Goodreads already is a force.

Hello?

Goodreads is growing ridiculously quickly. And people are making decisions about what to buy and what not buy based on what they’re reading on that social network. As most of y’all probably know and understand implicitly, Goodreads users develop a trusted network of other reviewers and regularly make decisions about what to read based on that network. (An aside: Am I the only one who follows people whose taste is the opposite of my own because I know I’ll probably love what they hate and vice versa? Just wondering.)

I recently signed on a new client in my day job who happens to be an author (she doesn’t write books in any category or genre we review on CEFS), and the first thing I said to her was, 

We need to get you on Goodreads. IMMEDIATELY.

 

I’ve seen the influence of that network myself, having had people tell me (and I’m not at all an influential or even particularly active Goodreader) that they bought a book based on a review I posted. It’s already an economic force—and I expect that it will only continue to grow. Furthermore, think about all the authors behaving badly scandals that have spread virally across Goodreads in no time at all. 

Again, though, Goodreaders are influencing reading and buying decisions in genres and categories beyond Important Literature—books that are not worthy, to use the word from The Atlantic and Orwell. Therefore, it must not be a force yet.

What this Atlantic contributor (and the literary gatekeepers in general) is really concerned about is preserving a certain kind of literary criticism of a certain kind of book.

That’s my problem with the whole line of thinking. The vast majority of books we review and recommend on Clear Eyes, Full Shelves would likely be considered unmeritorious (either because of genre or category) to The Atlantic (don’t even get me started on their ridiculous YA heroines article which is all full of old books primarily from the juvenile or middle grade categories). And, as I pointed out in my post, Stop Telling Me What to Read! (which was also published on BlogHer Books), I am extremely uncomfortable with the undertone of privilege that goes along with discussions of what is and is not worth reading—and I’d say the same is true for reviewing and only placing value on a very narrow sort of review or recommendation. 

I absolutely love what the Internet has done in terms of helping facilitate book discovery.

Thanks to online reviews and recommendations, I’ve discovered my passion for novels in verse, become obsessed with books from Australia, learned that I was a tremendous snob in dismissing all romance novels and found out that young adult novels are not just for kids. These reviews have opened my eyes and expanded my reading world in incredible ways, changing my perspective on reading entirely.

Online book reviews have blown apart my universe.

And that’s an incredibly good thing.


*I wasn’t aware that book reviews were an endangered species, but perhaps that’s because I take time to seek out reviews and opinion on books beyond whatever the lit-fic of the moment happens to be. 

**There’s a publisher whose books I absolutely will not buy because their ebook formatting is such a disaster (all italics, chunks of randomly centered text) and they ignored my many, many emails to many, many different departments explaining the problems (including the specific coding problem—I’m a geek). I figure that someone who cares so little about their product isn’t worth supporting when I have so many other choices. Fortunately, Amazon has great customer service and refunded my money and even apologized for the annoyance.
***Oh, my… I have never seen a YA section of a bookstore curated as lazily as this one. It was tiny, shoved off in the corner and looked like someone selected the books for it in about ten minutes. It was horrid.  

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