A Rant on Goodreads

There is something wrong, really wrong, when a site dedicated to book-lovers has the same community etiquette and literacy as YouTube’s comment section. Maybe it’s just another sign of the times: readers no longer really know how to read, commercial books are more passive, digestible in a single sitting even, and nobody seems to be interested in growing up. So much like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, every book I love lay scorched on Goodreads.

I can understand not liking or even hating a book. When I was a teenager, I hated Fitzgerald—despite his genius and having being born and raised in the same city. He just didn’t write anything which targeted my adolescent mind: there weren’t any characters with ridiculous hair styles boasting power levels of over 9,000, or androgynous males with gigantic swords, that in no way compensated for anything. And I did everything in my power, at the time, to read as little as necessary of Gatsby to pass English class.

If I were to write an honest review of it from my viewpoint at age 15, it would look something like this:

One Star

DNF (did not finish). It was really, really boring. A whole bunch of stupid, ordinary (having no supernatural powers) characters did things I couldn’t even bring myself to care about. I had a very hard time focusing or paying attention to it because it moved too slow and had little action. I don’t know why they forced us to read something so irrelevant. P.S. Jazz sucks.

Sadly, this wouldn’t even be the worst review I’ve ever read as I’ve seen people rate / review entire books based solely on the first page. So why allow this? When did freedom of speech become the freedom to crap on everything while being automatically published? But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s not just your average trolling. Throngs of people, who also avoided reading assigned literature for school, seem really compelled to take to the discussion threads and go to town on how bad the book they never really read was. I have friends who love talking about books but won’t join the site because of this atmosphere. And I don’t blame them. The negativity just takes the spotlight.

I still do my book burning the low tech way. 😉

The idea that good books are fun and bad books are boring couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, sometimes a book is like a gold mine. If you put in the work, digging and tunneling your way through it, you’ll unearth treasures that no amount of money can buy.

And it’s not like I’m opposed to literature that is purely entertainment. Some recent examples of books I’ve enjoyed were Warm Bodies and John Dies at the End. But it’s candy. It’s not something you get real sustenance from. What happened to having a balanced diet? Does somebody need to make a book pyramid?

I know nobody forced me to use the site or read any reviews / discussions. That’s not what this is about. Really, I just feel like we’re losing something important as a civilization. Kids and adults are knee jerk when it comes to works that can take a lifetime to digest. It’s like all those DFW speeches about hedonistic, instant gratification trends in entertainment are coming true, maybe even more so for books than he predicted.

But how deep does this rabbit hole go? And is it too late already to turn back. All I’m really asking is to please not make Mike Judge’s Idiocracy a documentary of the future and maybe moderate the levels of hate books get. Logical, reasonable critiques are one thing. Claiming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was “dogshit [sic] writing” is blasphemous. 

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  1. >> When did freedom of speech become the freedom to crap on everything while being automatically published?

    Since ever? Maybe not the “automatically published” part (although that might be debatable using the Freedom of the Press clause). Certainly Freedom of Speech was meant to protect speech that people don’t like. I’m sure the Founders were thinking of political speech but I choose the modern and wider interpretation of “all speech”. That includes the most disgusting and vile things one can imagine. That includes terrible reviews written by idiots who write nothing more than, “This sucks”. I admit that I’m very radical when it comes to freedom of speech. I even argue against any notion of indecency — what’s indecent to a member of the SCOTUS or to you may not be indecent to me.

    As for the main thrust of your opinion piece, I detect a level of snobbishness that I also reject. The enjoyment of art is completely subjective no matter how many experts or critics chime in. If one person can listen to John Coltrane and hear nothing but noise while I listen and hear beauty, who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s the same notes played the same way going, they’re just interpreted differently in the brains of the listeners. It’s the same with books. I may think Gravity’s Rainbow is a great novel while only being able to get through three pages of Finnegan’s Wake before quitting. It doesn’t matter that a critic will tell me about the similarities between the two — my brain can’t wrap itself around the latter no matter how hard I try. I reject snobbery. This is better than that and such-and-such are beneath me and whatever other nonsense. Books are books are books.

    As for criticism/reviews? I take all of them, whether they are written by a 15 year old or the King of LitCrit, with a grain of salt. Actually, a pound of salt. Then again, I love the comments sections on YouTube — free speech at its finest and most hilarious.

    1. My personal take is that any author would be fine with “legit” reviews/comments. So long as they came from someone who had at least made an attempted read and offered some commentary they gave at least a few seconds thought to. I’ve watched the “completely free expression of free speech” ruin (literally) several websites – two specifically devoted to consumer reviews. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that it is inherently unfair that a group of people can ruin someone’s reputation or the perception of their work just because they decide it will be a fun thing to do on the web.

      1. There’s a big difference between a troll and a person whose level of criticism doesn’t rise to some arbitrary level. I would also love to see some citations or examples of criticism on Goodreads that would illustrate the kind of nastiness-for-fun that you mention. I’ve seen scathing reviews that I didn’t agree with, where I thought the reviewer just didn’t understand the book (or came into it with an agenda). I have yet to see someone go after a book with the air of, “Tee-hee. I’m going to ruin a career.” The only example I can think of where people went after an author with a certain savagery is the reaction to Orson Scott Card’s remarks about homosexuality.

        1. I can’t speak for Travis experience, but I will address “criticism doesn’t rise to some arbitrary level”; First, there’s a difference between “criticism and critique” and “review” or “opinion”. I’ll agree that “reviews” and “opinion” are not subject, or shouldn’t be subject, to some “arbitrary level” of quality; but that being the case, a check box – “liked”, “didn’t like” “hated”, “loved” – would serve the same purpose on any of these sites.

          Criticism suggests some higher level of engagement with the subject – a knowledge of the craft, the genre, the field and, at least for me, suggests that when someone makes a point, the at least attempt to provide some justification – usually drawn from the text itself, for whatever their contention may be.

          And beyond all of that – what purpose does reading “this sucked” really serve? If you’re going to go to the trouble of telling us all what you thought, how about giving us something we can actually use in our assessment of the work and its suitability for our own reading time? “This sucked because it had pigs with wings in it and I hate pigs” is at least somewhat useful: we know that you disliked it for reasons having little or nothing to do with the work itself.

          1. For me, someone saying “this sucked” is to be ignored. I think we have to have faith that most people are idiotic enough to take that sort of review seriously. If they are idiots, they can’t be helped.

    2. First off, Merry Christmas or happy holiday! Published comments aren’t a question of freedom of speech, unless the government is censoring them or punishing people. And outside of legitimate libel, I’m not in favor of any government censorship. What I’m talking about is moderating discussion forums that have become a terrible place to talk about books.

      And no, it’s not nonsense. Many books are more than just a story. They can be life altering in ways. They can be the culmination of a great thinkers experience / philosophy, a complete work of art like Shakespeare, and they can impart something more into the reader. I liked a lot what Alan Moore had to say about this subject, but realizing this aspect of fiction doesn’t make me a snob. There is a reason they made us read some literary classics in school, and it wasn’t just for our comprehension skills.

      As for Finnegan’s Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow, I don’t blame you. I hate GR, but I respect its complexity and what Pynchon did; it just wasn’t the song for me. But are you seriously claiming my copy of Sherlock vs Dracula is on the same artistic level or has the same literary merit as Moby-Dick? Where does that end? Is Justin Bieber the same as Mozart because they both made music?

      If you give a comment that clearly has no effort put into it, I will dismiss it with equal effort. This isn’t a problem for me. But this idea that there is no such thing as a qualified opinion is wrong. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to ask a reviewer to actually read the work they’re reviewing. I also don’t think reviews or discussion forums are worthless.

      I use reviews to often decide what new games to purchase. I use reviews to discover new books. Reviews also can crush a debut author or ruin someone’s day. Words aren’t meaningless symbols strung together randomly. So they shouldn’t be treated that way. And while I can certainly take them with a grain of salt, I run across more than enough to fill up my shaker, daily. I find YouTube puts me in a really bad mood after reading too many inane arguments. I used to have more fun with that stuff when I was younger, but nowadays it’s way past the point of funny and is verging on a scary / narcissistic trend that I’m not on board with.

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