Monday, January 16, 2012

What, there was some kind of scandal on Goodreads this weekend?

OK, I'm late to the party, but I have a thing or two to say about a thing or two.

For all of you who don't know, Goodreads is a website where readers can review books. There is apparently a lot of debate about how "free market" this online marketplace of ideas should be, because some of the reviews can be pretty nasty.  (And usually ... hilarious.  Let's be honest, mean is always funnier.) 

This puts a lot of panties in a twist, from readers who object to giving anything less than 3 stars out of 5 (then what is the point of the other two stars?) and writers who object to the scathing tone the Internet enables.  And some nasty business went down over there last week. 

Here's the thing.

If people can't be honest about what they don't like as well as what they do, then the purpose of a "review" is defeated.  I don't want to log on to Rottentomatoes and find out that every film critic gave a movie a minimum of 3 out of 5 stars, and all those who thought it deserved none, 1, or 2 just remained silent.

I don't think people should just be nice for no reason, whether you're doing it because you have a vague but incorrect understanding of karma, an inability to stick by your true opinions, or just don't want to be viewed as a "mean" person (by strangers on the internet).

If you think a book is boring, tell me.

If you think it had a flawed premise, I want to know. 

If you think it promotes rape culture, for the love of pancakes, don't let me buy it.

And if you think it was legitimately the cat's pajamas, tell me that, too.

Because really, and I am seriously asking, what is the point of self-censoring? To protect the feelings of strangers? To earn yourself a credit with the universe in hopes that you, too, will be published someday? Or is it just some socially ingrained resistance to honesty--YOUR HAIR LOOKS SO CUTE!*

Frankly, I think a lot of authors are just too damn sensitive. You know what is a baby? A baby. You know what is not a baby? Something you wrote. If you're still confused about this distinction, print out your manuscript, put it in a onesie, pop it in a stroller and see what kind of looks you get from people on the street.

I love writing, I love reading, but I'm fairly sure the social hierarchy goes

baby > pet > book

We don't run into burning buildings for books, folks. We just hope the guys at the Apple Store can restore a fried harddrive and move on with life.

I'm not saying that it's uncomfortable to put yourself out there for public criticism -- it is. I am also not saying that people don't have a right to be defensive about their passions -- they do. But I think it's time to put on our big girl and big boy panties and gain some perspective.

Do you know what people said about Charles Dickens?

"Not much of Dickens will live, because it has so little correspondence to life. He was the incarnation of cockneydom, a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in them."

And JK Rowling?

"How to read Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone? Why, very quickly, to begin with, and perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do."

And Nathaniel Hawthorne:

"I believe I dislike The House of Seven Gables because in the first chapters the prose is so fatuously intense: the striving for effect that makes it the ancestor of all horror-novel writing. But maybe it got better."

And it's not limited to critics taking on writers.  Sometimes writers take on other writers.  What did George Bernard Shaw have to say about Shakespeare, for example?

"With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare."

Mark Twain on Jane Austen:

"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

But don't worry, Mr. Clemens will get his comeuppance thanks to William Faulkner:

"A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth-rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven surefire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy."

Literary criticism is first and foremost subjective. Not everyone will love what you write, and not everyone will love the writing of someone who is far better than you.

But if you had the right to write it, I don't see how you can argue that someone else doesn't have the right to post a criticism of it on the Internet.

* Never trust a girl who says your hair looks cute after a trip to the salon.  WE ALL SAY THAT. 


  1. ANOTHER Goodreads scandal? Seriously? I don't write downright mean reviews, but I don't give every book 5 stars, either. I like when people are honest, and I would never tell a reviewer to change how she/he reviews. You know what I mean?

    1. Apparently. This site boggles my mind. And the fact that people take it so SERIOUSLY. I mean, really, could you imagine a film director or actor confronting someone over a bad movie review? No. So why is it ok to do it over books?

  2. Kind of tricky decisions here. I have panned books by Jean Auel, Dan Brown, and Steig Larrsen (sp?) because regardless of how popular they were/are, *I* thought they sucked rocks. I do hesitate to give a bad review to a struggling indy/self-published writer, regardless of how much said book howls like a dog. *I* don't want to be the person responsible for sinking said works (I'll simply let the bad writing do it for 'em). I won't give them a fluffy review, either, regardless of how good a friend they might be. And, if asked, "Why didn't you review my book on goodreads/amazon/bn?" I will answer, "Sorry, Charlie, I love you to pieces, but I couldn't honestly give your book a rave review." Then I'll lie, "Looking forward to the next one, though."

    1. Right, and that is a good distinction. I think I'd be more inclined to ignore a bad independent book or self-published writer, also in part because I'm sure if it was legitimately bad, someone else will review it negatively anyway. I also don't think I would bother to write a negative review on a book that already had a really low rating -- why beat a dead horse?

      At the same time, just because I wouldn't bother in those instances, doesn't mean I think it would be inappropriate for someone else to do so.

  3. Very well said.
    I've often read that it is in a writer's best interest to not even concern themselves with reviews. I guess I can understand this need, even though I'm not there yet.
    But really, if anyone expects each and every reader to give them a pat on the back for what they have written, they are setting themselves up for a fall.
    Publication, in itself, should be verification of the worth of one's words. Go on to the next book, and make it even better.

  4. I think it comes down to respect. It's one thing to dislike someone's novel, but to be rude about it? To attack the actual author? That's too far. Like you said, if it's boring, if it's faulty, if it's immoral, that's one thing. However, there are respectful ways to say it.

    1. In general, I agree, but I also think there's a fine line between honesty and "rudeness" when it comes a critical review, and I would prefer to stay on the side of honesty. Snark is probably going too far (though it usually is dang funny), but is there really a "respectful" way to say something like, "This book presents an unhealthy relationship in a positive manner, which is a really dangerous message to send to younger readers" or "This book is completely derivative of another work"?

      I think while the tone of both of those comments is measured, there are very few authors on this planet who would consider those comments respectful, or wouldn't call them rude, and most would probably take it one step further and impute an unstated attack on the reviewer. "That girl attacked me personally! She accused me of stealing someone else's work/promoting unhealthy relationships!" Unfortunately, that's *really close* what I said--so even though I would argue I never "attacked" Ms. Author So-and-So personally, I also have to acknowledge there is very little wiggle room between the statements "This book is full of lazy writing" and "This author is lazy." They're pretty close to synonymous.

      My argument, then, is that authors need to take a step back and get used to the fact that criticism is a part of being a writer, and stop playing the "they attacked me personally" card unless it is 100% clear that the reviewer engaged in ad hominem arguments. I have seen way too many people claim that they were attacked personally merely because a review was bad.

    2. That's true. Writers take their own writing very, very personally. It does become part of us. I agree writers take reviews too hard also, but I hope that reviewers understand how personal writing is. When I review a book, I do my best to point out the good and the bad. If the writing is lazy, I often try to explain myself a bit so I'm not taking shots in the dark. Maybe it's lazy because it skipped too many details, maybe because the MC isn't very observant, etc. I think that's something an author could use rather than "I found the writing lazy."

  5. As a writer of trashy low level romantic fiction, critics have hammered me for thirty years and I'm still in there. You do have to take this without complaint or comment and still believe. In my own reviews I must confess to a bias towards kindness on the basis of a certain empathy - not to obtain karma, even if I do not have the erudition or education to understand the term properly. Some reviews say more about the reviewer than the book. To keep a sense of perspective, I work as a bus driver. Just go on a cycling web site and complain about cyclists if you wanna see eyeballs out hatred and bile. The only thing that matters is that in the end, nothing matters.

  6. I love that you point out that the reviews say more about the reviewer than the book. Just as there's never a reason to get all huffy about a bad review, there is also no reason to get all huffy about a book we didn't like. Just because we didn't like it doesn't mean it won't become a modern classic. But if we're not careful in what we say, a hundred years from now, our review could be mocked as incredibly short-sighted. If Mark Twain had simply said "I just can't understand Pride and Prejudice, and I can't recommend it to people who don't love romance" we wouldn't be laughing at him today. :) (Which, really, would be a darn shame. That was funny, right there.)

  7. I was unaware of the controversy on Goodreads, but it's silly. Who says we have to love every book written? Some of them aren't any good!

  8. Hah!!!!! You're funny! And that's the truth.
    Your hair, um, also looks great.

  9. I certainly agree that people should be able to share their opinions, whether one star or five, but people can give bad reviews without being mean, nasty, and downright cruel. And I certainly agree that the tone of a review says a lot about the person who wrote it.

  10. I really liked your post. I think it's really hard to give reviews because us writers are told that the writing community is small so it makes us all afraid to say negative things about books. I tend not to say anything about a book at all if I really didn't like it.