Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Goodreads and the Review

Though it took me a while to see the value in it, I now use Goodreads constantly. I love the website but have seen many authors who definitely don't love the site and it's not hard to see why. While Goodreads is essentially a book-centric Facebook that's great for browsing books, keeping track of what you've read, and seeing what your friends are reading, there's a decidedly uncool downside to it that's been apparent to me for a while now.

And that is this: Goodreads, for some reason, lends itself to reviewers being absolutely ruthless. Not ruthless in the brutal, honest way but in a needlessly negative and mean-spirited way. While most bloggers are, if not nice, at least tactful in the reviews they post to their blogs, some are less so on Goodreads. It's not uncommon to see Goodreads reviews that bash not only the book, but also the author -- as a writer and, sometimes, as a person.

It's disconcerting on a few levels.

For one thing, I get now why so many authors seem to be anti-Goodreads. Though I think it's a great tool as a reader and will probably never stop using it as a reader, I also know how easy it is to stumble upon absolutely cringeworthy reviews and/or comments. And I know if those were my books getting the beat down I'd definitely want to hide under the blankets with lots of loud music to distract me from the outside world. There's nothing wrong, as a reader, with disliking a book, negatively reviewing it or even giving a scathing, bashing review. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of this, I think. It could be seen as mean or it could be seen as critical analysis of books that (at least in the reviewer's opinion) aren't very good.

The problem -- and it's nobody's fault -- is that Goodreads is a strange little cross-section of the internet. It's reader-centric, but not reader-exclusive. Many authors have profiles and the meeting of authors, readers, and books makes it incredibly easy both for authors to find their negative reviews (either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose) or for readers to complain and commiserate about a particular book or author's failings. In some ways I feel like the culture of Goodreads lends itself to more negativity than you'd find on book blogs or even Amazon reviews. On Goodreads it's as much about the readers as it is the book. And since readers are people and people sometimes like to complain together... well, you see what happens.

On another level there's a trend I've seen for a while that, as a reader, saddens me. It's reviewers who seem to be habitually unhappy with the books they read. Usually these are people who stick with a few genres or subgenres (fantasy, for instance, or dystopian) and -- seemingly without fail -- find the books they read horribly lacking. Either the characters were flat and cliche or the writing was subpar or details of the world-building just didn't work. These are all legitimate issues in books and I've complained about them myself in certain books. But with some readers there's a sense of superiority and the underlying message that they're better than the authors they're reading, the books being published today, the books they choose to read. It often culminates in bashing of the author or the entire genre in the review itself or comments below.

Even if I haven't read the book in question it often leaves me feeling a bit upset and I can't help but think if you're finding these huge, overwhelming problems in every single book in a certain genre, maybe you don't actually like the genre. Maybe the books just aren't a good fit for you. Maybe you used to like it and now you don't. Maybe it's time to find books you're going to enjoy, even if they're outside of your comfort zone. It makes me feel like readers are needlessly and consistently exposing themselves to books it's obvious they hate and then what's the point? After eighteen years of reading I don't know what the aim of this activity should be, but I know it shouldn't make you angry and hateful towards others.

Authors work hard on their words that, sadly, end up being a "product." It's one thing to critically review a book, point out its flaws, even rip it a new one if you think the book deserves it. But it's something else entirely to also bash the author and infuse your words with what comes off as disgust and a spiteful, superior attitude. There's something to be said for honesty delivered in a thoughtful way.

Opinions? Have you found that there's a negative atmosphere to Goodreads?


  1. I've actually seen the worst in the opposite side of things. Yes, there are reviewers who will tear books to shreds but they don't hate every single books they read. In fact they don't hesitate negatively review because they love books.

    The worst behaviour I've actually seen is from the die-hard fans (and published authors who are friends with the author whose book has been reviewed) leaving nasty, harassing comments on reviews that are in anyway negative - not just the harsh ones but the polite, well-reasoned ones that just explain why the book didn't work for them.

  2. It is incredibly horrid and I think about losing the site all together. I don't like that the most popular crowd there are the most ruthless of all reviewers.

  3. Catherine
    I've seen some (but not much) of the die-hard fans who behave badly, but I don't doubt that attitude is there as well and it's a different sort of negativity I think (commenting to bash other reviewers). But there definitely are reviewers who tear apart the vast majority of the books they review and I've seen it done on a very personal level -- meaning that they insult the author in their review.

    Exactly. I think the site is great for keeping track of what I read, so I won't quit it, but the "ruthless reviewers" really do make me take pause of what's happening here and what the site is really for.

  4. Maybe I haven't spent enough time on there but I haven't noticed this at all. It would be annoying though.

  5. I hear what you're saying and I agree to an extent. There are definitely those reviewers who are perhaps overly critical about every last detail of the book. But I'd also like to think that readers are smart enough to figure out if someone is one of those reviewers. I've been (and still am) friends with some people that carry a dust cloud of negativity around with them but I know what I am likely to get out of their reviews. I don't find them any less helpful than the fangirl "ZOMG, dis iz the best book EVRRRRELKJQL@KEM!@ELINQ!@@" reviews. At least their critical reviews usually make me laugh.

    I've also, in my four years on Goodreads, never once read a negative comment about an author's appearance. Where are all these hiding? People keep mentioning them and I've never seen them. Most of my GR friends would call someone out for doing something like that.

    Goodreads has the potential to be everything to everyone. I've found TONS of compatible reader friends on there, met several of them IRL, and I have about 15 GR friends that I speak to on a daily basis. Once your find your niche, it is the best site on the internet. And I generally don't trust anyone whose average rating isn't between 3.25-3.75 stars. Any less, you're hating too much. Any more, you're constantly spewing love.

    I say just ignore the negative reviewers. Or defriend them if you are friends with them. The only horrible part about it is that author feelings may be hurt and the negative reviews might be the first ones that show up on a book's page. In all honesty, though, I have faith that people who go to investigate a book will do the same thing I do--read several reviews across the board until they read one or two that hit a home run for their personal tastes.

  6. I have a lot of complicated thoughts about this, and while I agree with much of what's already been said by both you and the thoughtful commenters, I still have things to add. Of course I do.

    I love Goodreads. I'm on it every day, usually several times a day. I think it's a great resource to get information about books and to read reviews from fellow book lovers. The challenge, of course, is finding quality reviews, but that is another issue entirely.

    There is a lot of negativity on Goodreads, both from readers who hate a book and from readers who love a book. I have a hard time reading the comment wars that will get started on a certain review of a polarizing book. Sometimes it takes an emotional toll on me. For the most part, I try to avoid even reading these battles, because nothing ever gets accomplished.

    I think that the Goodreads community actually reinforces and even rewards reviewers who are vicious in their reviews. These are often the posts that get the most "likes" and the most comments, they are the reviews that are likely to get the most attention. In that sense, some of these reviewers become mini-celebrities on the site. In order to maintain that notoriety, they have to continue to rip apart books. This might have something to do with continuing to read books that they know they aren't going to like. Do you know what I mean? I'm not sure I'm articulating my point.

    Oh balls. I've written you a novel, again. Great post as usual, Jordyn.

  7. I just started using Goodreads back in May, but I've avoided reading reviews on the site because of everything you've mentioned here (which I've heard lots about before joining), so I can't attest personally that there's a negative atmosphere on the site, but only because I've pointedly avoided looking for it.

    It really is too bad that it's garnered a bad rep for a being a depository of snarky/mean-spirited reviews because it's a great site for readers, like you mentioned.

  8. Belle
    So glad you haven't seen it!

    Agree agree agree. Luckily none of the nasty reviewers are my friends or people I follow, but since these reviews often do get the most comments and are at the top of many books' pages, I see them when I go to read reviews. I can't help but feel that aside from the author's feelings (which is a separate discussion altogether), these types of reviews make the site overall a place with a negative culture.

    I know exactly what you mean and YES, I agree. Well-articulated, calm reviews rarely get the type of response as more extreme reviews. Like you, I love Goodreads, yet the longer I'm a part of the site the more I understand why some people (authors especially, but not JUST authors) are so opposed to it and it makes me sad because it is a great tool. It's just has such a negative atmosphere sometimes and in some places.

    Yep, I agree - it's not a good reputation for the site to have. I often read reviews on there and while I really LIKE reading negative reviews to get many points of view, it's that particular type of negative review that irks me. And a lot of it has to do with the attention those reviews get that often results in flame wars.

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  10. What an articulate, well-crafted post, Jordyn! I really enjoyed reading this, and it's weird, because I was just talking about some of these 'goodreads wars' with my mom yesterday, and she was like, 'well, if you don't like it, then just get off!' Obviously, Goodreads is too cool to abandon, but stuff does still have an impact on you...

    I honestly don't know what to think, because either way I go, I feel like I could be taken the wrong way. On one hand, I believe authors provide a service (their books) that makes them really unique - not everybody is creative enough and artistic enough to make stories for people to read and absorb, so the fact that the provide something that not everybody can do makes them special. On the other hand, though, why should their feelings be any more sensitive than anyone else's? I see so many times that certain reviews may hurt an author's feelings, and while I personally struggle with writing my reviews, trying to word things so that I make everybody happy, part of me wonders why in the world some authors feel like they can be so vocal about criticism. I'm an educator, and I have to deal with all sorts of rudeness from students, parents, colleagues, etc. What I mean is, I can't just go 'ohh, my feelings are hurt,' because life isn't like that. If other people in other professions have to deal with criticism, why should authors be any different? I can only imagine what it must feel like to have your work not only criticized, but in such a strong way. But on the other hand, as a prospective author, no one will be forcing me to submit my work for publication. Once I'm published, I will have to put on my Huggies (as my dad says, lol) and just deal with criticism. If I can't take it, I shouldn't even bother with publishing.
    I already know I didn't say that right, and it's going to look like I approve of belittling authors. I DONT. What I think these reviewers fail to realize is that by attacking authors and their work in such a vicious way, it just makes THEM look bad. I'm actually LESS LIKELY to listen to somebody who's downright mean and nasty, than someone who tells it like it is.

    But the thing about these certain reviewers... the ones that I know of (and maybe we're thinking of different reviewers altogether) are not so much *mean* I think, as they're just really, REALLY sarcastic in their humor. And I think that's construed as negative.

    But what makes me a little uncomfortable is the basic issue of whether or not people have a right to express themselves. I may not agree with what they're saying, or how they choose to say it (several of the really popular negative-leaning reviewers feature really vulgar language, and that more than anything makes me feel uncomfortable when I'm reading)...however, I get a little nervous when I hear 'you don't have the right to ____' or 'you shouldn't say _____.'
    Everyone loves defending the free speech of writers, but what about reviewers? Public domain is public domain.

    Anyhoo. I wrote you a novel - sorry! But I really thank you for writing this post - you said what we all obviously feel :)

  11. I noticed some reviewers try to outsnark each other, and with certain ones I'm sure it's attention-seeking behavior. Also, people rate books that haven't even been printed yet in ARC or regular form--based on the cover, description, genre, what? Still, I gloss over the negative stuff. I enjoy GR. I keep track of my books on there and discover new ones to add to my TBR list.

  12. Amelia
    I LOVE your novel-length comments. And I agree completely; I had a very difficult time writing the post in a way that truly explained how I feel because I honestly don't think an author's feelings should come into play when writing a review of a book. At the same time I feel like some reviewers go into a book almost looking for things to criticize or mock, which unnerves me. I think they have the right to say it but I also think it paints them in a negative light to many people, which they may or may not want. Mostly though, this seems to be an issue of the fact that it's just a weird situation when you have readers/reviewers, books, and authors all together on a very reader-centric site. Nobody's really doing anything wrong, even if I don't like it.

    Medeia Sharif
    You have hit the nail on the head.

  13. The funny thing is, immediately after I read this post, I was on Goodreads and I saw an example of someone just really, REALLY nitpicking. I mean like breaking apart the author's choice of words in a sentence. To me, there's no call for that, unless the author is using improper grammar or just something blatantly obvious. There's being constructive, and hey, sometimes there's being forceful, then there's just being ridiculous.

  14. As an author, I'm thinking of leaving goodreads. I've learned a lot from my experience, including that I need to re-visit my novel and go through another editing process. But I feel the need to cut my losses and re-focus due to some of the things mentioned here in this thread.