Saturday, November 3, 2012

Keeping it Honest on Goodreads, part II

Previously, I went on a bit of a rant regarding Goodreads and paid reviews. This blog entry has had more views than any of my other entries (my dark chocolate entry holds the honor of second place - guess you can tell what's most important to people, huh?), so it must have hit a chord. Call me naive, but I think that Goodreads readers, by and large, want to keep the site unsullied by the obvious conflict-of-interest created by paid reviews.

But I'm suspicious (call me pessimistic) of one thing on Goodreads: I wonder how many readers have actually read the books they've claimed to read? I understand that some people use Goodreads of a catalog of what they've read, so they might not necessarily be inclined to review as many books as some of us more prolific reviewers. But I must admit that my perceptions of potential Goodreads friends are colored by the quantity and quality of reviews put out by that individual.

I actively seek Goodreads friends that 1) can point me to good books, 2) aren't afraid to point out bad books, 3) thoughtfully review at least a good portion of the books they read, 4) have reading interests similar to mine, 5) have read widely in several different genres, and 6) like to interact, rather than just give star ratings. Not all of these criteria need to be met for me to say "yes," and I don't put artificial roadblocks in front of potential friends (such as "If you have more friends than books, don't try bother friending me," which, while I understand the desire to discourage obnoxious authors from spamming you with their books, seems like the height of reverse-elitism). But I want proof of at least a couple of these criteria before I pull the trigger on reading friendship.

From this it should be pretty obvious as to why I view Goodreads readers who rate books, but don't have any reviews, with a little suspicion. Sometimes, I must admit viewing them with a lot of suspicion. This is especially true when I see reviewers who have rated hundreds (or even thousands) of books, given 5* ratings to several "difficult" books (Finnegans Wake, Catcher in the Rye, The Tunnel, Molloy, Gravity's Rainbow, you probably know the type of books I mean), yet have not written a review, or whose reviews seem like a repeat of a Wikipedia plot summary. And when I see someone give 5* to something like, say, Jurassic Park (no offense, fun book, but not one of literature's great achievements) and then give 1* to one of the books mentioned above, I want to know why. Why did Jurassic Park deserve 5* at the same time the literary greats mentioned above get 1*?

In the interest of full disclosure, I gave Catcher in the Rye 1* mostly because I hate the protagonist (just did NOT connect with Holden at all) and think the book is highly over-rated. That said, I've friended many people who've rated it a 5* book. We might disagree strongly, but if they can at least convince me that they've read it and have weighed the book's merits, I'm good with that. I've actually learned a lot from reviewers with whom I disagree, gained insights, and viewed things from points of view that I otherwise would not have even considered.

In the end, my judgement may be wrong. Maybe I see ill intent (specifically the intent to appear more well-read, more intellectual, or more populist than one really is) where there is none. Call me paranoid. Or call me diligent in trying to protect what I hope to be a safe-haven of intellectual honesty and ethical behavior. Call me a man of contradiction and sloppy logic. Smear my name all over the interwebs. But please keep it honest on Goodreads.


  1. I've been the same way, too. I always have this creeping suspicion about that particular part of Goodreads. Glad I'm not the only one who has that same suspicion.

  2. Me too! I sometimes wonder, as I write blog entries, "Am I going to feel like the last human survivor of the zombie apocalypse, socially speaking, after I post this"? Glad to know there's another out there. Now if I can just find where I put that shotgun . . .

  3. When I rate books, but don't review them it may be because I read the book some time ago. I can recall my general opinion of the book, but not specific discussion points. Another reason why I rate and don't review is because I have seen a great many interesting and cogent reviews that have already been posted to Goodreads, and I don't feel that I have anything new to contribute to the discussion. A third reason why I rate and don't review is that I'm a grad student and sometimes may not have the time to write a quality review. I prefer to write none at all.

    1. And all three of those are legitimate. I've encountered each of these issues myself. Your reviews ( seem to be well-thought-out and insightful. I'm talking mainly about those who will rate several hundred books, but not write *any* reviews at all. I don't go to Goodreads to glean star ratings. Star ratings are unreliable indicators anyway. I go to discuss books and to learn about potential new reading material and authors. When someone give a lot of ratings, but no reviews, I have to question that person's tastes because 1) star ratings are relative - my 3* may be your 1*, or vice versa, and 2) I don't know what that reviewer really *thinks* about the book or about *any* books, for that matter, which means that I don't know if I can trust their (already problematic) star ratings and I certainly can't triangulate opinions to determine a book that is likely to match my reading tastes. Not only that, if I see no evidence that the person has actually read the book, how do I know if the person has even read the book? Did they give [insert title here] 5* because it was actually one of the more mindblowing books that they've read,or did they do so because it's the cool book du-jour. 1* reveies with no commentary are equally suspect. Did you read the book and dislike it that much? Or are you bowing to the tyranny of the academic/intellectual majority and giving a low rating because to do otherwise would expose you to the ridicule of your well-read friends who find such a book beneath them, despite their lack of effort to condescend enough to actually read it?

      Goodreads, to me, is place for discourse. Short, sometimes terse discourse, but it's a place to talk about books, not just a place to affix stars. I'm there to explore books with others who may or may not agree with my opinion, because the multiplicity of opinions is what makes Goodreads a useful (and fun) tool. But when the opinion is boiled down to a simple number attached to some arbitrary sliding scale of emotional or intellectual response, it rings hollow. Frankly, if I don't know you read the book, how can I trust your opinion? And how can I know your opinion unless you state it using evidence that you've read the work in question? That's what I'm getting at.