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Half Reactionary, Half Introspective

Listen: goodreads has a rating system of ____ out of 5 stars, translating as 1 = I didn’t like it, 2 = it was okay, 3 = I liked it, 4 = I really liked it, & 5 = it was amazing.

My question(s): Is goodreads a way for us to brag about what we are reading? Or a way to genuinely respond to the books we read? Or simply a method by which to keep track of our literary ventures?

&, along those same lines: If we receive a book & are asked to review it, do we review it no matter what? Or only if we enjoy it? & if we don’t like it, are we supposed to just pretend that we forgot about it? Or should we mail it to someone else who might like it & then might review it?

This issue has come about for me in a variety of ways lately – hate mail in the inbox, angry commenters, etc. – but are we really just supposed to pat each other on the back no matter what because we are all writers & we all need the support? Or are we supposed to tell it like it is regardless? Or, as I guess some will say, are we supposed to straddle the fence (a la Friends – “You were in a play!” – yeah, that’s right, I went there) & find only the positive points in everything we read & never publicly discuss the negatives?

Yes, this is a rant.

Yes, I want to talk about this.

Yes, we should be doing something much more lovely on a Saturday evening.

43 thoughts on “Half Reactionary, Half Introspective

  1. I know that people get really angry when we run less than glowing reviews. I find it fascinating. I think you can critique something and have negative things to say and still be supportive.

    1. And I find that sometimes the best support is in the negative or slightly negative vein, objectively sharing with me how my next book might be better, tighter.

      1. I agree… constructive criticism is always a good thing, in my opinion. How can we get better if we’re always told we’re awesome? There’s nothing to strive for under such circumstances.

  2. I use the same scale on Goodreads as you do, and the majority of the books I rate are three stars simply because I enjoyed them. I didn’t REALLY enjoy them, or LOVE them, but I liked them for what they were. Yet some people will see that three stars and think it negative. Sort of ridiculous, but each person has their own rating system.

    1. Yes – and there are some people who give 5 stars to everything no matter what (Tao Lin) and there are some people who only give low star ratings to their own work (James Chapman).

  3. I’ve been putting up little capsule reviews of the books I read both at goodreads and my blog using the goodreads’ five star rating system (which, of course, is rather crude). But, not being myself a writer of books, I necessarily approach my comments purely from the standpoint of a consumer of the work you all produce and have absolutely no incentives to do anything other than call it as I see it. But I certainly get the disinclination of one writer in bashing the work of another. Maybe a form of professional courtesy?

    1. I think you are in the best position – a reader of books but not a writer, gives you the ultimate freedom – as you said ‘absolutely no incentives to do anything other than call it as I see it’.

      But I’m not sure how I feel about ‘professional courtesy’ though – I certainly wouldn’t take a book that I wasn’t asked to review, read it, hate it, then publish a hateful review somewhere – but do I have to give positive words to every single book I read (or 4+ star ratings) simply because I am a writer and they are writers?

  4. Reviews need to be forthright and not pulling back, as you mentioned with the friend niceness. If we, writers, readers and all, just do fluff then soon this will all join with the faded idea of music journalism. No where can the results of non stop back padding can be seen with music reviewers — ones that live and die by hits. Everything becomes weak and useless when the standard is to just give a thumbs up.

    1. That’s what I’m worried about, a legion of people saying ‘that was good’ just because they don’t want to offend others.

      We did the same thing here with the previous post by Jameson and mine before that – didn’t call out small presses by name unless it was to highlight a positive, simply because we don’t want to offend them or make enemies.

      Is that the right thing to do?

      1. This is a pretty good point. Part of the problem is that a lot of small press authors are very full of themselves. Often times, even for the slightest criticism I make on-line people get bent out of shape. And having enemies is not much fun.

        Of course, the result is that a lot of possibly good writers are not doing good work because they have never been beaten over the head till they cried.

        Because basically, you need to have your nose bloodied before you can write well.

  5. I prefer honesty over anything else. I don’t think a reviewer has the obligation to be supportive, but I agree with Roxane that you can be supportive while still annotating negatives. I think a person walking into this scene–not community–will, before long, see it for it is. Nepotism is always a turn-off, I think.

  6. I think you need to review a book honestly. Give it a bad review if you don’t like it.

    On that note though, you should still keep in mind what you are reviewing: Is it from a small press or large? If the former, there isn’t much use in totally ripping them apart and you might offer some kind of “constructive” criticism. If it is a big press: knives out.

    1. YES – there must be honesty about the work but the amount of or use of our knives should be at least influenced by the small v. large press distinction.

      1. Also, I think WHAT you are criticising about the book. A lot of small and medium presses for example have less ms. readers, so to slam them for a typo or factual inaccuracy seems silly.

        I remember the Washington Post once slammed one of my pieces because the name of a Roman emperor was spelled wrong (it wasn’t really, but the guy thought it was), but didn’t bother going into the content of the work. To me that was petty.

        On the other hand, I read a Patricia Highsmith book published by one of the big boys that had a factual innacuracy: The sun was setting in the wrong direction! That I thought would be worth mentioning, because it had been missed by pro editors.

        Small presses should be properly criticised though.

      2. I had a small press author tell me criticism of small press authors is off-limits because it’s already hard enough to get people to read small press titles.

        And it was for a comment I made in a discussion thread here on Big Other that I thought had as much positive as negative.

        To be fair, when I argued my perspective that lack of critical engagement with our own and one another’s work is bad for the small press community/communities, she said something like yeah, I see your point.

        But I was really shaken by it at the time, like… really? Never criticize small press titles ever… really???

        1. And at least small presses would be more likely to hear the critical discussion, maybe even address it or discuss it in some form, instead of it being akin to white noise (as it probably is to the larger houses)

  7. What if you tried to see everything you read as a kind of rescue mission. I think a rescue mission is always admirable. Some rescue missions are successful; some aren’t. That’s just the way it is, and it’s sad, but it’s nobody’s fault. If you seek, in a piece of writing that doesn’t work for you, to uncover the nature and intent of the rescue mission the writer has attempted to set into motion, you can do no more, and you need not feel bad at the end of your own mission to rescue this writer’s intent through your review of the work if you find that you must, finally, call the mission a failure.

  8. I completely agree with something else Tyler said, about how goodreads has become “a way for us to brag about what we are reading” because I know I’m more hesitant to post that I’ve read certain books, since it seems that the more books you’ve read that are ‘cool,’ ‘obscure,’ or ‘indie,’ the ‘cooler’ you are perceived. Then again, I suppose every aspect of life can become distilled into some superficial popularity contest.

    As for the rating system….I just find certain books incomparable, and I have a hard time boxing up my feelings to fit the parameters of a star.

    1. Because on one hand, we read say LIGHT BOXES because we hear the buzz and want to check it out, but then I worry that people think I have marked that book as to-read or currently-reading as a way of joining the bandwagon. And in the end, I can’t worry about that, because I know I am not doing it for any of those reasons.

      And yes, the rating system needs half-stars at least, and maybe a zero star for books I just couldn’t get through – not that I didn’t necessarily like what they were doing with language or what have you, I just couldn’t find my way to their end.

    2. Gah, that sort of showing off is just silly. Who cares what anyone is reading? I’ve never fully gotten into good reads. I rarely update it or rate books so it’s always surprising to see how seriously some people take it. I have the account to have the account but I do think that when you start worrying about what other people will think before using the site as you’d like, there’s a real problem.

  9. i used to be in the absolute honesty at any cost camp even as early as a year ago, but i feel like i’m flipped completely over now. maybe because i have very little interest in deconstructing or rating or judging literature and art. i just want to experience or not experience. i dont like calling anything out because i feel like its just my opinion and im aware my opinion tends to contradict populars and who do i think i am anyway. if i dont like something i stop experiencing it and move on. i dont want to figure out why or dissect neverendingly. i do the five stars for everything at goodreads. its a mechanism just to track things i read because its interesting to see everything ive read all at once and in what order. i have no interest in making enemies anymore. just want to experience art and literature i like.

    1. It is just ‘your opinion’ BUT you are an avid reader and writer and maybe if I see that you gave one of my pieces a 4 and another a 5, then I can at least chew on the possibility that there is meaning in that difference – not that you can’t just do 5 stars for everything, that’s your choice for sure – but there is value in critical response no matter who it is from . . .

      1. sure, but is there an obligation on readers’s shoulders to ‘help’ writers? is a review for the sake of the writer, or for the sake of potential readers, cuz i always assumed it was the latter. are all readers supposed to be teachers? i dont like that kind of student-teacher relationship. i dont want to be a teacher or a student. cant i just read and write things?

        1. No obligation at all, but for me (as a writer) it is like a form of unintentional help – if 100 readers read and then low-rate my book on goodreads, I will (rightly I think) assume that it was not as good as it could have been – so their simple (honest) star rating is a tool for me as a writer, and the reader doesn’t have to do anything but read and (if they choose) respond via a site like goodreads.

          It is kind of like keeping tabs on visitor stats to a web journal – if one issue gets far more hits than another, something probably sparked a bigger audience in that one (or something in terms of publicity happened, which would also be good to follow-up on) – so for me goodreads is like a voluntary measurement (of sorts).

          Reviews too, though when I write them I simply attempt to give my honest and critical take on the book at hand, I do assume that the writer will read my review at some point – so while I’m not trying to teach or inform them specifically, I do know it will be looked at (at least) in part.

          I use a wealth of qualifiers here though too, so you know I agree with you on many levels – sometimes I just want to read and write and that’s it.

          1. I don’t know. I wouldn’t change how I wrote based on goodreads reader rating or anyone elses. The rating/review is something totally apart from the writing process.

            Of course it depends on why you are writing. If you are writing to make money, then just look at sales. If people like it or not does not matter, as long as they buy it.

            If you are writing for another reason, then the reason you wrote something doesn’t change just because people liked it or not.

            The vast majority of what I like as a reader, most people think is horrible.

            If I review a book or give it a high rating, the reason is that I want people to buy that book. If I give it a low rating, it is because I don’t think people should buy that book.

            1. Not that a goodreads low-average rating would change how I write per se, it would simply give me something else to think about, about why perhaps the audience didn’t perceive it as I had written it, you know?

  10. In a perfect world, of course, writers and reviewers would be two separate groups, so that the problems mentioned above wouldn’t exist. Maybe we could actually figure out a way to make two separate groups: say, all the non-sf writers make a deal with the sf writers that we’ll review their books and they’ll review ours, and since the two circles tend to keep pretty separate otherwise, we won’t have to worry about nepotism etc…

  11. Does the five star system mean the same thing to everyone?

    I’ve got my own criteria that I think is maybe a little quirky — I try to measure books against themselves, whether they feel like they meet whatever objectives they seem to me to set out for themselves, are the most fully realized version of themselves they can be. Try not to create any criteria that are comparative across or between books. I don’t know whether this makes any sense.

    I do wish there were half starts. A lot of the things I’ve given four stars I wish I could give three and a half.

    1. I honestly just hate giving books stars. I feel like I’m grading them. I’d much rather pick, say, ten books as my favorites. Those ten would probably change pretty often, but it’s a system that makes more sense to my brain.

        1. I’m a fiction writer, so my favorites tend to be poetry. In any case:

          1. Crime and Punishment (this has stayed the same for the past three years or so)

          2. Against the Day, Pynchon

          3. Given, Arielle Greenberg (why is this number 3? shouldn’t it be higher? “The Teeth of Betty Page” is incredible…)

          4. A Little White Shadow, Mary Ruefle

          5. Skid, Dean Young

          6. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller

          7. Amateurs, Donald Barthelme

          8. Naked Lunch, Burroughs (though this one is mainly because of a thing I’m working on right now)

          9. The Man Suit, Zachery Schomberg

          10. David Boring, Daniel Clowes

          I’m not sure I’d defend the ranking–for example, Barthelme is my current favorite writer, but his book comes #7 on the list, and how does one rank what Clowes is doing with the rest of these folks?–but these ten are the books that I’m most likely to read back through as of right now.

          1. Nice list. Thanks for posting it.

            Have you read SCARY, NO SCARY by Schomburg? If not, but you liked THE MAN SUIT, I would highly recommend it.

            1. I have, yeah. It’s really good, but The Man Suit keeps pulling me back for rereadings. Its entirely possible that Scary, No Scary will have this effect in a month or a year.

              Looking at the list again, I feel like I really want to add some things. William Walsh’s Pathologies should be on there somewhere, I think.

              Thanks for asking, btw. It was a fun list to make.

            2. I have, yeah. It’s really good, but The Man Suit keeps pulling me back for rereadings. Its entirely possible that Scary, No Scary will have this effect in a month or a year.

              Looking at the list again, I feel like I really want to add some things. William Walsh’s Pathologies should be on there somewhere, I think.

              Thanks for asking, btw. It was a fun list to make. I’d love to see other Big Other readers’ & contributors’ lists.

    2. The five star system is necessarily crude, as your indicating. A 100 point rating system like the one Robert Parker invented for wines would be much superior. Though, over time, that system, too, has, IMO, become badly skewed–when was the last time you saw a 35 point rating for a bottle of wine?

  12. As a reader who is not a writer, I want to give honest reviews…

    However, if you are going to criticize I think it’s important to point out your own inclinations as a reader. (I speaking mostly about books that you read that you don’t like mainly do to stylistic choices that were consciously made by the author.)

    If your a fan of maximalism and read a minimalist book because you are asked to review it, can you give it a fair review?

    I think the answer is yes. I think you can hate the book (or love it) and preempt or incorporate your biases into the review. Therefore, if you love the book, your review has that much more weight (eg “I’m not inclined to like minimalism, in fact, I usually hate it, but in this case –WOW!”). And if you hate it, it’s not as devastating and also takes the author’s intent into account (“I hate minimalism and always have and this book did nothing to dissuade my attitude.”)

    Just a thought. I mean, authors all have different styles. There is no “right” in writing and we need to realize this as readers.

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