On the Merits of Goodreads: A Review of Reviews

I read an article the other day criticizing Goodreads as a source of objective book reviews.

For anyone who frequents Goodreads, or the Internet in general, this should be obvious. I can’t imagine the kind of slow news day when it’s a shock to discover that a site for sharing opinions is subjective.  

But I understand the point the author was trying to make: if everyone gives good reviews to all the things, how can we ever hope to separate the good from the bad?

And yet, I've managed use Goodreads for precisely that purpose. How did I do it, you ask? How was I not fooled by the high ratings and rave reviews of books that are terrible?

Darling, I’m a reader. That means I’m an investigator, naturally curious, suspicious, and apt to explore myriad sources before deciding to do anything. My “to-read” list includes over 700 books, and I simply don’t have the time to go reading everything that everyone says is great. I've learned the hard way that if I take five minutes to reasonably research a potential “currently-reading” tome, I can save precious time by not reading something I’d find awful, even if it’s highly rated and reviewed. I have it down to a science. It’s streamlined, because I do it almost daily. Follow these steps and you, too, can avoid reading books you’ll hate:

1.      Read the summary on the back cover, or, in the case of Goodreads, the book summary. If it doesn’t sound interesting, don’t read it. (It’s possible that it’s still a good book, and you’ll enjoy it, but seriously there are so many other books whose summaries will entice you, just don’t bother with this one yet).

2.      Look up the author. What genre is their strongest? Who are their influences?

3.      What have your friends said about this book? This author?

4.      What have other authors you admire said about this book? This author?

5.      NOW check out the ratings and reviews. Read at least one five-star review and one one-star review, and see what amazed or bothered people. Pay attention to the authors of these reviews: if the five-star review isn’t well-written or gushes instead of critiquing, and the one-star review is a comprehensive and thoughtful piece, well, decide who you take more seriously. Look at what else these reviewers liked or hated and how it compares to your own shelves.

6.      Read the first page. Goodreads has a “preview” option for some books now, you can check them out at your local library, or you can try to find it as a cheap or free e-book (many libraries offer e-books for loan, it’s saved me literally hundreds of dollars in the year and a half I’ve been borrowing them). Book doesn’t grab you, don’t read it.

7.      If you’ve been tricked into reading a book you’re hating, STOP READING IT. When this happens to me(which is rarely), I either leave a review saying I couldn’t read it and give it no rating, or if I’m upset enough that I was tricked into reading it, I’ll give it the lowest rating and a review describing why I thought I’d like it, why I was so disappointed, and why I stopped.

For example, the last time I loathed a book enough to stop reading it—and therefore gave it a bad rating and review—was a book recommended to me by two friends, rated very highly by an author I love, and summarized as urban fantasy a la American Gods, which I loved. Needless to say, I hated the protagonist from page one, and only read a few chapters before the blatant sexism became unbearable. How did this happen? I have a system in place to prevent myself from wasting time on books I won’t like! Alas, no system is infallible, though it is efficient: Since 2010, I’ve only read 53 books out of over 550 that I rated 2 stars or fewer. The majority of those are 2 stars, or “it was OK”, so I didn’t even hate all of them.

You’ll find that I rate books highly. I’ve read over 1200 books that I can remember, rated over 1100, and reviewed over 300 on Goodreads. My tendency to give high ratings is a direct result of only reading books I think I’ll like. I’m not a professional book reviewer: I have no obligation, or desire, to read books as assignments given to me by some boss.

Sometimes I enter a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway and end up with a copy of a book that has no ratings or reviews, but "in the spirit of the First Reads Program", I rate and review it. I only enter giveaways for books whose premise sounds interesting, and I end up researching the author and publisher (if I'm not already familiar with them) before I even enter to win it. I've been lucky that I end up loving the ones that I do win, but I try to offer my rating and review only to books that I would purchase on my own anyway. It doesn't help anybody if I have to review a chri-fi book just because I won it in a contest. I'm not the intended audience, and I don't want a free book so desperately that I'd read something I know I dislike. Got the library for that. 

I, for one, don’t trust reviews of books by people who aren’t interested in the genre. If someone dislikes sci-fi, but reads and reviews a sci-fi novel, that person’s opinions have no value to me. I want to know what other people who read and like a lot of sci-fi are saying about it, especially authors I like, because they write books they want to read, I like their books, so it’s likely I’ll also like what they like. Lots of liking going on.

Then there’s Romance. I’m not a fan of the genre, unless the romantic aspect is at least tertiary or lower in order of importance to the main story. I’ve read many books that fall into the Romance category as well as the other categories for which I read it (usually urban fantasy/paranormal), but I’ve read fewer than six straight-up romance novels. And when I review them, I make it clear at the beginning of my review that this is a genre I avoid, and say whether I’m reviewing it in relation to the genres I prefer (which leads to a lower rating) or specifically as a book of its genre, making the disclaimer that I don’t really have a base for comparison but I’ll do my best.

These are the kinds of reviews that I would trust: when the reviewer is honest about where they’re coming from and genuinely attempts to rationalize their impressions. Just because I don’t read Romance doesn’t mean the book is bad. Someone who loves Romance might love it. It’s when people want to hold every story up to the same standards that things get rough. They’re searching for only those books they can shelve in “high art” (which, please. As though you or I would care what some condescending twit bloated with self-importance thinks about anything). I love James Joyce. I also love Janet Evanovich. It’s called existing as a multi-faceted human being.

That’s what I’m looking for in Goodreads, and that’s what I try to deliver. There’s merit to the site but, as with everything else in the world, trusting it blindly without doing your own research (instead of using it as one of many tools) will result in disappointment. 

What Makes Writing More Than a Hobby

When I was younger and liked writing stories or poems just for fun, sometimes I'd write one a month. Other times, they'd descend in swarms and I'd find myself the proud parent of forty, fifty poems from an hour of boredom. Then I went to school for it. 

I can only guess that I was accepted into my writing program because I had at least some promise. I don't think my alma mater would have invited me in if I had zero talent. I mean, obviously they wanted money, but I'm sure reputation has weight too, and they probably wouldn't want anyone to read my terrible work and say "Can you believe they gave her a degree? Guess they'll give 'em to anyone that pays. Strip them of their accreditation!" 

So let's agree that someone thought I had talent. Gosh I feel all warm and fuzzy now, comforted, and...well, I just ate a chocolate chip cookie so I suppose that could be this feeling. Anyway, talent: I had that. But in that collegiate setting, listening to successful writers, the first and most important thing I learned was discipline. Talent makes a hobby. Discipline makes a career.

I'm not talking about ridiculous, instant success. Every person measures success differently. At school I was told, again and again, that the "professional" of "professional writer" means you get paid for it. That would mean that, if I spent three hours a day doing complicated and technical computer stuff and earned a living from it, but at least seven hours of the day was devoted to writing, editing, and reading, I wouldn't be considered a professional writer. That would mean that, if I wrote that often and produced really amazing stuff but I wanted people to read it for free, I wouldn't be considered a professional writer. Talent, discipline, distribution, and an audience, but because I'm not paid, not "professional". That would mean that the author of a really awful--but published!--book was a professional writer, but me with my passion was not. 

I just don't buy it. 

I have no problem calling myself a professional writer. Part of this is because I have a difficult time caring about what random people think of me. I'm fine receiving constructive criticism from educated sources with similar or better talent and passion, and I listen to those people because I want to learn from them. But to say I'm not a "real" writer because I measure my success outside a box someone else constructed is a joke. 

I write every day. I edit every day. I read every day, to explore new forms and topics and lifestyles and just learn new things. I care about what I write. Every day, even if I'm tired or sick or exhausted or busy or just want to lie around watching BBC dramas and eating popcorn. That's the discipline that I learned at school, that's what changed my habits, and that's what changed how I see myself as a writer. It was a hobby when it was a whim, and it became a job when I started treating it like one. Sure, it's more difficult, but it's also worth it. 

Besides, I measure my success first by whether my poems actually kill anyone, and so far, I can tell you, all of them have successfully not caused death. It's hard not to get big-headed when you're batting a thousand.