Why We Love Goodreads: How an Outrageous Review Put a Book on My Wishlist!

Pile-of-Books woman readingGoodreads is brilliant, it is fun, it is silly, it is serious. It has 50 million members. Yup, 50 million readers who cannot be controlled by the establishment.  We rate and review books, join book groups, and read about new books.

Professional writers aren’t keen on it.  Why it matters to them I don’t know.  It annoys them that amateurs can scribble and post, while they spend hours honing their prose.  A posh male book reviewer–who and at what publication I don’t remember– referred to “the boredom of Goodreads.”  I noted it.    Another posh male reviewer sneered at “the plot summaries at Goodreads.”  Well, aren’t boredom and plot summaries a part of reviewing?  It is obvious that most of these consumer reviews are personal notes: it would be mad to post literary criticism at Goodreads!

Like everybody on Goodreads, I follow Lori, the founder of “The Next Best Read Book Club” and a reviewer of small press books. I also follow some authors.  Genre writers, who are used to establishing a fan base at conventions, make better use of Goodreads than literary writers.

On my wishlist, because of Goodreads.

On my wishlist, because of Goodreads.

But here’s the real reason we like it:  outrageousness!   The following outrageous Goodreads review  of Daniel Menaker’s  memoir, My Mistake, is far from flattering, but it makes me WANT to read the book.  This happens often.

Are you ready?  Here is Liz Waters’ review.

“My Mistake” by Daniel Menaker is an interesting book. It destroyed any illusions I had about ever having my fiction published. That was probably the last dream I had left, and Mr. Menaker took care of that. While I have often noticed that the new stars in Hollywood are often related to the old stars in Hollywood, I surely should have assumed that such connectivity applied also to the publishing world of New York. That I did not was my mistake.

Daniel Menaker was born into the erudite and exclusive world of publishing and landed a position checking facts for the New Yorker, a magazine I once adored. He did not try to hide the fact that family connections helped him get there. His elitist Swarthmore (et al) education helped him along as well, a fact that he doesn’t hesitate to remind the reader of every few pages. He went up ladders and jumped from one ladder to another painlessly in that world that so few get to know. Even fewer get to know it with the name-dropping intimacy Daniel Menaker enjoyed.

If this review reeks of crass envy, so be it. Of course any aspiring writer would be envious of Mr. Menaker’s life in writing. He tells of a world that none of us ordinary mortals will know. And, he makes it pretty daggone unattractive.

If you enjoy reading about how the other half lives, you will adore this book. I found the fact that it is history written in the present tense a little tedious, although I enjoyed the subject matter. In my opinion, the past is past and using the present tense doesn’t put me in the moment, it simply sets my teeth on edge. However it is certainly correct in the literary sense, or Mr. Menaker would never have chosen this particular form to tell his story. I didn’t like the book, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t like it. Read it yourself and decide.

Outrageous! This would never have been published anywhere!  Daniel Menaker, a memoirist, fiction writer, and book editor, started his career as a fact checker at The New Yorker. As executive editor-in-chief at Random House, he worked with Salman Rushdie, Elizabeth Strout, and Colum McCann (if Wikipedia is correct). It would never have occured to me to read My Mistake if one of my “authors” hadn’t rated it,  and if I had not read Water’s review. Now it’s on my wishlist, though first I have to read all the books on my TBR….

Addendum:  I learned about Menaker’s book because Larry Watson, a writer I follow,  gave it five stars at Goodreads.  Most of the Goodreads reviewers love it, but oddly  Waters made me want to read it because she was hilarious  about class envy.  Who hasn’t felt that?  Anyway I am very interested in reading about Menaker’s life in New York (I could never find my way around that city) and his publishing career.  If it’s good enough for Larry Watson…

The Fascination of Goodreads

goodreads s-GOODREADS-large2I left Goodreads last November because I could not find a “suitable” book group.  The discussion of Agnes Grey at a 19th-century lit group was just too lightweight.

I also left because of the lack of privacy.  I was surprised to be notified of everything my “friends” did, from rating a book to signing up for a giveaway to voting for the Goodreads Best of the year.

Heavens, you can tell I’m not on Facebook.

But I joined up again in April.  Why?  Because Salman Rushdie was there.

Last April, Salman Rushdie caused a mini-outcry at Goodreads when he gave low ratings to various classics.  He gave three stars To Kill a Mockingbird and one star to Lucky Jim.

According to the Huffington Post, he told astonished Goodreads users,

I thought these rankings were a private thing designed to tell the site what sort of book to recommend to me, or not recommend.

We never know what’s private and what’s not, do we? I give almost everything five stars, but that’s because I only finish books I like.

Anyway, I took another look at Goodreads.  I still can’t find a “suitable” group, but many of the reviews are intelligent, well-written, and a lot of fun.

If fact, it would be a good place to blog, even though it is not called that.

I was very impressed with the Goodreads reviews of Shirley Ann Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street (which I wrote about here).

Here is an excerpt from Carolyn Stevens Shanks’ review:

Shirley Ann Grau was is an important voice in the 20th literature of the American South, and more specifically to the category known as “Southern Gothic”. “The House on Coliseum Street” is a somber psychological study about suppressed volition and identity

And I like Betsy’s short review:

Cringe-inducing characters, but so believable. The women of 1960s in New Orleans are right there in the living room with you, and they are bored, limited in their lives, and not very nice because of that.

My recent recommendations from Goodreads include Dennis Mackail’s Greenery Street, Robin Cadwallader’s The Anchoress, and Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France.

I will probably never get around to them, but it’s fun.

Why I Left Goodreads

13898447-vintage-bookstore-background

When book sites are bookstores.

The Goodreads community, with its 25 million members, is wildly diverse, as I should have expected. There are intellectuals who attempt to explicate Barthes to the masses, participants in bookish “alphabet” games, serious readers of Proust (they are discussing the last volume of In Search of Lost Time), and muddled masochists who state that Anastasia Steele of Fifty Shades of Grey  is a feminist.

It is indeed a revelation.

It is also a bit of a mess.

agnesgreyI reread Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey for the Victorians! group (2913 members). Daunted by members who thought Agnes was wimpy and lacklustre, I did not participate.  I will not pretend that Anne is as brilliant as Charlotte Bronte, nor that Agnes Grey is  as sharply-drawn as Lucy Snowe, the plain-passionate teacher heroine of Charlotte’s Villette.  But the obvious comparisons to Charlotte’s novel were not made at all (perhaps I missed them). Readers’ “I-didn’t-like-the-heroine” complaints seemed based on personal expectations, not the book.

Then there is the marketing.  Lori Hettler, the founder of The Next Best Book Club, announced blithely that she is officially working as a marketer for a new author.

Conflict of interest?  Well, she revealed it.  Nonetheless, I prefer my book groups to be free of marketing.

Integrity is hard-won in the online world.

Remember the days when we naively believed online life was about community?  Book ads didn’t wink at us from the margins as we chatted on book boards.  People communicated in paragraphs, as opposed to one or two lines.

When did it change?

All over the internet, ads pursue us from shopping sites.  For a while I couldn’t go to The Washington Post or The Guardian without pictures of products from sites I’d browsed at popping up in corners.  Amazon and Goodreads try to sell us books determined by algorithms based on what we’ve clicked on or added to our shopping carts.  Besieged by marketers, even consumer reviewers and bloggers cross the line between reviewing and marketing.

The line isn’t even considered online.  No one speaks of conflict of interest.

We’re all too happily shopping.

One of the best novels I've read this year.

One of the best novels I’ve read this year.

Goodreads inundated me with recommendations, which I thought quite good, probably because I’d read so many of them, and because they were different from Amazon’s.   But when you start adding titles you would never consider were you not dazed by an attractive site, it’s time to quit. I did find one absolutely stunning small-press book, Steve Himmer’s The Bee-Loud Glade, an allegorical novel about an office drone who, after losing his job and months of not showering and dazedly surfing the net,  is hired by a multi-millionaire as a hermit in a manmade paradisiacal garden.  (I’ll write about this one soon.)

So why did I leave Goodreads?

I had fun at Goodreads.  My book journal (“shelves” of books) was fun to play with.  I put five stars beside almost every title on my “shelf.”  I thought the star ratings were a joke at first, but turns out they mean something different to each reviewer.  A book can be praised and loved and only get three stars.   It is puzzling.

I quit because I don’t want my book groups to be a shopping experience, and I don’t want book titles twinkling at me from the sidebars, know what I mean?

And so I closed my account.

I prefer small book groups where there are fewer distractions.

Are Social Media Book Sites Replacing Blogs?

Once a week I make the rounds of blogs, and am always happy to find new blogs.  New bloggers are fresh, while those of us who have been around for several years have our tired days.

My sense is that many people are switching to social media sites like Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing.

I recently joined Goodreads, which claims to be “the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations.”  You can keep a book journal, review books,  join book groups,  or participate in the 2014 Reading Challenge, where 657,404 members challenge themselves to read a certain numger of books: the average is 52.  There are also 90 pages of giveaways.

Sometimes Goodreads recommends books I am dying to read, like Louisa Treger’s The Lodger, a historical novel about the modernist writer Dorothy Richardson, sometimes said to have invented stream of consciousness.

Goodreads gets a lot of attention from the press. On Feb. 12, 2013 The New York Times published an article about social media groups, highlighting the popular Goodreads book group founded by Lori Hettler, The Next Best Book Club.  The group is currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Line and Giano Cromley’s The Last Good Halloween.  Occasionally it reads small press books.

In this same New York Times article, Amanda Close, who runs digital marketplace development for Random House, said:

“Because Goodreads is not a publisher or retailer, people feel that the information is not getting manipulated.  People trust them because they are so crowd-sourced and their members are fanatics. You can’t buy a five-star review there.”

I have joined more Goodreads groups than is wise, since I have a poor record of participating. I enjoy “Victorians!,” which is currently discussing Agnes Grey.

I also joined Retro Chapter Chicks, because I love the name.  They’re reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and how can you go wrong with that?

I have looked at Shelfari, but find it hard to navigate.  It’s got what I call a “moving text” column  of  recent reader updates, always in motion,and I find it distracting.

Amazon now owns Goodreads and Shelfari.  To give it its due, Goodreads doesn’t push Amazon:  if you want to buy a book you can also click on the tab “online bookstores,” which lists Barnes and Noble, Better World Books, and many other choices.

Am I becoming a Goodreads person?  Well, nothing will replace blogs.