Wednesday, September 4, 2013

More Goodreads Drama

Here we go again with the Goodreads drama. This time it's ex-literary agent and author Nathan Bransford wading into the swamp with a defense of September Girls by Bennett Madison and a plea that we "acknowledge each other's humanity." Which makes me wonder if he's ever read the comments on an obscure little video sharing site called YouTube. Doesn't Bransford make a living doing something internet-y now?

One more time: Reviews are for readers, not for authors. Reviews of my books are for readers, not for me. Reviews of Madison's books are for readers, not for him. There's nothing wrong with a snarky or even a totally mean-spirited review so long as it focuses on the book.

When a novel leaves my computer, it's not mine anymore. It's yours, the reader's. You have the absolute right to react to that novel in any way you darn well please. And to share that reaction in any way you darn well please.

An author who freaks out over a negative review of his work has not sufficiently separated himself from that work. I am not my novels. Yes, I sweat over them, bleed and cry over them, but I am more than the content of any of my novels. And, at a fundamental level, none of them are my books anyway. They're yours now, to treat as gently or harshly as you please.

I read all 39 one-star reviews of September Girls on Goodreads tonight. They are remarkably--admirably, even--focused on the book. Even the spiteful, gif-filled reviews quote extensively from the book, building arguments to support the reviewers' points of view.

None of the reviews I read cross the line into personal attacks. And there is a bright line that reviewers should not cross: My books belong to readers now, but I do not. If you're reviewing the author's weight, clothing, or hairstyle, you're way out of line. If you're threatening murder, rape, or sodomy, you're so far out of line that the local authorities should get involved. None of that is happening in the case of Madison's book as best I can tell.

Bransford characterizes these reviews as bullying, which 1) is just plain wrong--you can't bully a book--it's an inanimate object, and 2) seems to me to devalue the suffering of true victims of bullying. Goodreads is not for authors, it's for readers. We don't need to be there. I know of one author who's added the site to her browser's porn blocker, so she literally can't go there.

I'm not on Goodreads anymore, although that has nothing to do with reviews. I signed off for the last time a few months ago when Amazon bought the site. Amazon's biggest business isn't even books anymore--it's consumer electronics. Do we really want all our book recommendation sites under the control of the online equivalent of Best Buy? I don't. (Amazon owns Goodreads, Shelfari, and 40% of LibraryThing.) If you're as concerned about the future of the literary ecosystem as I am, please join me on BookLikes.

Bransford wrings his hands over the "great books that won't be published as a result of this culture if it continues." Puh-leaze. Does anyone think Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, or J.K. Rowling are whiling away the hours reading reviews on Goodreads? Sure, I used to read mine, but even I can't keep up with the volume of reviews of my work anymore, and my books are only a pimple on the back of the YA mammoth. A cursory look at the data shows the idea that Goodreads is scaring off authors is pure hyperbole, despite Bransford's protestations. The number of books published in the U.S. has increased from 274,000 in 2006 (the year Goodreads was founded) to 347,000 in 2011.

Here's the other important thing Bransford fails to acknowledge: those reviews that "demean and dehumanize authors" are helping the authors sell more books. For authors who are relatively unknown (who have published ten or fewer books), bad reviews increase sales. For a full discussion of the data supporting that assertion, see my post Why Bad Reviews Rock.

The bad reviews of September Girls sold at least one copy--I'd never heard of it a few hours ago, and now I've ordered it. The stuff the 39 one-star reviewers didn't like sounded interesting to me. There are precious few YA novels that take an utterly fearless and unflinching look at adolescent male sexuality--if September Girls is one, I suspect I'll enjoy it.

The reviewers did their job. They reacted to the book with enough specific detail that I could tell I might like it. Reviewers work for pure love of the literature--most of them get paid exactly nothing. They deserve our thanks, not our opprobrium, no matter how far into snark they slip. So here's mine: Thank you!