The reading/reviewing/ranking rat race

by Sunita

This is a navel-gazing post so feel free to skip if the subject isn’t of interest. I’ll have a review for Wendy’s TBR Challenge up tomorrow.

I’ve been spending most of my discretionary time this winter reading and writing. I haven’t been blogging here for the same reasons a lot of people don’t blog much anymore. I really liked Brie’s post about starting up again; it encapsulates a lot of the reasons I resurrected the blog. But like her, I’m not blogging as much as I’d hoped to. It’s hard to blog into a void, especially when there aren’t many other people blogging regularly. I don’t mean that to be a whine, just an observation. I put a lot of book blogs back in my RSS feed reader but most of them rarely have new posts (Cathy at 746 Books is an exception, and Kay/Miss Bates posts pretty regularly as well). Despite being an academic and working on my own a lot, it turns out that like many other humans I like the validation of feedback and seeing other people devoting time to things I’m doing and care about. Quelle surprise.

Even if I haven’t been blogging much here, I have been reading. So I wind up at Goodreads a lot. I’m still at LibraryThing as well, but I’m way behind cataloguing my reading there because, again, no feedback. So I post my reading status at GR, write up reviews, and comment in various threads in groups I belong to. They’re mostly groups that follow major book awards and the Tournament of Books. Generally I enjoy these groups and I look forward to hearing readers’ reactions to books I’ve read or am planning to read or am happy to learn about. They spur me to read more and to try novels I might not otherwise know much about.

BUT. There’s always a but, right? After a couple of years of lurking at and then commenting in these groups, following members’ reviews and participating in mostly interesting discussions, I’m discovering that our interests are more divergent than I at first realized (or realized but didn’t want to acknowledge). If you’re organizing reading around book awards, then obviously there’s going to be a horse-race aspect to the reading and ranking process. But I guess I didn’t foresee how much it would start to bother me. Books are compared to each other because they’re on a list together (which makes sense), they’re evaluated as to whether they belong on a particular list, and they can be championed or denigrated to a degree I find both unexpected and off-putting.

Example: Milkman by Anna Burns. As readers of this blog know, I loved this book when I was introduced to it by the 2018 Booker longlist. I embraced it wholeheartedly and was thrilled when it won the Booker. A lot of readers were put off by it and I could understand that; stream-of-consciousness books aren’t for everyone and it has a very distinctive voice. If the voice doesn’t work for you the reading experience is going to be unrewarding at best. It’s a Marmite book. Which is not that uncommon, really, especially in litfic.

But the way the discussions over Milkman have played out have been really unpleasant. People who love the book keep shoving it in the faces of people who don’t, and to a lesser degree vice versa. Every time the novel is nominated for something, the battle begins again. Every win and loss is taken as validation by the respective sides. It’s ridiculous, juvenile, and totally unfair to the book, the author, and the majority of readers.

I’m really dreading next month’s US release of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, because it’s had a similar reception in a couple of the circles I participate in. The people who like it are calling it a masterpiece and future classic and the people who don’t are pushing back hard.

Why does this bother me when it doesn’t bother me that much in the sports context? I can laugh off Liverpool, Oakland A’s, and SF Giants haters. And hell, I’ve been having to apologize for the Oakland/LA/soon-to-be-Las-Vegas Raiders since my teens. But somehow with books it feels different. Maybe it’s because books are creative products with which a reader has a personal relationship. My reaction to a book can be analytical, but it is also and always intensely personal. It reflects something about the world, for good or ill, that resonates for me.

Even a forgettable book leaves some impression. Today I found myself feeling defensive for the criticisms of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight over at the TOB. This is a book I admired and liked but did not love, whose author needs no help from me given his accomplishments and accolades. And yet, there I was, sitting on my hands to avoid contributing to the back and forth.

I keep looking for a place online where people just talk about books and what is inside the pages of books. Not whether they scored an ARC, not whether or not Debut Author’s book really fits the Goldsmiths criteria, not whether Book X is so much better than Book Y which was nominated for Prize Z when Book X wasn’t and what a travesty and let me say that in 7 or 8 places over the next month.

None of us are professional critics. None of us. We are all hanging out online to talk about books. Being an Influencer gets you what, free ARCs? A higher ranking in the GR reviewers’ list? More Likes and RTs and Shares and Followers? What does that have to do with reading and enjoying a book and sharing your reactions with other readers? That’s about books as commodities, books as vehicles to enhance personal status. Not about books as enjoyment or intellectual and emotional growth.

If 90 percent of participants in Romanceland are authors or aspiring authors, in Goodreadsland 90 percent of participants are either aspiring authors or aspiring critics. And in both there seem to way too many people who want to be Someone in the Industry. Meanwhile, I just want to talk about books and to think about whether a book succeeds or fails on the terms it sets out for itself. No more and no less. It’s harder than I expected.

/end rant