More social media trimming

by Sunita

Warning: navel-gazing ahead.

I thought about deleting my Goodreads account today. GR is the last social media platform I participate in, and I’ve been active there for the last couple of years. I returned to it when I started reading a lot of literary fiction again; I swore off the romance and related genre discussions quite a while ago, but the lit fic reviewers and groups didn’t seem to have the same kinds of recurring kerfuffles (NARRATOR: they do, just not as often). But they have their own idiosyncracies, like focusing to an obsessive degree not just on group reads of awards longlists and shortlists, but also choosing to spend lots of time and energy debating the worthiness of the books on those lists.

At first I found these discussions informative and mildly amusing. Having been buried in the romance genre for more than a decade, I hadn’t really paid attention to the proliferation of prizes in the lit fic world. But my goodness, they have not just multiplied but become much more prominent in terms of promotion through newspapers, magazines, and blogs. (#notallmedia, of course; the LRB, TLS, and NYRB don’t seem to care much about which books win prizes, but they’re in the minority.)

What isn’t different is the extent to which GR readers and reviewers depend on ARCs for their reading. Just as much as genre bloggers and reviewers, they try for Netgalley and Edelweiss, as well as obtaining ARCs directly from publishers. And there are a lot of small publishers in lit fic who are increasingly important to the health of the book industry in terms of innovation, creativity, and as incubators for new or new-to-English authors. This creates an intimacy between publishers and readers which is more similar to the relationship between authors and readers in romance than I’m comfortable with. One of the reasons I stopped reviewing romance novels and requesting ARCs was that I wanted to increase the distance between the author and/or publisher and me and decrease the distance between the book and me. I still don’t take ARCs, but when I review and discuss books at GR I know that authors and editors may be listening in. Which is absolutely their right, but it makes me think twice about what I post.

The other way in which the GR lit fic community is different from the genre communities is that members are much more likely to make sweeping claims about whether chosen books “deserve” to be on awards lists. The qualifying conditions are not just quality, but also distributions of various kinds. There is a bit of a Highlander “there can only be one” aspect to the way shortlists in particular are evaluated. One complaint that came up recently, for example, was that a longlist had two books about marriages and two mythological retellings. This seemed to make the list insufficiently diverse. Never mind that the twinned books were written by authors with very different styles and interests, and the books themselves differed on more grounds than they shared.

Look, there are more good books than there are slots on the awards longlists. Even the BTBA, which has a 25-book longlist, omits worthy candidates every year. There is no perfect longlist or shortlist. It seems a disservice to everyone to spend multiple comments over the course of weeks ragging on a book because you didn’t like it and don’t think it should be there. Say so, sure. But no one needs to hear you say it a dozen times.

The other issue that I’m confronting increasingly is that there are quite a few readers who think that because they’ve read a lot of books, their critical evaluations are more likely to be accurate than other people’s. This is partly true; the more you read the more you can recognize, classify, and evaluate. But that doesn’t guarantee you’re as skilled as a trained literary critic, especially when you don’t seem to be aware of your own reviewing weaknesses and foibles. And GR is particularly bad at high-level debates about books. The review-and-comment system discourages it, and even in groups which have threads for specific books, the comments often digress into anecdotes, minutiae, or off-topic conversations. In the dozens of book-specific threads I’ve read, I can count the number of truly interesting debates about aspects of the novels themselves.

It’s the nature of the platform and it’s also because of how group regulars and mods set up the environment. In some groups it’s considered poor form to be too negative. In other groups wildly off-topic, inside-joke conversations are not discouraged. So in 200 posts in a book’s thread, you can have 100 which are not really about the book. Or are about strategic rather than substantive issues. And undoubtedly part of my problem is that the more I write and critique in my academic life, the more frustrated I get with the GR discussions. There are so many things to talk about in these novels, but we rarely get to most of them. The way a given social media platform is structured really does shape discourse, and GR isn’t set up to facilitate substantive discussion. Even the group threads, which are better than the review-and-comment format, make substantive back-and-forth difficult. In some ways it’s a testament to participants that there is as much substantive conversation as we have.

The final thing that almost drove me off today is what I’ve talked about before: hearing people slag off books or worse, attribute intentionality to authors that they can’t possibly have information about. This is especially obvious when it’s a discussion about a book set in a culture that they aren’t familiar with (even if they’ve read a lot of books about it). Think of a culture you know well, then think of the way that culture is represented in a good or not-so-good novel, then imagine people whose main exposure to it is through novels evaluating how the culture is being depicted. What are the odds they’re going to miss a lot? I tend not to make definitive statements about books set in cultures outside mine, unless I’m talking about the technical aspects of the novel. And even then I’ll hedge (e.g., flat affect in French-language autofiction, which I’ve come to realize is a feature not a bug). So when I read sweeping and definitive statements about quality from people who I can be positive don’t know the ins and outs of the subject at hand, I get immensely frustrated. But there’s no point arguing. It’s the internet. Arguments rarely have productive outcomes, and people don’t come to GR to be told they’re wrong about something. Again, it’s not that kind of environment.

Well, I didn’t delete my Goodreads account. I unfollowed a bunch of people, left my last non-TBR-reading group, and deleted my browser bookmarks and shortcuts. That will hopefully be enough to get me to enjoy the time I spend there again. If not, I’ll spend a couple of weeks copying over my reviews to my LibraryThing account and just shut the GR account down.

I love reading and I love talking about books. I am so enjoying blogging and reading the blogs I follow in my RSS feed reader. But social media in the age of consumption and surveillance capitalism is not where I’m likely to find the conversations I’m looking for. I just have to come to terms with that. It’s not a rose-colored-glasses view, I don’t think; if chat boards and Usenet were around today they would look very different than they did back when the internet hadn’t been commodified and monetized. Times change, that’s all.