More social media trimming
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.
Oh, if I had a blog, I would have written this at some point this week or last 😉 I hope you stay. People like you make the place bearable.
Have you considered starting an invisible group on Goodreads? You could invite only those people you want to invite, those who you know discuss books substantively instead of focusing on awards and other surface qualities. You could set up the discussion folders according to the topics that interest you. With an invisible group, you can discuss books freely, knowing that publishers and authors aren’t lurking and reading the discussions.. And while an invisible group has the disadvantage that new people can only be added by invitation, that can be an advantage, too.
What EMc said. I will miss if you go!
My private (in one case) and invisible (in another case) groups keep me on Goodreads, but I have noticed most of the problems that you mention in my regular Goodreads feed, even though mine is more focused on genre fiction. I find that it’s hard for me to find reviewers to follow whose reviews aren’t generally all squee or all rant.
Additionally, sometimes the rants and squees in my feed are 100% based on plotting, character likability, and how the books handle diversity and sensitivity, which are all important aspects of books, but not the only aspects of books. Depth, nuance, pacing, prose, accuracy, copyediting, themes and motifs are very rarely discussed. I’m guilty as much of this as anyone, but it gets wearying to read an almost entire stream of that.
@Emc: Oh, I’m glad it’s not just me! I feel like a jerk when I complain, even over here (and I don’t link my individual posts at GR, just my blog in my profile). But it does get to me over time.
I won’t leave right away, and I’d prefer not to leave, despite all the things about GR as a platform and company which bother me. It is a good way to touch base with people and I have found so many books and interesting reviews there.
@Janine: I find that across genres, certain aspects get highlighted in reviews at various times, depending on what people are talking about in groups, other social media, etc. I read a review that criticized a book for not taking on the important issues of our time, as compared to an earlier book by the author, written when things were apparently less socially fraught. But authors can’t always write to the zeitgeist, if that’s not what’s moving them!
I really try to let the book tell me what it’s trying to be and then review that rather than complaining about what it isn’t, although I don’t manage it as often as I’d like.
I am too lazy to start a group, and I’m not sure I want to be in a secret group. I can understand why people join them, but I have enough trouble in purpose-built public groups, I think a secret one would feel too restrictive. I could be wrong, of course. But in the groups I’ve joined in GR, I’m not comfortable challenging what seems to be the status quo. Sure I’m a member, but it’s not my group. I think that feeling would be stronger in a secret group.
I will miss you too if you end up leaving . I know you said you would prefer not to, so hoping you won’t :).
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Rather selfishly, I hope you stay at GR. You are my window into lit fic.and I always enjoy reading your reviews.
I hope that stepping out of the discussion groups is enough to lower your frustration levels. Don’t let anything or anyone take away your joy in reading.
For a second I thought I had already commented, but it’s someone else with my initials and my wish you would stay on GR. (I based my internet handle on a childhood joke about my initials being E=mc2). My return to Goodreads has worked for me because my circle of friends is small and I barely pay attention to groups. I like the idea of groups because they seem like good places for in-depth conversation, but as you say they don’t really work well in practice and I found that when I looked in ones I thought I might want to follow, they weren’t offering what I wanted. And it did give me that old problem of always feeling that I was reading the “wrong” thing/not enough.
I do like the feeling that I’m keeping track of my reading and posting a little something even when I don’t feel I have time to blog.
@cheburashka123: It’s still the best place for a variety of reviews, so I’m not going anywhere in a hurry!
@Barb: And you are my window into all kinds of fun reviews, like the North and South one you commented on today. 😉
That’s the thing, the good in GR is really good, and I do love reading reviews, whether I’m likely to read the book or not. I think I’m just not very good at being a joiner and club person. So I have to manage the balance between following and contributing individually and being on a social platform.
@Liz Mc2: I thought so too! But it’s nice to have two EMcs running around. 🙂
Oh, feeling like I’m reading the “wrong” thing. Yes I hear you. Or not reading enough, somehow. I’ve found so many new authors and publishers from groups, but I can’t just read those. Reading old books that are on my shelves is something I really look forward to, and after a while reading awards books can get kind of same-y, even though they’re all pretty good. It feels like reading in an endless present.
@Sunita: You’re right, of course, that there are trends in reviewing just as there are in any art or writing form. I thought of that after I posted. Another thing I realized after I posted was that I was misspeaking when I said pacing is not paid attention to in reviews; it does get attention.
With regard to the review you describe, not only can authors not always write to the zeitgeist, some also don’t like to tread ground they have trod before. So if they’ve written a social novel with a broad canvas, for example, they might want to write a smaller-scale and more personal novel for their next project. Or perhaps go from writing something set in our town times to a historical setting. I feel as you do, that it is best to judge books on what it is they are trying to be, though in my case genre considerations sometimes enter into that.
With regard to secret groups, you could be right, at least at Goodreads. When we were in Yahoo groups, it was a non-issue, since threads were not in folders. Here at Goodreads, it’s hard to tell if that’s a problem or not, because at least a couple of our members cannot start new threads at all due to some stupid technical glitch that would require them to email Goodreads tech support to resolve. They can participate in the existing threads, but not start new ones. A few other members will not participate at all if we go back to Yahoo, though, so it’s a catch-22.
@Janine: Good points all. I’m glad to see Goodreads has become a place where Amazon and Yahoo groups have been able to transition to, because there aren’t many sites like that anymore. One of my hesitations is that I lurk a lot and then feel as if I’m taking without giving, but I do a lot better lurking and just writing my own reviews. There are sites I’ve lurked on for years without joining, let alone participating. And that’s fine! waves to the RRW lurkers
As I’m sure you’ve figured out, I use GR pretty much only to keep track of what I’m reading. I’ll occasionally write a couple sentences about a book, but since I’m generally updating on my phone, it’s too much of a pain in the butt to do more than that. I think I might belong to a couple of groups, but I don’t participate in any of them.
And I both love and hate the phrase “surveillance capitalism.”
@Natalie: The GR app is so bad, at least the Android one is. When I was using my smartphone I updated through the desktop version but that’s far from ideal. So I hear you.
I so want to teach a course on surveillance, consumption, and capitalism, but I can’t find room in my schedule at the moment. It’s a crap term but I am at a loss for a better one, especially once that links surveillance and consumption with economic processes.
The iOS app is pretty dire, too. And once you get more than a couple hundred books into GR it becomes really hard to mass-edit metadata on the website. I had a Library Thing account years and years ago, I don’t know if it’s still there or not.
I would totally take a class on surveillance, consumption, and capitalism. I’m becoming more and more aware of how my day job perpetuates capitalism (the word capital is even in my title!) but apart from finding a new job–which I am reluctant to do because I love my job–I don’t know how to mitigate my complicity in the system. I worked in a non-profit once, briefly, and NEVER AGAIN.
@Natalie: I don’t think there’s much we can do to escape contributing to our current form of capitalism, minor cogs that we are. We can only try to live ethically in terms of our consumption and individual contributions to the overall system.