I got an email this week, advising me to save any creative writing from my Goodreads account by September, as they are removing the original writing feature. And my first thought was, “Not The Condor!”
I joined Goodreads in June 2011, and fell in love with the community.
Over 10 years ago Goodreads was like walking into your friend’s living room and checking out their bookshelves, and listening to why they loved their latest read. Which is exactly what Otis Chandler, the developer, was going for.
I was finishing my PhD at the time, and it was my procrastination poison of choice. I spent so much time on Goodreads I was in the top 100 reviewers globally, was the top reviewer in New Zealand, and in the top 100 librarians globally: donating my free labor to wrangle book data for the site. For my 2013 reading challenge I read an impressive 505 books. I also wrote a lot of pretty insufferable reviews, and looking back, it’s hard to understand how I was so sure in my opinions, so convinced my ideas mattered. I would not now be so very careless of the feelings of the people who crafted the words I smashed and shredded with a tiny jeweled mallet of rightousness certainty.
I specifically apologize to Cameron Vale. My 2-star review of The Zebra Striped Shirt was unnecessary. Mine was one of the first reviews, and I yammered on about the price not the craft, and I’ve always felt guilty that my influence sank your career in M/M as it started. You write beautifully, and you never wrote another book under that pen name. I’m so, so sorry if my review contributed to poor sales of that book. I hope you are writing. I hope you are well. I hope you have every happiness, because you deserve it.
The thing that kept me coming back to Goodreads was the community. There were only 16 million users back then, not the 90 million there are now, and it felt small. I made friends. The people I met on GR meant – and still mean – the world to me. GR is why I ended up traveling to the US in 2017, and why I started writing.
But before that, in the summer of 2012, a friend called Isa K wrote a story called The Condor, posting each chapter to the GR creative writing space as she finished it. By the time she was wrapping the story up there were 40-60 comments from readers on each post. It felt like an event, a coming together, to inhale each update and discuss it: like co-creating something as audience and storyteller – the words spinning between us all in sheer joy of community.
Isa K published The Condor on Amazon afterward, along with other books, and we stopped being friends. But I still yearn for that celebration of storytelling at its most basic. Even though we sit around a screen instead of a fire, and on opposite sides of the world, the threads of narrative can still bind us together. It’s just harder to share, now.
In 2013 Amazon bought Goodreads and things began to change.
I don’t remember if it was the algorithm or the review censorship that was the beginning of the end for my experience with the community there. I think it must have been the changes to the reviews because I became upset, and I wrote about it, using the GR creative writing feature. Whereas, by the time the algorithm came in, I added a few disapproving comments to the admin thread and left it at that.
The algorithm changed the way I could interact with my community. GR tried to deny it for a few months, but no longer would we see the updates from our friends as they posted them. Instead an algorithm would curate what we saw in our feed. That’s normal for social media now, but it hamstrung my GR community. The algorithm was the triumph of marketing over free discussion.
But I’m saving my response to those 2013 review changes on Goodreads and I’ve pasted it below. It stands up, I think, and speaks to a time when I cared desperately about a platform I could see sinking under the inevitable sands of commerce, and felt raising my voice could help. Spoiler: it didn’t.
I’ll pull over a few of my reviews, too, over the next few months. GR doesn’t just hold a place in my heart: it changed my life. You only get that once, I think, and it’s worth remembering.
Why GR’s new review rules are censorship – Some thoughts
by Emma Sea
How GR’s revised review rules ignore all of postmodern literary criticism.
Published on 2013-09-21 · 340 total people like it
Late Friday, September 20 2013, Goodreads announced a change in review and shelving policy, and immediately started deleting readers’ reviews and shelves. In doing this they became censors. Limiting readers’ ability to discuss the cultural context of a book is censorship designed to promote authors’ interests.
Prior to this Goodreads had always maintained that shelves were up to a reader, and that, short of abuse (which could be flagged) so were reviews. Now Goodreads state that reviews and shelves must be about the book, and unrelated to the author, unless it is “relevant,” such as a biography.
Goodreads deny this is censorship, but rather “setting an appropriate tone for a community site.”
Goodreads state, “we haven’t deleted any book reviews in regard to this issue. The key word here is ‘book’. The reviews that have been deleted – and that we don’t think have a place on Goodreads – are reviews like “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that”. In other words, they are reviews of the author’s behavior and not relevant to the book.”
In literary criticism there are several different ways of approaching a book. In one corner there’s practical criticism, New Criticism, formalists, and structuralists. These types of approaches look only at the form and, well, structure of a book. In these kinds of reviews “it is the reader who . . . is in the end, in the absence of authorial control, left alone with the text,” ¹ and the reader limits themselves to “the words on the page.” ²
This would appear to be Goodreads’ approach to reviewing, when they say, “We believe books should stand on their own merit.”.
From the 1970s on a new approach, or rather, new approaches, to literary criticism arose, which examine the social, political, economic, and historical contexts to any particular book.
Feminist literary criticism discusses books in terms of the gendered roles and positions of the author, character, setting, or arena of cultural production.
Marxist criticism sees a text as a tool in struggle for economic and social capital. We might buy a book, for which we have to turn ourselves into a unit of production, or we might be given an online fic for free, and in return we give the author social capital, and reviews might discuss aspects of this process.
In postcolonial criticism you might examine the author’s position as a product of a hybrid culture: a mix of indigenous and colonizing forces.
What all postmodern approaches to reviewing books have in common is that they acknowledge that a book does not exist in a vacuum: it did not spring, fully-formed, into being. An author wrote it as a particular form of cultural and economic production in a particular society at a particular time.
Goodreads state, “Some people are perhaps interpreting this as you can’t discuss the author at all. This couldn’t be further from the case. The author is a part of the book and can certainly be discussed in relation to the book. But it has to be in a way that’s relevant to the book. Again, let’s judge books based on what’s inside them.”
A member’s review of an Orson Scott Card book was deleted following the Goodreads announcement, because it focused on Card’s well-known anti-gay and anti-gay marriage views. This fits within a wider cultural call to boycott the upcoming film.
In a queer Marxist critique of this book we would absolutely want to state that the funds you use to purchase it are in part used by the author to fund anti-gay marriage organizations and activities. Of course Card is allowed to do this: he is free to believe what he wishes. But equally an informed reader may not wish to financially support him in these acts. Card’s anti-gay platform is not directly relevant to the “words on the page” that Goodreads wants reviews to be about, but it is directly related to the social and cultural context of the book.
By deciding what is, and is not, allowed to be discussed in a review, by removing discussion of social context, and saying that only the words on the page count, Goodreads is ignoring fifty years of development of literary criticism, and is engaging in censorship.
This leaves us in a space where indeed, as an astute reader has already pointed out, a review of Mein Kampf that called Adolf Hitler an anti-Semitic asshole would break Goodreads’ new review guidelines and Terms of Service.
Yes, Adolf Hitler is a straw man, but what has equally been banned by Goodreads are shelves that indicate an author has “behaved badly.” This might be an author who emails the reviewer offering free books if their neutral review is edited to be more favorable, or an author whose fans flame a negative review. One of these may be out of the direct control of the author, but both are about the social context of the book.
Books are one part of a vast multi-media network of tweets, blogs, films, magazines, statuses, television shows, face-to-face conversations, Skype chats, and emails. Pretending that the words on the page are unconnected to any of the rest of modern communication is . . . well, I want to say it’s absurd, but it is not absurd. It is marketing.
Goodreads’ new rules are a fundamental shift that moves the site from a place for genuinely open discussion and engagement, to one that places the requirements of authors above the requirements of readers.
It is censorship.
¹ Bertens, H. (2008). Literary theory: The basics (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge, p. 59.
² Bertens, H. (2008). Literary theory: The basics (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge, p. 61.