When 30K Strangers On Goodreads Are, In Fact, Wrong

I’m a huge fan of Goodreads: it serves all my literary needs from keeping track (mostly) of what I own to finding titles for my to-read list. When it comes to books that I’m considering but nobody whose taste I trust has read yet, Goodreads has saved me from wasting hours of my life — which is why I want to talk about reading reviews.

As per usual, this post is the coalescent form of outrage and extreme bafflement caused by [insert whatever], mixed with personal experience.

A person in a book discussion I participate in mentioned that This One Book by Someone* is one of their favourite books. What caught my attention was that it used to be a free serial published online, so I naturally assumed it had started its life as fanfiction and decided to check it out on Goodreads to see what all the fuss was about.

Thank Someone that I did.

Why Written Reviews Are Your Friend

 

See, on Goodreads you can check the average rating of a book (from 1 to 5 stars), total number of ratings, how many users have given which rating, and how many written reviews the book has. This is where the magic happens: This One Book by Someone has been rated 30,979 times with an average of 3.96 stars, which makes it sound like a pretty solid choice.

Until you filter the reviews by text-only content; then you see what people have actually thought about the book, and it turns out to be a highly problematic trope fest riddled with issues.

(Like what, you say? Like what is clearly rape to anyone who isn’t a complete imbecile is, in fact, not rape because blah-blah-bullshit-excuse. One reviewer astutely noted people’s outrage over 50 Shades of Grey and questioned the lack of it over a book that, in essence, presents an even worse scenario as its romantic focus with the difference being that the abused main character and his abuser are both male.)

I know how it is when you’ve just finished a book you loved, okay?

I know it makes you excited, you want to gush about it to others and your feelings are all over the place, best expressed with a series of increasingly colourful GIFs.

But I also know it makes you blind to the faults and the problematic aspects of the book, and that is why I start by reading the 1-star reviews. The ones on the negative end of the spectrum tend to be much more honest and critical than the 5-star reviews. By critical I don’t mean to imply they are more likely to bash the work but that they contain actual, you know, criticism.

Sure, I do skim the positive reviews to see what people have liked about the work, but the negative ones influence my decision more because they pick up on the things that positive reviews have missed or overlooked in favour of giving praise.

This holds true for most books that I have loved, too, if not all of them. I often agree with the criticism presented in negative reviews — not always, of course, but often enough — because even though they may expose facts about my favourites that I, perhaps, would have preferred to remain unaware of, I still value them for bringing those things to my attention.

You see, it’s fine to enjoy a book even if it handles problematic themes badly, fails to acknowledge the issues in its narrative and uses sexual assault as a plot device. It’s fine — as long as you, as a reader, are aware of those flaws and do not deny their existence to justify your own enjoyment.

* I censored the title and the author because, let’s face it, I haven’t read the book myself. I feel that although the negative reviews are a fairly good indicator, there are enough conflicting ones that I do not feel comfortable passing judgment.


Earlier version originally published at ishamaeli.wordpress.com on June 27, 2016.

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