Even before all the fun and games started at Goodreads over the weekend, I found myself thinking quite a lot about reviewing, community and boundaries. This piece from Liz over at Something More started it. Her arguments in favor of writers reviewing one another made me think. On the one hand, I’ve known some authors who have expressed discomfort with the idea of writing in-depth, critical reviews of other romance novels because they fear that they either (1) would not be able to be objective or (2) would not be perceived as objective. Romlandia can be a small world at times, so I understand those concerns. I can also see the difficulties for authors not wanting to damage relationships or hurt their own careers. Then again, as a reader, I would love to see authors who know their craft reviewing books and telling us what they really think of them. Such reviews would carry much more weight with me as a reader than a glowing cover blurb that does little to tell us why Author X thought this book was “such a fun read!”
Obviously, there are issues of conflict of interest and transparency to consider, and they aren’t always easy ones. As Liz points out in her piece, an author writing a glowing review of a book at the same time that the author of said review book is out promoting the reviewer’s work presents problems, and for starters, it’s certainly a relationship that needs to be disclosed. Likewise, if someone reviewing also works for a publisher, I would want the reviewer to disclose that as well. There are also issues of friendship(or on the reverse side, issues of personal animosity, if some of the author wars in literary fiction are anything to go by).
If Author A and Author B are close friends, it helps for a reader to know that when Author B is reviewing Author A. That’s a dilemma that holds true for those of us reviewing who are not published authors because if you review and participate in social media long enough, chances are you will become friendly with someone. I suppose it would be possible to maintain neutrality by living in an author-free social bubble. However, that sort of isolation also means leaving oneself out of the greater exchange of ideas. Instead, I think it makes more sense to be a part of the community, but to have some transparency about it, much as Kaetrin discusses in her excellent piece on reviewing and conflicts. For myself, I think that if a friendship runs deep enough that I worry about writing a negative review of that author, then maybe I need to think twice about reviewing her/him. A bit vague, I know, but this is one of those areas thorny enough not to lend itself to creating an easy set of rules.
Even keeping the idea of conflicts of interest in mind, knowing, respecting and genuinely liking others in the romance world does not have to bar authors from thinking deeply and critically about books and the genre. On the contrary, I think peer review could be a good thing. As an attorney, the closest analogy for me would be the practice of mooting arguments. When an attorney has a big trial or appellate argument looming, it’s quite common to set up trial runs in front of other attorneys prominent in the field. If the attorneys mooting me are any good, they will pick apart every sentence of argument, every nuance of body language…you get the picture. Sometimes the attorney doing her trial run will get rave reviews and sometimes not. However, it’s always a learning experience that causes one to think more deeply about the fundamentals of one’s craft, if one can put ego aside. And so it should be with a good critical review. There have been more than a few pieces online in recent months (including this one of mine) bemoaning the current condition of various segments of the romance market. Perhaps bringing more deep discussion and critical reviewing to our community of romance readers, authors and industry professionals will also bring revitalization to the books that we love.
With a few notable exceptions, most of which I find on Twitter, much of the book discussion I see from authors seems to be of the cover blurb and promo variety. I do see authors writing on their own blogs or doing guest posts about books on other blogs. However, these almost always tend to be marketing posts and blog tour promotions, not critical discussion of aspects of the romance genre or of other books. Here at AAR, I do somewhat frequently get requests from authors wanting to guest post on our blog. However, it’s always either a request for us to join their “street team” or some other aspect of a book release advertising campaign. I will be quite frank and state that this is why we have historically had very few guest posts at AAR. If an author or someone else in the romance world wanted to discuss books or the romance world instead of marketing a new release, I’d actually love to see it. We don’t want to see the blog become yet another advertising space, but a platform for the exchange of ideas and real discussion? Bring it on!
And Then There Was Goodreads
I had already been musing over the blurring of lines in reviewing communities when the whole Goodreads kerfuffle blew this weekend. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll mention that I am a Goodreads member for now and there are lots of things I like about the site. I like the ways in which I can organize my shelves and I love being able to pull up a book and see plenty of reviews at a glance. There are some folks from online romlandia whose writing I like to follow, so I love being able to check my timeline and see what they think about books.
Unlike a lot of communities, Goodreads does have plenty of authors as members and I think it’s fair to say that some get a little more involved in commenting on reviews of their books than others. Though I haven’t been directly involved in any incidents, I’m aware that there have been complaints about some of the types of reviews posted on Goodreads (heck, the existence of the sometimes stalkery Stop the Goodreads Bullies site arose from that), and the fact that some reviewers will report making buying decisions based on authors’ behavior has been controversial in some corners. In addition, the fact that some reviewers will create shelves of “to avoid” books by authors involved in plagiarism scandals, aggressive spamming of Goodreads users or other incidences deemed bad behavior has also caused debate.
However, instead of actually engaging in discussion with the community there, Goodreads chose this past weekend to simply put in place a new rule. Even better, they chose to announce it via a user group to which many Goodreads users do not even belong. From what they’re saying in their initial release and the various followups, reviews discussing author behavior are now off limits over there. And if you follow the 70+ page comment thread, you will see reports from users who had their content deleted. If this particular report is true, these deletions are also occurring for rather mystifying reasons. The deletions appear to have been happening without any advance warning to the affected parties so that these parties have no opportunity to move their content or to defend themselves from an unfair or inaccurate allegation.
In addition to the long-simmering debate over author behavior and reviewer responses, one cannot help but wonder if the purchase of Goodreads by Amazon may play a role in this decision by Goodreads. After all, Goodreads was created as a community for book lovers to discus books while Amazon is a seller of books looking to maximize its sales. The acquisition of Goodreads by Amazon arguably sets up a source of tension between the realms of review and marketing – and Amazon has products to market. And in fact, the Goodreads episode of this weekend brings to mind earlier discussions related to Amazon summarily deleting book reviews without warning.
Blythe and I were talking about this news over the weekend, and we agreed that it raises some interesting questions as to ownership in a community. Who gets to call the shots and how far should that authority go? Goodreads, like any other site, can set up Terms of Service to put posters on notice of how it plans to conduct business, but I would argue that they bear a certain responsibility when it comes to changing the terms midstream and then going back to enforce content that existed before the rule change. While Goodreads does in fact own its site, whenever an online community is created, there is as in any community, also created a certain sense of trust and a give and take between moderators and community members. If I were a political philosopher, I would call it a social contract of sorts. Goodreads runs its site, but no one forces any of us to be there; Goodreads runs a community with the tacit consent of those of us who agree to be governed by their rules.
Think about other communities in which we participate, both on and offline. In the best of these, there is an owner/moderator overseeing things but that person or people generally don’t carry out their jobs without the ongoing input and consent of those in the community. To put it bluntly, people tend not to want to keep going to a club if they’re going to be subject to unexpected edicts from on high without opportunity for discussion beforehand. Keeping this in mind, as an online community, shouldn’t a moderator at least warn someone thought to be an offending poster before deleting content? I would think so. Otherwise, the poster never gets a chance to express his/her side of the story or to save content that formerly didn’t violate a rule. Goodreads as a site may have the ability to swoop in and delete content willy-nilly but given the nature of that community, it certainly doesn’t mean they were right (or particularly intelligent) to do so. After all, similar actions by Amazon are part of what has contributed to its reviews being treated as irrelevant by many readers.
I’ve watched several friends from Goodreads leave with whom I enjoyed talking about books. I’ve been taking a bit more of a wait and see attitude. Unless the staff at Goodreads have spent the past few days hiding under rocks, they have to know that the community there has erupted into pages and pages of feedback on the new rules, much of which is overwhelmingly negative. Then again, I have to admit that when I look at some of the comments from Goodreads, one cannot help thinking that the folks at Goodreads may be a bit tone deaf when it comes to dealing with the concerns raised by the community there. Responding, as is done at comment 2660, in a way that essentially tells us the site deletes things because deep down they know what posters are REALLY thinking has a chilling effect on discourse, to put it mildly.
There are plenty of things I have liked about Goodreads and I’m hoping that the management there will apologize and rethink their latest set of rulemaking, but I have to admit that the idea of a site actively deleting user’s content without notice certainly makes on think twice about posting. And the idea of the site going a step further and profiling shelves in an attempt to read the mind of the reviewer is downright ridiculous. I would like to believe that Goodreads could survive as the community for readers that its founder, Otis Chandler, claims it to be. However, I suspect that Goodreads has broken the trust of more than a few of its members and that can be hard to regain.