In the Goodreads entry for Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love For New York, the recent anthology edited by Sari Botton — and a sequel to last fall’s zeitgeist-claiming Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York — there are 60 ratings. These shake out like your average online book ratings, with the spread ending up like this: 16 people gave it five stars, 9 gave it four, 7 gave it three, 2 gave it two, and 26 people gave it one star.
Cue the record scratch. One star? Forty-three percent of people giving this apparently benign book one star?
Even for something that’s barely a book — for example, A Shore Thing by Snooki — the one-star ratings amounted to only nine percent of the reviews. There’s something wrong here, and it can be traced back to the fact that even though Never Can Say Goodbye has 27 contributors, ranging from Whoopi Goldberg (EGOT winner) to Susan Orlean (The New Yorker) to Adelle Waldman (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.), the source of the one-star vitriol comes down to one contributor: Kathleen Hale.
Now, I’m on record as enjoying Hale’s writing, on average, and she has one of the strongest essays in the anthology. That said, she recently published a piece on The Guardian called “Am I Being Catfished? An Author Confronts Her Number One Online Critic” that proved divisive and disturbing, with good reason. In it, Hale talks about obsessing over Goodreads reviews, with one negative one in particular. She ends up tracking down the writer’s (potential) address and going to her house. For bloggers, it was a personal attack, it was stalking, and the net effect was that the critic in question is now offline, having shuttered her twitter feed and Goodreads presence.
As a result, sympathizers have hit back at Hale where they can, and this includes Goodreads. But do they have the right to review a book that they haven’t read, just because 1/27th of it belongs to a mortal enemy? After all, giving this book a negative review is not really a referendum on Hale — it’s not her book. It reflects more on Botton. [Full disclosure: former Flavorwire editor Jason Diamond is a contributor.]
This case is specifically interesting since it’s easy to trace back to the exact moment that this book got one-star ratings. I emailed Goodreads about the one-star ratings and reviews for Never Can Say Goodbye, asking why these ratings and reviews are allowed to stand, especially if the writers are admitting that they haven’t read the book.
In an email, a press representative for Goodreads replied, “Some of the reviews on Never Can Say Goodbye are reflective of readers’ reactions to a recent story by Kathleen Hale in The Guardian. Our philosophy is that we welcome all opinions on books and you can see that this is the case here.” I responded by asking why these ratings and reviews are allowed to stand as a public referendum on the book’s worth, but I’ve received no further comment from Goodreads.
To the site’s credit, the algorithm is sorting the reviews, at least, so that the average reader sees the positive reviews first. The first post is from Botton, the editor, pointing out that the ratings have been skewed due to this controversy.
And of course this isn’t the only case of people using Goodreads for good or bad for a book. Laura Miller from Salon has written smart articles about the clash between authors and readers on Goodreads, and how the site functions in two different fashions for them and the flame wars that can spark as a result. For authors, it’s their life, and their potential livelihood, so bad reviews/personal criticism can set them off; for readers, it’s their playground, and they’re writing for their community, not for the sake of the author. The result is bewildering and unedited.
But mostly, it’s just further proof that the internet is driving authors and readers crazy, which I think is true. Sites that come off like they’re for enthusiasts are now part of people’s publicity plans, which complicates things. So we have public forums that are ostensibly for communication and connection — even if an author thinks it’s for reviewing and talking about their work — but ultimately, they’re serving a big company, and egos get in the way on both sides. There’s probably no financial incentive for Goodreads to care that much about the way in which people abuse ratings and reviews for good or for bad, and it’s going to remain a free-for-all, and a game that we need to figure out or abstain from playing, as long as it lasts.