Goodreads and bad influences, reading for emotions, Nabokov's thoughts
I’m not familiar with Goodreads, but with film ratings, I’m surprised how often I agree with the aggregated ratings. For example, find any movie on IMDb with a rating of 8/10 or higher and chances are it’s a stone-cold classic: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Groundhog Day, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, etc.
Same with the 5-star ratings on Amazon Prime. If it has 5 stars it’s almost always a classic, 4.5 means pretty darn good, 4 stars means good, and anything below 4 can be okay, but often is fairly crappy. Perhaps I have middle-of-the-road tastes, but I find myself almost always agreeing with the IMDb and Prime ratings, the average of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual ratings, maybe by teenagers for all I know.
Sometimes the wisdom of the crowd is just that, even though we kind of know, don’t we, that people are much more likely to rate something if they really like it or really hate it, and much less likely if they’re somewhere in between. Not sure I understand that but it seems to work even with such a skewed sample.
Yes!!! Love this. So true. Long ago, in my early twenties, I had a Brit-Lit professor who used to say, You haven’t read a book until you’ve gone through it at least three times. Not sure I agree with this literally, but I agree with the sentiment. You nailed it about people nowadays wanting to ‘see themselves’ in the work. Good ole narcissism. If it doesn’t show ‘me,’ why read it? If it doesn’t tow the right ideological line, why bother? If the author is white, does it even truly hold any literary value? Plus, most people don’t read anymore anyway; they’re captured by TikTok, YouTube, podcasts, etc.
"If you’re reading novels only to search for characters who embody you and reflect your values and beliefs, then you are reading for the wrong reasons." Perfectly put!
Savvy thinking, Corey. Points well taken. I do find Goodreads responses interesting after I read a novel or other book. And I also find them useful when I'm looking at an author who wrote a dozen novels and I'm trying to decide which four I'm going to pay for and read. Time is finite. But I'm keenly aware at all times that I may love a novel that very few Goodreads readers like. You've provided a compelling way for us to think about book comments on both Goodreads and Amazon. Thank you.
Great post. I wonder though if there is such as an Expectant Reader—one that desires a certain kind of novel. When you write, “Give me passionate writing and philosophical contemplations, or give me . . . a pen,” I wonder if you’re an Expectant Reader (and if I’m one, too). And are Expectant Readers second-cousins with Emotion Readers, who also want a certain kind of novel?
This was so damn good! I couldn't agree more, though that doesn't mean I reread every book. I have reread BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, OBLIVION, THE PALE KING, AND THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM. I've reread most of Denis Johnson and many of Cormac McCarthey. I recently reread A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, at which time that book lost a bit of its magic for me. The reread makes or breaks a book for me.
And while I'm here, since you've so wonderfully voiced so grievances about ratings and reviews, I'd like to advocate for changing the review and star-rating scale. I believe only a couple books I read each year deserve 5-star ratings. They have to have taught me something new in a way that delighted or abhorred me. 4-star ratings are those books I'll think of a long time after. 3-star books are good but short-lived in my memory. 2-star books are flawed and anger me in serious ways. 1-star books make arguments for racism, sexism, xenophobia, or any kind of disgusting human injustice. On the very rare occasions I don't finish a book, I leave it unrated or unreviewed, because no fate is worse for a book than total obscurity.
Soap box disembarked upon. Great read, here, Corey. Thanks for sharing.
Good post. I read a book called Inside the critics' circle : book reviewing in uncertain times, in which the author reports that book reviewers distinguish between 'professional' and 'civilian' reviewers, the latter being the amateurs you refer to. I largely agree with you, but it is sometimes the case that 'amateur' reviews on Amazon are quite incisive. I also think that the same person can be both. For example, if I review a book about education, I'm doing so as a professional. But when I review a book about literature or art, say, I'm an amateur. So I'm not at all sure that such distinctions are entirely useful.
Yes—when you’re interested in a writer whose work you've never read, and the author has a dozen books, the internet is a great place to narrow down your options.
I was perhaps a tad unfair in my assessment. I get caught up in the moment and let the words rip, often focusing on the negative, just like reviews.
As with pop songs and movies, a very simple rating system for novels is just to look at their length.
I’m a fan of what I call “slender American classics.” The exemplar would be Gatsby, at 159 pp in hardback, less than 49K words. An extreme example that nevertheless shows it can be done would be Miss Lonelyhearts, at only 58 pp in paperback.
And looking at paperbacks here for candidates, I see: The Tremor of Forgery is 249 pp, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is 242 pp, Housekeeping is 219 pp, The Maltese Falcon is 217 pp.
If we expanded the category and just called it “slender classics in English,” we could then include Brits and add The Girls of Slender Means at 140 pp, Animal Farm at 141 pp, The Code of the Woosters at 222 pp.
So just as going over 3 minutes for a pop song or 2 hours for a movie is allowed, you can also go over, say, 250 pp in a novel, but you need to have a good reason to do so.
Really, anybody can write a long novel; but not many writers can produce a good short one, meaning something that readers will want to reread.
Perhaps verbose novelists can take a tip from the streaming services: if it’s too long, just divide it up into a trilogy or something. It’s still the same length overall but feels so much more approachable. And the reader can stop after one and not feel like the investment of time was wasted.