Doubled Barelled Shotgun – Goodreads and Art Criticism

by TheLitCritGuy


I’ll be honest, this was not a blog post that I wanted to write and when I detail what I’m talking about I think why I’m reticent to write about this will become clear. Firstly though, a little background will be necessary for those of you who don’t follow scandals in the intersecting worlds of authorship and internet life.

The website is pretty much a mainstay of the literary part of the web and has been beloved by readers as a great way of sharing with their friends what they think of novels, find new ones to enjoy and even keep up with news and announcements from their favourite authors. As a site it combines social networking, forum discussion and literary interests in a way that makes it invaluable as a website if you have even a passing interest in the world of writing. Goodreads also has another aspect – it is an incredible tool for authors, amateur or professional, to publish new writing, whether that is short stories or full novels and receive feedback and criticism on their work. In a way this part of the site reminds me of Myspace a few years back when it was in its prime – it seemed there was a time when a band could become huge simply through that site rather than through the more industry controlled traditional routes. What happened with Myspace is that the music industry, agents, labels etc. moved in and used the site as a way of spotting the next big thing. Goodreads seems, to me as an outsider anyway, to operate in a similar way. Authors can use the site to get spotted by publishers and literary agents. Now for those of you keeping up that combination of the possibility of commercial success and the opportunity for criticism has potential to make people very unhappy indeed.

Unsurprisingly something like this has been trundling away on Goodreads for a while now as several authors and their work have come under criticism that, (to put this mildly) goes further and more personal than constructive artistic criticism should. This criticism has often come in waves, with similar people jumping up and down on an author’s work in large groups. Naturally, some authors and members of the site have taken this rather badly and labelled these critical voices as bullies – even going so far as to set up a website called Stop The Goodreads Bullies to voice their concerns and push back against what they see as personal, damaging attacks.

Already I hope you can see why I didn’t want to write this, so let me make this bit as clear as I possibly can – this is not a debate I want to get involved in. There are others who have written more eloquently and passionately about the rights and wrongs of this situation than I ever would be able to and you can look them up if you feel the need to go through the dirty laundry of this particular part of geek/internet culture. Secondly, as someone who doesn’t have a huge knowledge of the genre involved, mostly from what I can tell YA novels, I feel it would be disingenuous at best to weigh in here. However, this whole debate does raise some wider questions about the act of criticism in the internet age that I think bear some consideration.

The first thing I think anyone interested in cultural criticism can learn from this is the fundamental flaw with the star ratings system. As the internet has grown in size and complexity it is only natural that we as internet users seek quick and easy summaries of opinion. As with amazon, and many other sites goodreads operates on a star rating system for books – and some of the books attacked were given wave after wave of low star reviews. Which as the authors of the books in question rightly pointed out, this was going to be the thing that stuck with readers, agents and publishers when their book was searched for. Let me put this as simply as I can – star ratings suck. As a way of criticizing work, as a way of checking the quality of the work, they just suck. Yes, I understand why they happen but the by-product of their existence is that criticism stops being an expression of engagement with a work – in all of its nuance, complexity, contradiction and ambiguity and instead becomes a way of the reader of the review justifying their opinion. I have literally lost count of the number of times I’ve seen comments on reviews that said something along the lines of, ‘you don’t get…you aren’t a fan of this…you don’t understand what you are saying,’ and so forth – usually with a lot more caps lock than that. The problem seems to be not that the reviewer has disliked the work – but that their dislike conflicts with the commenters own.  This is important, because it reflects an important misunderstanding. Reviewers and critics – me included – are not here to tell you if a particular book, movie or artwork is any good but rather to tell you what our experience of it was, with some measure of our own critical faculties and standards thrown in. This shouldn’t invalidate anyone else’s opinion but should instead be a catalyst for your own critical and intellectual engagement. If you disagree with a review, a good reviewer will have made you think WHY you think differently, and to water that down to five stars or one star rating is intellectually demeaning for all concerned – the artist, the critic and the people who encounter both.

This problem is very much of the internet age – but the goodreads debate also ties into a critical strand of literary work. Like never before the gap between artist and art fan has been reduced to something more like a hyper-fluid membrane. Speaking personally, here as the PageBoy I am a critic and reviewer, but like many on I am also a writer and creator. The internet makes it possible for people to move seamlessly between these two spheres – between being a viewer and being an artist. This comes with a side effect though, and one that the whole goodreads uproar highlights nicely – as artists have become more and more closely identifies as critics, so it has become more and more difficult to separate artists from their art. It is indeed difficult to engage with a challenging text, if the text’s creator is there to tell you in the comment section what their story ‘really’ means. Some may think, almost instinctively that this is a great thing and something that goodreads has been able to encourage – now no longer will authors have to deal with readers who don’t understand the text, confused readers can just ask the author and the author can supply the meaning. Seen in this way the writers who feel themselves ‘bullied’ by certain people on goodreads are merely correcting an interpretative bias by readers blind to what their work is actually about.

(I will leave aside the slightly more sordid details of leaking people’s personal information online and some of the more egregious personal attacks that have taken place on both sides – if you want to read it about that, just google it because that isn’t something I want to get into here)

This method of critical reading is certainly nice and tidy, and it gives the authority to the creators of the art, in this case the authors of the works in question. However, this presupposes that authors themselves have the right to decide how people view and respond to their work.  The act of reading is composed of a triumvirate – the reader, the writer and the text. The above model gives all authority of meaning to the author who passes that meaning via the text through to the reader. And that model is just plain wrong.

If that sounds harsh, then sadly it must do – literary academics have been playing around with this idea for a while and as usual with advanced cultural theory the progenitors of the idea are French.  In 1967 the noted critic Roland Barthes published an essay, now famous in the right circles, called ‘The Death of the Author,’ in it he argued that to impose the idea of a unique authorial message to a text not only limited its power as art but was a form of interpretative tyranny – denying readers the chance to wrestle with a text themselves and come to their own conclusions. Do authors have the right to challenge the interpretations of critics – not if they claim that their view is the only correct one. To quote Barthes,

‘We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations…’

The point is this – once what is written is out, available to the world (easier than in Barthes time) then the writer of those words ceases to exist, (the ‘death’ in the title of the essay.) This is the problem that has brought back into the critical sphere – the author now can refuse to play dead. To adjust Barthes point perhaps now in the internet age the dead author has become something different – we can see a new kind of digital ‘zombie author’, able to obtain anonymity and next to impossible to exclude from the critical debate. For authors the reluctance to stay ‘dead’ is surely understandable -the creation of art involves risk and in a sense, the exposure of an intimate part of who you are and when attacked the instinct to defend yourself is incredibly powerful.

Let me finish by restating – personally attacking an author, leaking the details of their life is shameful and the act of a coward. However, authors have no real right to stifle or dictate how I respond to what they put out in the world because if they do, then what happened on will only be the beginning and this idea of being told what a book or story ‘means’ will start to spread. Readers and critics and authors have to reassert the right of art to provoke debate, as the very act of writing is complex and often paradoxical, resorting to simplistic notions of right and wrong will mean that everyone loses – authors, critics and most vitally the readers themselves.



PS I am well aware that seeing as I’ve written this you can all be as mean as you like about my writing  in the comment section…but that is by no means me laying down a challenge so please be nice…