Thursday, January 14, 2010

Goodreaders each and every one of us

I'm new to Goodreads. I feel a bit embarrassed admitting this, especially since I recently wrote a post about being new to the Kindle. (My grandmother has a Kindle, for the love of god! It's hardly cutting edge technology!) This is also my first foray into blogging. Apparently I am trying to catapault myself into the new decade by overcoming a fear of technology. I should have called this blog Confessions of a Luddite.

As for Goodreads, clearly I'm late to that game as well. I've been slow to join, partly because I write reviews for a living--it's not my bread and butter, but at least the butter--and so I felt like I shouldn't give it away for free. I also felt like I was already participating in the cultural conversation about books, and didn't have much more to add. Or that I might actually undermine my credibility if I admitted to liking a lowbrow book, or to not having enjoyed or admired one that others in high places touted. But then I got curious.

Okay, in true blogging confession mode, let me admit that my curiosity was piqued when I started peeking at Goodreads reviews of my own forthcoming book. (Thanks, Kater! "R. Czarny," I know who you are. Nice (if recognizable) alias). The book isn't even out yet, but already I can read a half dozen people's impressions of and opinions on it. For the critic, it's karmic payback time. I'm also reminded of that question kids ask each other: would you rather be able to fly or be invisible? Apparently people say that they want to be able to fly, but everyone secretly wants to be invisible. Well, Goodreads (and other consumer review sites) let you be invisible while other people--all strangers, except for R. Czarny--talk frankly and not always flatteringly about you (well, your book--but to the author, it can seem like the same thing).

Okay. But after I read my half-dozen early Goodreads reviews dozens of time, memorized each word (savoring the praise, wincing over the criticism) etc..., I started clicking onto more books reviewed by these folks and others, and before long I'd signed up, still wondering what I was signing up for exactly. Needing support, I encouraged my friend Nick to sign up too. Nick lives in Colorado, but whenever we get together or shoot emails back and forth, our conversations are dominated by discussions of what we've been reading lately, what we want to read, reviews we've read and agree or disagree with, and so forth. I don't really believe in "soulmates," but if I did, Nick would be my book soulmate, which isn't to say that our taste overlaps entirely, but it's close enough that we can definitely share recommendations, and divergent enough to be interesting. I love to talk with him about books more than anyone (and just about anything) else. My husband has joked that Nick and I should have a books show on cable, where we could be the Siskel and Ebert of the reading world. This always seemed like a great and hilarious fantasy. If only people cared that much about books!

Which is one of the most heartening things about Goodreads. It's hard to believe, clicking and scrolling through the site, that the book is doomed. Even the much maligned novel, even the "verge of extinction" short story collection, seem to be gathering more readers than dust. It's hard to believe how much so many people apparently do care about books, and about contributing to the conversation on books.

Nick got hooked before I did. A day or two after he signed up, I learned via email that he'd posted reviews of many pages worth of books he'd read recently. I started reading his reviews, and couldn't resist posting comments (much like we do in real life) under his little blurbs, where I'd second or (affectionately) challenge his positions. And soon I started wanting to post little reviews of my own. Whereas I might spend weeks figuring out what to say in a review destined for print, a Goodreads review is an impression, an off-the-cuff summation of what worked or didn't for a given reader. But just because they might not be art doesn't mean they're not smart.

Nick and I recently discussed a published (in a high place) review we both read, of a novel we both recently finished, in which the reviewer fixated on the milieu (90's bubble economy) in which the book took place and argued that it was about excessive consumerism. It wasn't. Sure, the novel was grounded in that time period, and the narrator was grandiose in a way that reflected his privilege. But the book was about other things, deeper things, and the reviewer was missing the proverbial forest, not even for the trees but for their leaves. It can be easy to do this when you're a "professional" reviewer. You want to seem smarter than the "average" reader, to notice more and different things. The problem is, writers are writing for readers. When I was working on my novel, I found after a certain point that I needed non-writers (and people who weren't "professional" critics, too) to read and help me with my book. Their impressions were often clearer and better articulated than those who "read like writers," more attuned to nuances of craft than clarity of content.

Now I'm not here to "diss" professional reviewers. Again, reviewing puts the butter on my bread, and while I sometimes torment myself over countless drafts of a 700-word piece, I love to do it and feel honored whenever I get an assignment. But I am also excited about Goodreads, and glad that I overcame my initial (slightly snobby) reluctance to chime in.

As for the Kindle, I just finished my first digital novel yesterday. I was reading it over lunch, and loving the fact that I didn't have to pull the old trick of splaying the book under the edge of my plate, or turning pages with mustard-splattered fingers, when it suddenly and rudely ran out of batteries and shut off--right (I kid you not) before the mystery was divulged--and I had no idea where my husband had stashed the power cord. I'm still on the fence about that one.

1 comment:

Nick said...

That's me!

The funny thing is that I had actually signed up for Goodreads at least a year ago when someone invited me. And then I'd done nothing about it. But then talking with you about it over New Years made me think. And of course I also had to check to see if there were any reviews of my own book. Just one -- stars only, albeit five -- and from a good friend. So it hardly counts. Ahhh, the readership of an academic book.

So when I first started posting reviews I just put these very short and pithy blurbs. But then I noticed that many people post real, lengthy reviews. I was impressed and slightly intimidated. Or mostly I just felt like that was the kind of thing I could do after reading only one novel, but not sitting with a list in my head of all the ones I'd like to review. Too much work all at once. But I'm in the middle of Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello, which clocks in at over 600 pages, so it may be a while...

I love, by the way, that you've decided to embrace all technology all at once. Hurling yourself into 2010 indeed!