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From Phyllida's Desk

Rating Good Reads

I joined Goodreads recently, as preparation for publishing a series of e-books. The idea was to establish a presence in a popular online community of readers, make some friends and build anticipation for the upcoming releases.

But I was dismayed by the duty to write reviews. The members of Goodreads list the books they've read on "shelves" for others to see, post online reviews, and of course, rank the books using the familiar five-star system.

I don't know if it's laziness or timidity, but unlike so many readers and writers these days who delight in sharing their opinions, I'm not comfortable writing reviews. No doubt it gets easier with practice, but for me, writing a well-crafted, thoughtful review takes an inordinate expenditure of time and effort—time I simply can't spare. I have a day job, a conference paper to write and present, two three-day conferences to attend, and, oh yes—three creative labors of love: the e-books to edit and format, a short story to write for an anthology, and a third honest-to-goodness novel to work on as soon as I develop the ability to function without sleep; a novel that, ideally, will be published, like my first two, by a mainstream publisher, in print as well as in e-ink.

Reviewing is like blogging, only worse. Unlike a blog post, which is pretty much me talking to myself about something that interests me and may or may not interest anyone else, a review is a judgment about someone else's work, someone like me, a writer who cared passionately about what s/he was doing. A review is meant to let potential readers know whether the book is worth reading, and what makes it good or bad.

To quote Charles (Bingley) on the subject of marriage in my Pride/Prejudice: "Really, when you considered, it was a hell of a lot of responsibility." It's enough to make me give up reading altogether and stick with streaming video on Netflix.

On the most basic level, the star system of ranking makes me crazy. Much like Netflix, the Goodreads system doesn't claim to be making eternal rulings of "Good" and "Bad." The categories allow readers to say whether they "didn't like," "liked" or "really liked" a book, or, at five stars, thought "it was amazing." Which, whether you review for The New York Review of Books or Coffee Time Romance, is, ultimately, all one can honestly say. But in practical terms, if I give a book four stars, am I not saying that I think it's "good?" And if I give a book one star, that it's "bad?" If readers see a book with a three-star or lower average, do they think it's an underappreciated gem, or just a bad book?

And what about the question of liking vs. quality? Haven't we all enjoyed books we thought were "bad" in some way? (The premise of the snarky website "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.") Most of the books I read aren't nearly as "amazing" as War and Peace, but does that mean I'm obligated to give every mystery or romance I enjoy no more than three stars, just to keep the grades on a curve?

There's a certain kind of reviewer who never gives a bad review or a low rating. Their attitude is that writers work hard for little or no money or recognition, and are doing their best. If the reviewer can't find something good to say about a book, s/he simply won't review it. But many online readers and reviewers despise this approach. With all the self-published books these days, the thinking goes, and all the badly-edited ones, or, apparently, not edited at all, including "really-" as well as self-published, it's irresponsible not to warn people away.

Much as it goes against the grain with me, I'm going to single out a book to show what's problematic about this approach: Max Pierce's The Master of Seacliff, a "gay gothic" parody of romantic suspense set in 1899. I bought this book on the strength of "editorial reviews" by writers and a professor of creative writing that praised its language and style.

When I started reading, I couldn't believe what I found:

Anachronistic words: "contact" used as a verb; "finalized" spoken by a character;

Words like "brashness" and "recalcitrant" used awkwardly or incorrectly, as if the author wasn't sure of their exact meaning or how to use them in a sentence but wanted to give the story an "old-fashioned" flavor;

That common error: "disinterested" to mean "uninterested;"

An error new to me: "progression" to mean "progress;"

Weird or incorrect punctuation like this colon ("Leo arose from one of the chairs: a glass in hand and clicked his heels.") Not to mention "arose"…

And the deal-breakers:

"Whom" instead of "who" ("I believe your sole reason for educating my son, whom I believe is more focused now…");

The ubiquitous, unnecessary "for" ("I need for you only to be quiet.")

Many readers aren't bothered by these lapses, perhaps because they can't tell the difference between truly elegant style, like Jane Austen's, or the workmanlike, straightforward style of many bestselling authors, and poor imitations, like Seacliff. For these readers, the book works; it's a four- or five-star read. And in looking over the customer reviews now, a few years later, I'm surprised to see that the few negative reviews criticize the story, not the language.

For me it's unreadable. I never finished it. While I loved the idea of a same-sex (m/m) reworking of a popular hetero genre, the language, inappropriate for educated speakers in 1900, distracted me to the point of being unable to focus on the story. I'd give it at most two stars, more likely one.

Writers like Pierce work on the theory that convoluted syntax and a heavy dose of polysyllabic words are the marks of "sophisticated" writing, when in truth they're the sure sign of a middle-schooler trying to write above grade level. It's the verbal equivalent of sticking one's pinky out when drinking tea, ignorance and vulgarity attempting to appear "to the manner born."

Does this make Seacliff a "bad" book? For me, absolutely. But who am I? I'm the author of two books that have received a disturbing number of one- and two-star online reviews; books that, whatever else one may say about them, have been praised for their style and use of language in mainstream reviews.

Sometimes you have to be able to see beyond minor errors to recognize good writing on the larger scale. The dark side of my hypersensitivity to language is that my grammar and usage fixations can prevent me from enjoying an otherwise well-written and original book. I temporarily stopped reading Krakow Melt by Daniel Allen Cox, because the narrator used "I" instead of "me" once or twice. (No doubt my epitaph will read, to paraphrase the caption of a New Yorker cartoon, "She could no longer live as a 'Between you and me' person in a 'Between you and I' world.")

When it comes to reading, I often feel I inhabit a parallel universe. What matters to me about a book is irrelevant to someone else. My opinion simply may not be meaningful or useful to any other reader, and other readers' opinions may be meaningless to me.

One example that stands out in this regard was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. A friend who liked my P/P (it's why we became friends) recommended it to me. When I was ready to read it, I looked, out of curiosity, at the online reviews, and was struck by the number of people who gave the book a middling rating, their complaint being that the narrator was someone who "was determined never to be happy." No matter what magical, wondrous situation he found himself in, these reviewers agreed, he was never satisfied.

As I read the book, it seemed to me that the situations the protagonist finds himself in are quite challenging and would test anyone's happiness quotient. And I thought about the, probably, young readers who haven’t lived long enough to recognize a fundamental aspect of the human condition, faithfully depicted by the author. These negative reviews seemed to me not only false or "incorrect," but not "helpful," as these review sites encourage us to vote.

Based on my experiences as writer and reader, I am unlikely to be swayed, for or against a book, by any online "customer" or "reader" reviews. But since only a very small percent of published books can be reviewed by the mainstream press—the only consistently "helpful" reviews—I must simply go on as I have been, relying on instinct, on serendipity, and suggestions from people who like my books. Solipsistic as that sounds, it hasn't failed yet.

For now, I have restricted the books on my Goodreads "shelf" to ones that I "really liked" (four stars) or thought "amazing" (five stars). No, these fifty or so titles are not every book I've ever read, but why fill the shelves with stuff I didn't like? The reason a site like Goodreads exists is to bring readers together over books they enjoyed as a way of helping them find more "good reads."

As for reviews: I barely have time to read at all. If I read something I think is "amazing," like Emma Donoghue's Room, I will attempt to post a short review. But I'm not going to scour the universe for "bad" books to excoriate, because life is too short.
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