A number of years ago I made a rude comment online about a book I disliked by a hugely popular, world-famous writer. I wasn’t vicious in my criticism, and I stand by my opinion, but it was phrased in a casually dismissive way that I wouldn’t now use in public. In response, a writer friend said I should write a book myself. In fact, I already was writing a book, a fact I relayed to her with aggrieved, defensive smugness.
But I resented the suggestion that I needed to have written a book to criticise one. This idea was aimed at me a few times over the years when I spoke about books in public: that I should not dare to critique something I had not done myself.
This struck me, and still does now that I’ve published my own novels, as a ludicrously limited way of discussing books. It also hit a nerve as I had gone through my own phase of sanctimonious anti-criticism, inspired by an interview with the novelist Dave Eggers, a hero of mine at the time. “Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy.”
I grew up, and realised that just because I was personally incapable of being both a full-time book critic and a novelist (I’m both lazy and single-minded, and so find it difficult to disperse my limited attention) it didn’t mean everybody was. And criticism, a vital part of our cultural landscape, isn’t always the result of ignorance, or envy.
I still believe this. So why does the word “Goodreads” summon in me a creeping feeling of dread and nausea? Why does the mere act of typing it into a search bar incite reflexive physical discomfort, as if I were walking down a street on which I had experienced a bad break-up?
For those who aren’t familiar, Goodreads is a very popular cataloguing website for books. Its users can log what books they have read, and rate and review them. The site was acquired by Amazon in 2013 and has no serious competitors. In the book world, Goodreads is Facebook, Instagram and Twitter combined. As an author, your average Goodreads score out of five is one of the first things to appear if someone googles you. (Both my books have scores of 3.8 – am I fine with this? I certainly pretend to be!)
Aside from dragging writers against their will into a hugely reductive ratings process, Goodreads has also fostered a number of sinister controversies in recent years. Most Goodreads users, I suspect, are people similar to me: avid book fans who want to record their reading life and to share their passion with like-minded others. Some, though, as in every vast social media landscape, are malevolent, calculating and mean. “Review bombing” is when a group of coordinated users leave negative and one-star reviews on an author’s page to skew their average rating, sometimes because of personal animosity towards them (say, for instance, the author has said something that annoyed them on Twitter) or even in an attempt to extort the author (send us money and we will remove the hundreds of bad reviews).
Many of these reviews are written by people who have never read the book in question. This is not just unpleasant for the writer: it can have wider consequences. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, recently paused the publication of her novel The Snow Forest when it was review-bombed ahead of release by users unhappy with her decision to publish during the invasion of Ukraine a novel that was set in Soviet Russia.
I had scarcely heard of Goodreads prior to writing a novel, but when my first book was published, I was warned of it in ominous tones by every novelist I met. I first looked at my page in the winter of 2020, months before my debut novel came out. The very first proof copy had arrived at my house that day; nobody but me and the publisher had seen it. Despite this, it had received one review already: two stars, left by someone I had inconsequential personal discord with. It was completely impossible for him to have read the book.
This was an early warning that checking my Goodreads page may not be the wisest idea in the world. I told a writer friend I was afraid I didn’t have the willpower not to look at it, and she told me cheerfully, “Oh don’t worry about that – at some point it will hurt you so badly you’ll just naturally never want to look at it again.”
This has proved largely true – the only times I look at mine now are when I’m in a late-night depressive spiral, at which moments I adopt all sorts of mildly self-injurious behaviours. In those moments I sit down and read through every single review I can find with grim determination, feeling the satisfaction that comes with confirming the worst suspicions about yourself.
Of course, in the same way I don’t believe that the victims of a criminal are best placed to decide his or her judicial fate, I am aware that I – a sensitive, solipsistic writer with a wildly changeable ego – am not best placed to rule on the moral worth of user-generated book reviews. But I will say one thing, which I hope does not contradict my stance on the legitimacy of non-novelists reviewing novels: numbers are simply no way to convey anything about a book. The problem is not that swathes of readers can respond to a work, it’s that awarding a number out of five is such an extremely inadequate means of valuing a work. No matter who is doing it – novelist, amateur, critic – it can only serve to degrade literary culture.
[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation