To my regret I can’t remember exactly where and how I first learned about Goodreads.com, but over the past few years it has become my biggest Internet time-suck, by far. I may love Facebook, since I have plenty of fun, smart Facebook friends who fill my Feed with intriguing nuggets, but I swear I spend twice the time on Goodreads that I do on FB. It’s like the world’s largest library, a playground full of all the books in the world. I can’t say it’s done wonders for my productivity, but I’ve learned a great deal from it, not only about what books are out there but about how readers respond to them.
So, what do I love about Goodreads?
Lists point me toward the kinds of books I most enjoy.
Since my greatest literary affection is for second-world (epic, historical… really, anything but contemporary) fantasy in which heroines play active and significant roles — “cool heroines doing cool stuff,” I like to say in my vernacular — I browse through lists like “Best ‘Strong Female’ Fantasy Novels,” “Best Heroine in a Fantasy Book,” and “Kick-Butt Heroines” on a regular basis, to see if any new titles have turned up or whether certain titles may have moved up or down the lists. Before I click that wonderful “Want to Read” button, I take the time to read at least two pages of reviews with care, since after all, readers’ definitions of “strong female” or “best heroine” may differ; for example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, known for its bland, featureless, incompetent female lead (I won’t use the word “heroine” in reference to her), turns up consistently on lists like this even when the lists’ originators specifically request that it not be added. All the same, the lists, imperfect as they might be, give me a place to start looking, and the reviews give me an idea of whether the stories and their characters will earn my rooting interests.
I learn about the existence of books I would never find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.
I credit Goodreads for my purchase of a Kindle three years ago. In one of my browses I came across a title that peaked my interest, Scriber by Ben S. Dobson. I read the description — an introverted scholar is swept along on an adventure by a troop of diverse warrior women — together with the reviews, and I concluded that the book would very much be “my thing.” But it was only available as an e-book. In order to read it, I would need a device.
I’m happy to declare the price of my Kindle was money well spent. Scriber turned out to be as good as I thought it would be, and since then I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few books I would never have found were it not for Goodreads: Andrea K. Host’s Stained Glass Monsters, …And All the Stars, and The Pyramids of London; Vera Nazarian’s Cobweb Bride and Lords of Rainbow; Insitar Khanani’s Sunbolt; T.O. Munro’s Lady of the Helm; Patrick Weekes’ The Palace Job; and Karin Rita Gastreich’s Eolyn and High Maga, just to name a few. Right now I’m engrossed in Steven Poore’s The Heir to the North, in which the heroine distinguishes herself in a way I always love to see, as a storyteller. For this one, too, I owe Goodreads my thanks.
I learn what not to read.
“Life’s too short to read bad books,” the saying goes, but of course how do we know they’re bad if we don’t read them first? A better saying, though a bit more cumbersome, is, “Life’s too short to read books you know in advance won’t give you what you’re looking for,” since after all, we all go to fiction in search of different things. The “Not Interested” button can be as useful as the “Want to Read” button, and Goodreads reviews help me make informed decisions.
Some signs I consider dealbreakers (won’t read it, no way, no how) include: 1) when multiple reviews complain about the depiction of women in the book (e.g. “this book was great, except for the female characters”); 2) when even reviewers who loved the book can’t manage to say a single positive word about the main female character, usually the male protagonist’s love interest; 3) when multiple reviewers note the almost total absence of women from the book; 4) when the book has no female reviewers; 5) and, of course, when complaints pile up about sloppy editing, inconsistencies in characterization and world-building, and ham-fisted style.
Some signs that make me question seriously whether a book is for me, and lead me to prioritize scores of other books ahead of them, include: 1) when I notice a gender-based polarity in response to the book — as in, when all four- or five-star reviews are posted by men while women are posting one- and two-star reviews, or vice versa (the books I like best tend to appeal to a broad readership); 2) when after looking through two pages, I’ve come across not one review that mentions a female character by name. This last one, I admit, is tricky, because in fantasy, female names aren’t always so easy to recognize. Only a couple of days ago I exiled a book to my Not-Interested pile before discovering that “Scoop,” one of the main protagonists, was not the boy I’d assumed, but was instead a girl with an odd nickname.
I learn that as a writer, I need not let bad reviews crush my spirit.
We all know that some books are quite simply and inescapably bad, and any book with almost across-the-board negative reviews is best avoided, unless you’re fond of hate-reading (which I’m not). But we also know that two or more people can read the same book and come away with wildly different, even opposite impressions. I’ve seen many a merciless, scathing one-star review of a book on which I’ve bestowed a four- or even five-star blessing. These reviews can help me thicken my skin — I don’t want to be the writer who posts indignant responses to bad reviews — and help me see that as long as my work is not universally loathed, it doesn’t matter if it’s not universally loved.
The benefits I derive from Goodreads keep it a part of my life and routine, but I know I need to budget the time I spend there. I can stop reading reviews any time I want. Really.