A few weeks ago I visited a friend’s “Little Library” and picked up a few romantic-looking books. I wanted to see where they fit in the wide world of romance, as I figure out my own place. The difference between two of the books made me realize how different audiences value different books.
Book 1: Beach Read
The first book I opened was Summer at Oyster Bay by Jenny Hale (Bookouture, 2016). It was a about a young woman returning to her hometown after a breakup, figuring out where she fits in while dating the rich developer who is building/destroying her town. It had lots of description of the setting and interactions with the woman’s family. A typical sample: “Rachel turned back to the bay. Emily followed her line of sight. A speedboat rushed by, agitating the tide, sending it slamming against the shore. The sun was behind the trees now. The sand was cool on Emily’s feet as she took off her shoes and set them beside Rachel’s.” (p. 35)
This book wasn’t really for me. I didn’t relate to the main character’s journey, I didn’t connect with her struggles, and I was not drawn to her personality. I grew tired of all the description. I noticed lots of references to clothing and grooming; I’m not into fashion and such references make me dislike the characters who are noticing such things. The thing is, I don’t think this is a bad book; it’s just not for me.
Book 2: Neurotic Narrator
The second book I opened was The Big Love by Sarah Dunn (Back Bay Books, 2004). It was about a young woman trying to get by after her boyfriend leaves her. She acts out with atypical behaviors and considers how her upbringing led to her current state. A typical sample: “Well, I haven’t figured out what the point is. Another thing I haven’t been able to figure out is whether the religion of my childhood is the source of my neurotic problems or the cure for them. I have figured out a few things, of course, but for the most part, none of them seem to apply.” (p. 23)
I immediately loved this book. The narrator rambles on about her thoughts, emotions, and habits, but I totally got it. I related to her struggle to overcome a pattern in her life, and understood the bad decisions she makes along the way. I liked her snarky attitude, and felt uplifted when she finally got herself together. I could see that some people would find the book unreadable, but it was a perfect fit for me.
The Problem with Goodreads
When I went to Goodreads to review The Big Love, I already knew what I would find, because it happens so often. The book had an overall rating of three-point-something, and the top review was one-star. As I scrolled down through the reviews, they continued to be mostly bad. This used to confuse me, until I realized the order is based on how many people have liked each review. Inevitably, some “clever” one-star review gets a lot of love and ends up on top.
I’ve hesitated to rate books I don’t like because Goodreads doesn’t clarify: am I rating the quality of the book, or how much I liked it?
Many of the site’s reviewers use language that suggests they are rating the former, and also that they are the harbinger of truth about the books they rate and review. And the bad reviews make me sad because authors are people like anyone else. The buffer of the Internet might protect a caustic reviewer from feeling like a jerk, but it doesn’t make reading the biting, nasty criticism any easier on the author. I don’t want to give a low rating and contribute to the negativity.
How to Fix It
The conversation could be framed differently: “Rate this book for your tribe—is it the kind of book you and your fellow readers will enjoy?” This language would clarify that the rating simply means the book isn’t a good fit for a particular audience. That a review isn’t so much about the book as it is about the person who wrote the review. I’d happily give Summer at Oyster Bay three stars, knowing I’m rating how well the book fits me and not the book itself.
My wish is that Goodreads* would order reviews differently for each user. The top reviews I’d see would be those written by readers who have the most “book overlap” with me, based on books we have both read and rated. Seeing those reviews (by my book tribe) would be much more helpful to me than seeing the generic one-star reviews that currently rise to the top.
*Or some other platform. If you know of one, please share!