Banned Books Week and the Goodreads Debacle

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A very happy Banned Books Week 2013 to you all! Banned Books Week was established in 1982 after a surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. For one week a year people draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events, or even simply reading a challenged or banned book. I’m going to be reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury because it’s kind of the flagship book of the whole operation.
In a painfully ironic twist of events, only days ago Goodreads announced a change in the site’s terms and conditions, which has turned out to be such a blatant demonstration of censorship, you almost have to laugh.  Almost.
To break it down: it is now against Goodreads’ terms and conditions to post a review or shelf a book in a way that does not relate to the book itself. In other words, if you post a review that is based purely on the fact that you do not like the author for whatever reason, regardless of whether or not you liked the book, your review will be deleted. Let’s take it to Goodreads:

“To clarify, we haven’t deleted any book reviews in regard to this issue. The key word here is “book”. The reviews that have been deleted – and that we don’t think have a place on Goodreads – are reviews like “the author is an a**hole and you shouldn’t read this book because of that”. In other words, they are reviews of the author’s behavior and not relevant to the book. We believe books should stand on their own merit, and it seems to us that’s the best thing for readers.
Someone used the word censorship to describe this. This is not censorship – this is setting an appropriate tone for a community site. We encourage members to review and shelve books in a way that makes sense for them, but reviews and shelves that focus primarily on author behavior do not belong on Goodreads.”

At a glance, this seems alright doesn’t it? Book reviews should be based on the book’s content, right? Unfortunately, nothing is ever that simple.

Before even announcing the changes to the terms and conditions, Goodreads already went ahead and deleted a whole bunch of content from users without even telling them. Do I even need to explain how wrong this is? Not only that, but there are may reports from users having shelves or reviews deleted for simply being ambiguous. If you have a shelf entitled “author-i-avoid”, does that necessarily mean that you are judging their work based on their personality or beliefs? No! In the vast majority of cases, people who own shelves like that are simply cataloguing types of books that they will not want to read because they did not enjoy a book they read by the same author. But what of those who do catalogue books based on an “author’s behaviour”? Why exactly is that so wrong?

We live in a world where it is so easy to illegally download content for free, and pirating films, music or books is incredibly tempting for people facing financial difficulties. People like myself chose not to pirate this content because we want to support the content creators we like. But we depend on reviewers to warn us about what we’re getting into so we can wisely chose where to spend our money. For example, this year a book called Amazingly Broken was published and was initially quite popular until it was discovered that the entire book was a work of plagiarism. Goodreads reviewers changed their positive reviews to reflect this news and warn potential buyers (and Goodreads staff) about the “author’s behaviour”. And thank God they did, because it would make me sick if I had spent money on a plagiarized book.
Yes, I make decisions based on an author’s behaviour. I don’t want to buy a plagiarized book. I don’t want to buy books from Becca Fitzpatrick because I feel that Hush, Hush endorses dangerous and abusive relationships.  I don’t want to buy Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s stance on marriage equality.  It’s my right, and I want reviewers to warn me about what I’m getting myself into when I purchase books, and I want to be able to warn others myself.

This brings me to the point of the Goodreads bullying. There have been reports of bullying on Goodreads for longer than forever. Authors and readers are both guilty of Goodreads bullying, and it can take many different forms.  It’s far too big of a problem for me to adequately summarize it, but it really is where the new Goodreads terms and conditions stem from.  Goodreads has taken action against bullying by banning users and deleting hateful posts, but now comes the change in terms and conditions.  Yes, Goodreads is saying it’s going to crack down on the bullying, but deleting content that is not bullying is counter-productive.  If I’m posting a review of a book which takes into account an author’s negative actions (which is my right to do if it is my belief), then it no longer becomes an issue of protecting the site from bad behaviour.  It is censorship.

Goodreads is not the only site that doesn’t tolerate bullying. Most sites have policies where comments of a racist, homophobic, misogynist, etc nature will be deleted. I’m totally for that; if you’re hurting someone I won’t stand for that and if you’re doing that shit on my website you will be banned for it.
But if I decide I don’t want to buy a book because the author has done something I don’t agree with, that is my right. If I want to have a shelf on Goodreads listing the authors I don’t want to buy books from, that it my right. If I want to include references to an author’s misconduct in a book review, that is my right. Because, and I say again, a book review’s purpose is to inform other readers of why or why not you liked the book so that others may chose to spend money on it. If I am going to support an author with my money, I want to know if they are doing something that I inherently disagree with. Not everyone feels the same way, but that is how I feel, and that is my right. No one is entitled to challenge that.

Now, as long as I’m not writing a flaming review stating nothing but the fact that the author is a complete and utter cunt and should be raped for producing a god-awful piece of literature, who exactly am I hurting? Who am I hurting if I say on a website that I’m not going to read an author’s works because I disagree with them calling a fellow reviewer a twat for not liking their books? Where exactly does Goodreads stand on reviews of Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler? I would really like to know. As long as I am not attacking anyone, why shouldn’t I be allowed to include whatever relevant materials I see fit to put in my review? Who is it going to offend then? Let’s see: it’s going to offend idiots who think that any negative opinion towards their favourite book merits complete and utter annihilation. It offends authors who have no idea how to take criticism (come on authors, your entire livelihood revolves around criticism. Suck. It. Up). As long as I am not attacking an author, I am not harming them.

I’ll tell you what I may be harming though: their book sales.

Here’s a quote from Otis Chandler, the founder of Goodreads.

“We’re in the media business today. We’re in the business of helping authors and publishers market their books to readers. And that’s where we make our money. We sell book launch packages to authors and publishers and really help accelerate, build that early buzz that a book needs to succeed when it launches and accelerate that growth through ads on the site.”

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Makes even more sense when you consider that Amazon recently bought Goodreads for a hefty chunk of cash. Then you’ve got this screenshot:
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Yeah.  Over 2,000 ratings.  Making an overall rating of 4.60.  For a book that hasn’t even been published yet.  In a Goodreads world where reviews can only ever be entirely about books – how is this still allowed?

Goodreads reminds me of multiple companies I have worked for.  They change the working hours, or change the job description, then make a fuss when you actually complain.  They’re a big company, they do what they like, failing to understand that when the employee agreed to work for them it was under certain terms and conditions.  If those terms and conditions are then changed, sure some people will lie back and take it in the ass, but a lot of us have principals and are not afraid to stand up for them.

Goodreads is a company, and quite a big one at that, considering they are now owned by Amazon. They are going to run their company the way they see fit, and no matter how much complaining we do, it is highly unlikely it will change their minds. But hey, we don’t have to stick around to find out…

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Banned Books Week and the Goodreads Debacle

  1. Loved this! Great post, and exactly how I feel about it!!

    Like

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  3. I think the main problem is that GR has taken an axe to the tree for the sake of a few rotten apples. Authors are part of their books, but they are not their books. Especially with fiction, the author should not be confused with the protagonist, unless the books are autobiographies.
    While I like your article, the Mein Kampf/Adolf Hitler issue does not fit with this argument. Mein Kampf not fiction, but a badly written ‘biography’ by a fascist/racist politician intended for hate mongering, so that’s not the same as Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi and his own LDS background and stance on LGBT rights. I read OSC’s fiction and he’s an excellent writer. His non-fiction books on writing are also excellent. That he has a closed mind due to his religious beliefs can be a cause not to buy his books and pump money into his bank account, but that doesn’t make his writing ‘crap’.
    Charles Bukowski was a drunk and a lousy husband, but his prose is great.
    Henry Miller is a literary innovator and an abusive philanderer, but his books changed many people’s lives.
    Authors getting outed by reviewers for plagiarizing is important.
    If you write a review like ‘Ender’s Game is a great book and well written, but the author has an outdated religious stance that discriminates against LGBT people, so he won’t get my dollars’, I don’t think GR has the right to meddle with such a review, because it’s based on fact AND it carries an opinion by the reviewer that they assert their individual right not to spend money on people they cannot respect. Other readers can read the review and join the reviewer in blacklisting the author, or they can decide that they don’t care about an author’s religious beliefs and opinions and buy the book.
    Regardless, GR should keep their fingers off the reviews. Readers are intelligent enough to make up their own minds, they don’t have to be ‘protected’ by self-appointed gate keepers.

    Thanks for the article, Tess, and keep up the good work!

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  14. Woah… that’s really crazy out there, even with the quote in the end made me want to go change the world and HATE CENSORSHIP in these days. I wonder how I may be able to start the walkthrough of banned books after I walk out the door on graduation day. It’s going to get a good start to look for freedom and in search for independence along the way in 2014-15, despite the fact that there’s one more school year left and if next year comes to the end, I would rather have an official list taken by May 2015 from ALA/ILA as purposed college reading list. Thanks for your information on banned books, writers you avoid and censorship.

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