Last Friday, Goodreads, the popular book review site, infuriated book lovers left and right by announcing that the site would now be deleting reviews that focused on a book’s author rather than the book itself, excepting works like autobiographies. As the Director for Customer Care put it in her message,
We have had a policy of removing reviews that were created primarily to talk about author behavior from the community book page. Once removed, these reviews would remain on the member’s profile. Starting today, we will now delete these entirely from the site. We will also delete shelves and lists of books on Goodreads that are focused on author behavior.
This coupled with the fact that the site then immediately took down a number of reviews in violation of this new rule without any forewarning given to the reviewers (a move that Goodreads has since apologized for) elicited cries of censorship and accusations of bowing to the demands of thin-skinned bestselling authors from angry Goodreads community members. Many took to Twitter to voice their discontent, saying things like ” It’s so ironic that a site about books is promoting censorship” and “Someone start a book review site with a similar interface to Goodreads and call it BetterReads. Please.”
Oh boy. Alright, first things first, hear me out when I say that I get Goodreads’ motivations behind doing this. Ad hominem reviews are not only obnoxious, they aren’t helpful. The whole point of a book review is to give potential readers an idea about whether or not the book is any good, and really shouldn’t have anything to do with what the reviewer’s opinion about the writer as a person is. This is especially the case with trolling reviews. Sure, reviews like one for Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf posted by user Mike that read “This author is such a d***. I’m not even going to read it!” are entertaining (I’ll admit, I laughed out loud at that one), but they aren’t actually book reviews; this one isn’t even pretending to be a real book review, seeing as the “reviewer” said he won’t even read the book. It is also important to remember that not all trolling is tongue-in-cheek like user Mike’s, and there are many cases where trolls will leave comments that can easily be interpreted as legitimate threats (that said, I personally haven’t seen any of these show up on Goodreads, just on Twitter). Considering that Goodreads is trying to be a safe and reliable book review community where users can help guide their fellow readers towards good books and steer them away from bad ones, it makes sense to want to cut back on the trolls and steer them towards places like 4chan and Twitter.
Now, that said, banning ad hominem reviews, even the trolling ones, is the first down a *very* slippery slope for Goodreads. Obvious censorship and free speech issues aside (if they tell people they aren’t allowed to talk about one thing, what’s to stop them from banning other content from the site?), Goodreads seems to be forgetting one important thing: The writer plays an integral role in books, namely because the writer *wrote the book.* An author’s personal beliefs and experiences inevitably filter into his or her work and affect the the plot, the characters, even word choice. It’s outright foolish to think that you can read a text without taking into account who the author was/is, because failing to do so keeps you from seeing the bigger picture. Knowing that Stephenie Meyer is Mormon, for example, is important when looking at the Twilight books because it is clear that in some cases it played at least a minor role in certain character and plot choices she included in the series, like having Edward be adamant about not having premarital sex with Bella.
Knowing about an author’s real life and personal story also sometimes lends credibility for that author’s work. Say, for instance, you have two books about manic depressive protagonists and their life experiences. One is written by a 30-something yoga instructor who once had a bipolar student show up for one class, and the other is written by a psychiatrist who has specialized in working with and treating bipolar patients over the last 20+ years. Does this information matter? It might; if you’re trying to find the book that gives the most accurate portrayal of what life is like for people with bipolar disorder, it might matter a whole lot.
This is not to say that the yoga instructor’s book isn’t necessarily a compelling story, or that he knows absolutely nothing about bipolar disorder; if he’s a halfway decent writer, he did his research and knows more than you or I about what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder. Plus, if you aren’t looking for a clinically accurate book and just want a good story, you’d want to go with the writer whose style jives the best with your personal taste rather than what his day job is. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is information that readers might want to know every once in a while. Telling reviewers that they can’t provide this information to potential readers isn’t just irresponsible, it undermines the whole point of sites like Goodreads, which is to provide good, quality reviews to potential readers.
So, I’m not trying to tell you what to do Goodreads, but maybe you should reconsider this little policy change of yours. It might not be as good an idea as you thought it was, if for no other reason other than the fact that at least some of your users are starting to switch over to competitors’ sites like BookLikes.