Goodreads Review Guidelines Controversy - Huh?

So, apparently, there's been a huge controversy brewing over at Goodreads, ever since they posted an update to their Terms of Service on Friday. If you're so inclined to read through nearly 3,000 comments, you can check it out here.

I have to be honest, I don't get the controversy - at least not for the most part. Yes, Goodreads should have been clearer and more public in announcing the changes, rather than burying them in a discussion group that less than 1% of its members belong to, and yes, they should have provided some advance notice to members before removing their reviews and/or shelves, but those are the only real issues I see here.

As for the changes themselves, I think they're simple, straightforward, and common sense. Basically, they ask that you review the book, not the author . . . that you remain fair and honest . . . that you keep your comments tasteful . . . and that you respect the community - authors, readers, reviewers, bloggers, and publishers. It's not that far off from my own review policy, in fact.

I don't know everything that led up to the TOS changes, but I do know there have been several discussions about bullying and abuse on the site over the past few months, with both authors and reviewers at fault. At it's simplest, you have the readers who are assigning 1 star ratings, without the benefit of a review, as an attack on an author, and others who are doing the same with 5 star ratings, in defense of the author. At the next level you have readers who are posting reviews about what a terrible/wonderful person the author is, without ever saying a word about the book itself.

Then you have the reviewers and authors who are engaging in heated arguments, descending into name calling and emotional outbursts, in the comments of 'offending' reviews. Finally, at the lowest, most despicable level, you have readers shelving books as 'deserves-to-be-raped' or 'should-be-killed' to show the world which authors they really, really, don't like.

That kind of bullshit is hard to fathom, and definitely needs to be addressed.

What I don't get is how, in a society that is so concerned with bullying, an anti-bullying measure so quickly turned into an issue of censorship? I suspect a large part of it is lingering anger over Amazon buying the site, and fear of what might be coming next, but I hate to think people would rather indulge in some retailer backlash than put a little effort into understanding why we should all get along.

It would never occur to me to post a review here or on Goodreads that is nothing more than a diatribe against the author, their religion, their politics, or their sexuality. I may very well choose not to read an author because I believe them to be a sexist, racist, homophobic, holier-than-thou jerk, but I'm not going to hijack a review just to share that opinion. Similarly, there may be books that I actually enjoy, despite knowing the author is a sexist, racist, homophobic, holier-than-thou jerk, but I'm also not going to dwell on the fact in the context of reviewing the book. I may mention it, just to preempt the "how could you read him/her" outbursts, but I'd never make it the focus of a review.

Finally, should an author or a fellow reviewer decide to attack me for not sharing their love/hate for a book . . . so be it. I'm more than happy to debate a particular take on a novel, but if I find they're getting too personal and making me uncomfortable, I can either delete their comments (if the discussion is here), or escalate the issue to the administrators (on a site like Goodreads). The one thing I'm not going to do is drag the conversation out, add fuel to the fire, and continue to give them their soapbox on which to vent. Schoolyard, back alley, office, or Goodreads - it doesn't matter the environment, bullies simply thrive on an audience.

Bullies are everywhere. It's a sad fact of life. There's nothing anybody can do to stop that, but there are things we can do to help insulate one another and lessen, if not deflect, the harassment. As much as I loathe censorship, and will forever rage against books being banned, I will also applaud every effort to force bullies into behaving.

Like I said, Goodreads could have gone about things better, at least in terms of how they communicated the changes, but the changes themselves were done for a reason, and I (for what it's worth) think they have merit. So long as they learn from the controversy and are a bit more upfront and transparent about their actions, I don't have an issue.

But that's just me, and I won't deny anybody's right to disagree - just keep it respectful. :)


  1. Thank you for a thoughtful post which I agree on most of the parts.
    As you I did not really understand the controversy.
    GOODREADS has to improve communication. I'm a member but I was not aware of the changes.

  2. I'm so totally fine with Goodreads spelling out that reviews should not be used as a platform for personal attack against a reader, against an author, or mutually against one another. The sad thing is that they had to spell it out.

  3. I'd read about the hate reviews, bullying, and those terrible shelves people were placing books on. I agree the changes are just common sense. And about being a decent human being.

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