There’s this old joke from the Simpsons where Bart sees the movie based on the Burroughs novel Naked Lunch, and then quips, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” The beautiful part of Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster is most certainly wrong, but I think the disaster part is also a misnomer. Disaster implies a sudden destruction, something out of the hands of the affected, but this novel is a long, Mordorian slog through the absolute worst character traits that bloom into their inevitably dreary conclusion. Beautiful Disaster is like slowly adding chlorine bleach to ammonia, and the toxic fog that results is both unsurprising and cheerlessly boring. That I’ve struggled for nigh on three months to come up with a review is probably more due to my burnt throat than anything. What do I even say about a novel this fucking dumb?
Which, now that this act of spleen is out of the way, onto the novel. I don’t really have much to say about the plot, being, as it is, the pointless, motivationless histrionics of characters without sense or coherence. Much of the romantic drivel published about young white women and their non-problems follows this sort of plotting: two acts of interpersonal hand-wringing followed by a more pulp-sensible third act. (Think Twilight, where not much happens for most of the book, then a badly blocked action sequence to remind you that there are “real world” stakes intrudes.) Abby Abernathy’s dorm showers break, so the most reasonable solution is to shack up with her friend America’s boyfriend and his psycho roommate, Travis. Due to reasons, she ends up having to share a bed (you know, like, platonically, not that any of these assholes have a clue who Plato was) with Travis for a month. An artless and witless courtship ensues, complete with an unconvincing love triangle and a lot of drunken screaming.
Though I really could go on about this – and I could, believe you me – dogging the complete incoherence of the characters is probably not terribly fruitful. Like so many of these pulp romance slash New Adult characters, Abby and Travis inhabit a magical land where athletes who smoke and never train are just the very best at boxing; where shy good girl virgins can drink, card shark and fuck like a pro; where openly cruel & violent psychotics can command the admiration of everyone; where there are no legal ramifications to getting people killed and precious few emotional ones, short of “phew, glad it wasn’t anyone I know.” So many of these bottom barrel romances (or whatever this is) are peopled with incoherent sociopaths, the selfish and solipsistic edge of romantic love acted out by reader (and writer) proxies who can be all things and therefore nothing. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Not once. Not even if you should.
Like Ana from 50 Shades, Abby can be everything to the reader – virgin/whore, shy/brazen, competent/confused – without having to own any of it. Travis, like Christian Grey, exists solely to facilitate the heroine’s feels and/or vagina, driving her to actions that she wants/doesn’t want. Travis enacts the most vicious misogyny I’ve seen in a while from a character I’m supposed to like, which is then redeemed by magical ladyparts aka love. On some level, I get it: women spend a lot of godamn time dealing with threats of violence or actual violence. Just put up a female avatar and make two lightly feminist comments on Reddit and watch the rape threats roll in. A narrative that vaccinates one walking date rape through love has an appeal, I guess. (The bff of Abby, America, who spends a lot of godamn time girl-hating and slut-shaming is more confusing. Maybe it’s just self-loathing? Who even knows.)
So, here’s the thing. I’ve said this before, so I’m paraphrasing myself here, but whether I like this sort of girl pulp has a lot to do with whether I like the main character. The characters are always incoherent and the worlds badly build; that’s just table stakes. Sookie Stackhouse reads to me like a 60 something lady who hasn’t been laid in so long she’s forgotten how the mechanics actually work, in addition to having terrible fashion sense. I find her fakey cluelessness frustrating, but I don’t dislike her. Bella Swann reads to me like a housewife desperately trying to reconnect with a libido twisted by religious dogma – Edward as both saint and stranger. I want to trip Bella, but I also empathize. Ana from 50 Shades is more of the same, but worse; it’s wedgie time for you, Ana. Harry Dresden – though that series isn’t girl pulp, technically – reads like a black-duster-wearing nerd who didn’t get much in high school because he was a jerk, and is making up for it now. (Making it up for now by getting some, not by not being a jerk, to be clear.) The women in the Black Dagger Brotherhood recede before the men, who enact a lot of hyper alpha stuff, but almost as a drag show, which I find stupid, charming and hilarious. I could easily go on.
Anyway, point being, the person Abby most reminds me of is the unhinged sorority president whose letter to her sisters was brilliantly performed by Michael Shannon for Funny or Die. (I’ll let you go take a look: Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter [NSFW]. The difference is that Abby doesn’t have nearly Rebecca Martinson’s flair for profanity, profanity I grudgingly respect, even if I think it’s seriously lame she got a writing gig on Vice [NSFW] out of the deal; ugh, and of course.) Mean-spirited, cruel, condescending, vulgar, and I want to underline this again, vulgar. Abby, like the sorority prez, spends a lot of time talking about drinking and shoring up her prowess in this incredibly juvenile way. Abby at one point takes 19 shots – 19 fucking shots! – and isn’t rushed to the hospital dead because she’s so good at holding her liquor. She trashes other girls for their awkwardness and their stupidity while solidly doing the very same things she castigates. Her priorities are completely fucked, her ambitions skewed, and her empathy nonexistent.
People like Abby make my late model third wave feminist self want to punch a baby. Not everything a girl does has to be a feminist act, and maybe it’s a good sign that girls can treat their relatively insulated lives so cavalierly. Maybe that’s one of those horrible signs of progress that people like Abby can roll around acting like they’ll never get hurt, that psycho date rapists like Travis can see fit to slut-shame a girl for wearing a shirt. These are characters who have never once had to hold a hand, or have gotten that call, or watched when someone’s eyes shift when they decide to tell you. They have zero fucking clue. What kills me is characters like Abby and her bff America running their condescension on the girls who don’t get out safe, who get taken in by abusers – and make no mistake, Travis is an abuser – because they thought they were safe but weren’t. After Travis doorsteps a girl after banging her, and the girl is unhappy about her treatment.
“Every time!” America said. She looked at the woman. “How are you surprised by this? He’s Travis Fucking Maddox! He is famous for this very thing, and every time they’re surprised!”
Uh, okay? First off, I believe in casual sex, insofar as if it’s your bag, go for it. I don’t think you should have to enter into a long term relationship with someone after you have sex with them, and I think a lot of shitty relationships could be avoided if more people could have the sex they need without having to justify it with love or even commitment. Travis is a huge dick about giving this girl the brush off, but fine, probably better for her overall. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not clutching my pearls over the thought of casual sex at all.
What I question about this scene is the fact that Travis is swimming in pussy, even though he had a well established rep, even though all these women have to couch-fuck him because he won’t let them in his bedroom. (Red flag, ladies: that’s where he keeps the heads.) What I question is that “every single time” all of these women who are willing to couch-fuck a guy in his not-too-clean sounding apartment are so enamored of him that they lose their damn minds? And need to be scolded by America? I’m completely willing to believe that there are women who would have sex with Travis; that’s not my issue. (“He was hot and I haven’t tried scabies yet.”) My issue is that McGuire is asking us to believe this Cro-Magnon is universally treated like some kind of catch, when, uh, no. That the couch-fuck was so good that every woman who gets one is gagging for round two. I guarantee you this: Travis couldn’t find a clit with both hands and a flashlight, and for sure he never tried. He cannot be that good in bed, ever. But I guess this is the romantic ideal? I don’t know.
The person I don’t even get is America. She alternately pushes Abby on Travis, and then drags her back off, loudly breaking up with Shep and getting back together, shrieking in clubs, judging, and generally acting like the worst bff ever. She’s the constant counterpoint of Travis’s awful misogyny, and the two of them have a game of one upmanship throughout the book of who can say the most terrible thing next. This is one of those left field thoughts, but bear with me. So you know the Book of Job, right? From the bible? So the commonest reading of the section where Job’s friends show up to tell him to curse god and die and all that is that the friends are psychological aspects of Job himself, the oldest recorded example of the devil and angel on your shoulder. I keep seeing this kind of divided psychology in these shitty romances: Ana with her “Inner Goddess” and “subconscious”, Jacob stepping in to voice Bella’s fears in Breaking Dawn because she can’t. Much as I’m dogging on Abby for being horrible, mostly she’s just milquetoast, not evidencing any kind of real emotional reaction to anything around her. It’s all this flat affect and observation, and the real emotional reaction gets off-loaded onto America so we can identify more readily with this car wreck. No.
Anyway, blah, I hate these people. Because I’m tired of trying to make coherent observations, I’m just going to note a couple things about this book that suck, in no particular order. I groaned aloud and put my head on the table when Travis bought Abby a fucking puppy, whose existence then blinks on and off throughout the book as McGuire remembers him. The trip Abby takes to meet Travis’s nightmare of a family turned me into my great-aunt Edith for about 50 pages, completely mortified by their boorish squalor. I wanted to cover all the chairs in that crinkly plastic, douse everything in bleach, and then take off and nuke it from orbit. As disgusting as Travis’s bachelor pad sounded, the mothership was a million times worse. The staph infection doesn’t fall far from the tree. I wanted to punch myself into unconsciousness when the singalong happened in the cafeteria. Who the fuck are these people, vomit Glee? And Pigeon is the worst name bestowed on anyone ever.
Oh, but I guess that reminds me. I see justifications for shit like Beautiful Disaster that runs something like: you don’t have to like the characters for a book to be powerful or well done. And in the abstract, sure. Psychologically astute portraiture of monsters can be devastating to read, especially when they lure you into identifying with the monster. But that’s not what’s going on here; this isn’t an adroit manipulation of readerly expectations. All of the major characters are psychologically impossible, and most of the plot is patently ridiculous. Nothing that could possibly happen that way enacted by people who can’t exist? That’s not a cool dramatic monologue that causes the reader to reexamine what she thinks about human nature; that’s a shitshow. I don’t come to end feeling like I’ve learned anything about damaged people, and I sure as shit don’t buy that happily ever after. Gross.
Oh, and also? That piece of shit Travis Maddox should not be attributed with lines from Song of Solomon like I see all over the damn place, idiots. (I did find the blog Bad Hebrew Tattoos though, which is my new favorite thing, so it wasn’t all bad. ) “I belong to my beloved and my beloved is mine” was written by King Solomon. And as far as tattooing that particular line on your skin, like douches Travis Maddox and David Beckham have done, the line correctly translated from the Hebrew reads, “I am my beloved’s and he is mine. He browses among the lilies.” You can make that gender neutral in English easily enough, but the Hebrew unmistakably refers to a male lover. So unless Trav is a gay Jew – which would make this book considerably more interesting – this line has no business being on his body. Moron.
My daughter and I ditched over to the Walgreens on Lake St in Minneapolis to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend. I’ve always liked that drug store, despite it being down heel and over-stuffed. Even though my neighborhood is very mixed – residential and commercial, foreign and domestic born, poor and maybe not rich, but certainly middle class, different races – the clientele for businesses tend to sort by class or ethnicity. White girl that I am, I don’t frequent the botanica two blocks down; that store is not for me. I also don’t go into the punker store (too old), nor the saddle shop (too not a cowboy), nor the various halal groceries (too…atheist?) Even within our mixed neighborhood, we sort.
But the Walgreens on Lake cuts this really cool cross-section. Some of this is, admittedly, the fact that it’s a drug store, and the need for microwave popcorn and some $2 novelty socks at 11pm cuts across all socioeconomic and racial divides. But still, even then, when you compare that Walgreens with the CVS just blocks up, which has roughly the same kind of 2-for-1, as-seen-on-TV kind of endcaps, the Lake St Walgreens has a decidedly more broad clientele. And really garrulous employees. I was in there getting a prescription filled for my husband a couple of weeks ago, and the pharmacist browbeat me into getting a flu shot, at which point a young woman in a hijab stuck me efficiently, and then gave me a sticker.
So I was just jaw-dropped when I saw the following spinning display rack right smack in the middle of the make-up section.
The idea of Hunger Games district-themed make-up was bad enough, but to be confronted with it in one of the few places I can think of in my city that don’t exemplify the (admittedly simplistic) divisions of Collins’s dystopia, well, that was another thing entirely. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, because when I posted this image on facebook, those who hadn’t read the books didn’t get how egregious this ad campaign is.
So, a little back story on the country of Panem, where Collins’s story unfolds. Panem is a post-America America, occupying the same landmass, but there are hints this a post-peak-oil and/or other post-apocalyptic environment, but centuries past whatever crisis changed the US into Panem. The political/economic system has been reordered into twelve districts controlled by an unnumbered district known as The Capitol. Each district is defined by a primary industry: coal-mining, agriculture, small electronics, heavy industry, etc. Due to a rebellion by the districts 75 years earlier, each of these districts offer up two teenagers to the Capitol as tribute every year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Out of 24 tributes, only one will survive. The whole event is televised.
Now, I’m the first to admit this political/economic system is ridiculous, and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to rip it apart as unrealistic in concrete terms. But when you’re dealing with dystopia, and to a lesser extent young adult literature, strict realism isn’t the point, nor should it be. I was bowled over by Collins’s country of Panem because she captured a certain emotional reality that we live every day. My neighborhood is a Capitol sorted by districts. It is a microcosm of Panem, a country which makes manifest our American economic disconnects into the rigid structures of barbed wire and geography. Collins turns the economic, political, racial divides into someplace clarified and concrete, and then she has our children fight to death within it. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but it’s also happening every godamn day of the week.
But what does this have to do with make-up? Lemmee tell you. The plot of Hunger Games deals with Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District 12, the poorest and least populated district in Panem, and her experience as one of the tributes in the Hunger Games. The main industry of District 12 is coal mining. Mum and I took a tour of the coal mines in the coal districts of Wales, and what I took from the experience was that mining is the most out-of-sight-out-of-mind of the heavy industries. Men disappear underground to bring up fuel for the capitalist fire, and when they die in cave-ins and of suffocation or eaten by machinery, their bodies are often not recovered. Like fishing towns, the graves are predominantly for women, because the men just disappear into a pit. The labor movements roil underground in thousands of unmarked tombs. (At this point I highly recommend doing a google for “pit ponies poetry” and just freaking out at the poems you’ll find. They were brought down to work until they died. I won’t put a fine point on the definition of “they.”)
One of the things I love so fiercely about Hunger Games is how it has this nuanced engagement with things generally seen as girly frivolity, things like fashion. Katniss is brought from her district to the Capitol, and denuded and perfected according to the beauty standards of the capital city. The sequence of her bodily perfection reads like an assault, almost a sexual one, her body flensed and bitten, her poverty stripped and removed. The Capitol takes away the marks of poverty in order to kill her with spectacle. She wakes up to the the gentle tutelage of Cinna, who will be her fashion consultant through the Hunger Games. He knows what she’s gone through, and he has a game plan. While Katniss, rube teen, wants to reject all the trappings of her assault and the cruel spectacle of the Hunger Games, he sees the subversive utility of playing the game to other ends. He reads it all against the grain.
As a completely unacculturated teen, Katniss can only see her engagement with the Capitol in all-or-nothing ways. She will wear black and combat boots and scowl. She will act the part of her resistance because she cannot look the part of her resistance. But the character of Cinna shows the beauty of subversion, the ways you can twist things designed to oppress you to uplift you. It’s not as simple as “looking pretty makes you stupid”, but something weirder like “looking like you have authority means you have authority” or maybe “take seriously the deliberately unserious” or maybe “not everything is as it seems.” To misquote Elizabeth Bishop: sometimes we are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Panem is an imaginary garden with real toads.
After the first movie came out, I was confronted by a Katniss Barbie doll in the toy aisle, and I really had to consider whether I thought this was a nightmare or not. After a ton of searching my late-model feminist soul, I eventually decided Katniss Barbie was okay. It’s kind of perfect, in a way, because the Hunger Games series can be consumed as just addictive pop fiction, this present tense hurtle to finish all about love triangles and teen tragedy and the like. It’s a Barbie, totally all about consumption, which you watch, glued to set just as surely as any Capitol citizen.
I’ve seen a lot of teen reviews of the series that seem to have zero idea that there’s a deeper message to the Hunger Games series, training their attention on love triangles and pretty dresses. But one day those kids might wake up, bolted out of sleep that, wait, omigod, I’m living in the godamn Capitol. That’s the power of the series. That’s the power of the Katniss Barbie: something you play with until you realize that play is action. It’s practice, and it’s a subversion.
But, boy howdy, is the Covergirl Hunger Games campaign completely message-deaf. Dressing up as a coal miner, with “flamed out” eyeliner and mascara, with nails black and blue like bruises or coal is the kind of horrible poverty porn that every single person in Panem who doesn’t live in the Capitol hates about the Capitol, and with good reason. Don’t play dress up with the inescapable economic hardships of other people, people who on some level live and die so you can swan around in the comfort you so richly deserve. Accessorize with black lung, and malnutrition, and infant mortality, and short lives that don’t matter to anyone but those who lived them. Accessorize with injustice.
This isn’t even getting into the model marked “livestock” from District 10, with a feather headdress and a fur collar, animistic eye make-up fanning out over her stark blue eyes. It’s almost too easy to rip this easy equation of female bodies with cattle for the slaughter, the invocation of bestiality, the dehumanizing furriness. Or the dreary Orientalism of the model for District 3, all made up like some cyberpunk fantasy, denuded of hair, even her eyebrows replaced with sharp triangles. When I think cheap electronics, I think Asian woman, amiright?
Or the District 1 “luxury” model whose look invokes Marie Antoinette. Which, okay, maybe that’s hilarious. Maybe that’s the only look here that isn’t repulsive, that gets on some level the symbolic structure of the districts to the Capitol. I don’t even know what to say about the model for District 4: Fishing, which dresses up a black woman as a fish. Or the District 2: Masonry look which puts Kabuki slash Mod make-up on a white woman. I just…my feminist background has no ways of dealing with this mess.
I’m kind of getting rage fatigue thinking about these looks, and the fact that probably dozens of people, maybe hundreds, were involved in their creation; that thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into this campaign, and not one person said, “You guys, we should be ashamed of ourselves.” These aren’t, presumably, teens who have an excuse when they miss the point completely, but grown ass adults. I’m not even trashing the models or peons – we all have to work, and eat – I’m trashing all the damn people with the power to greenlight such a complete disaster. Who have no sense of irony. Who can’t even read.
I’m not even saying I’m not a Capitol dweller myself. I am. I’m not even saying that shame is enough of a political act to counter the wrong in the world. It isn’t. The wrongs in the world are staggeringly large and crushingly intractable. But compounding them by playing poverty dress-up is disgusting, and worse than that, it’s the wrong kind of subversion.
Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me.
Update: After posting this, I received another list from a user who was in the initial 21. There are 11 titles on this list. Five of them are by authors already in this data. I haven’t had time to rejigger this analysis, but her list doesn’t materially affect the results. I have updated the database with her information.
On September 20th, Goodreads Customer Care Director Kara posted in the Goodreads Feedback group a new change in their policy. She reiterates their policy of not allowing threats or harassment and mentions some changes to the Goodreads Author dashboards. The item that gets everyone up in arms is this one:
**[Goodreads will] Delete content focused on author behavior. 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. If you have questions about why a review was removed, send an email to email@example.com. (And to answer the obvious question: of course, it’s appropriate to talk about an author within the context of a review as it relates to the book. If it’s an autobiography, then clearly you might end up talking about their lives. And often it’s relevant to understand an author’s background and how it influenced the story or the setting.)
Immediately responses start flooding in, decrying this shift and asking for clarification as to what constitutes “author behavior”. Kara clarifies in an edit:
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.
Several Goodreaders note that they received emails from Goodreads with lists of book reviews and shelf names that had been summarily deleted by Goodreads. A screencap of one such email can be found here, and there is a transcription available here. In another edit to the initial post, Kara adds:
Thank you for all the comments so far. One concern that has come up in this thread is that the content was deleted without those members first being told that our moderation policy had been revised.
In retrospect, we absolutely should have given users notice that our policies were changing before taking action on the items that were flagged. To the 21 members who were impacted: we’d like to sincerely apologize for jumping the gun on this. It was a mistake on our part, and it should not have happened.
When several users question what the deleted shelves “taa” and “icy-hex” even mean, and how that might have anything to do with author behavior, Kara responds:
We don’t comment publicly on individual cases, but in general, what we do is look at a shelf and see how it is used in context. In any case where we have decided to remove that shelf, we are confident that the shelf was being used in a way to review author behavior.
Previously, Goodreads had just hidden reviews that focused on author behavior. A hidden review is accessible to friends, but is not listed on the main book page. Goodreads did not just delete all hidden reviews, instead they divined the intent behind the shelf names and reviews of 21 people, and then deleted their reviews. Goodreads can’t publicly comment on the reviews they deleted, as I can see how that could be untoward, but the people affected can talk about the content of their reviews. These 21 people also received emails detailing the deletions, so we can know exactly what books are being flagged. I wanted to get those lists and collate the data: is there a pattern to the deletions? Are the same books and authors coming up again and again? And if I could find the 21 people who had their reviews and shelves deleted, I could ask them exactly what the content of their reviews was, and how exactly they were using their shelves.
So now I had to go about finding the 21 people who had their reviews deleted before Goodreads began sending take-down notices before deletion. 21 users isn’t a lot of people, especially on a site of 20 million. (Although throwing around the 20 million users number is a little disingenuous, because the reality is that most of the activity on any given social medium is going to be concentrated into a much smaller number of people.) I already had two of the affected users in my friends list, and due to posts in the feedback thread and old-fashioned grape-vining, I was able to identify 6 more. At this point, I put out a status update on Goodreads, which read:
In the interests of science, I am trying to collect the lists of books deleted by Goodreads in the recent “policy change”. So far, I’ve tracked down 8 of the 21. Can you please alert me to: 1) who got emails from Goodreads? 2) a list of their books deleted and 3) shelf names.
It didn’t take me too long to realize I needed to get this update out to other social media platforms, as at least one of the people who had reviews deleted had deleted his Goodreads account, and others were staying out of Goodreads until they could download their information and then delete their accounts. I posted on Tumblr, Twitter, and Booklikes. Through a flurry of activity across several media platforms and including email, I managed to find 4 more users.
I was forwarded lists from these 12 people. 377 reviews were deleted in total, with the number of reviews deleted per user ranging from 1 to 129. All of their emails from Goodreads have the same wording, and the time stamps are within a short period. This would become important, a there were a second round of emails sent out to users, this time with a warning. I have excluded those lists from the data, as so far all of them have specified shelf titles only, not specific book reviews. (I have heard of one user who got a take-down notice listing specific reviews, but I have yet to hear back from her.) So, now I had lists of titles from 12 people, which seems a reasonable sample of the 21 users Kara mentions. It’s also entirely possible Kara is not completely accurate about the number of people targeted with deletion. For one, she keeps saying they can’t access deleted data, and for another, 12 is a transposition of 21. Given how small, in some ways, the very active Goodreader population is, I’m suspicious that this 12 is all the users who were subject to review deletion.
Unfortunately, these lists were only of book titles, and did not include the author who wrote the book. In order for this database to be meaningful in any way, I was going to have to correlate books with authors. For example, let’s say that three different titles by the same author have reviews deleted off of three different users’ shelves. Without knowing the author, it doesn’t come out in the data that reviews of his or her book are being flagged in multiple places. Some of the titles are unique, so that eliminates guesswork. Some aren’t, but I could make informed guesses by observing which were Goodreads authors who had books published in the last couple of years, or had reviews still standing that talked about the author. I assigned as many authors as I could, and then submitted the lists back to the users for correction.
In cases of a multi-author book or an anthology, I listed the author indicated by the user as the reason the book was shelved as “do-not-read”. In cases where a writer works under several pen names, I listed their real name. (Or maybe more clearly, I listed the name that the writer uses publicly, even if it is a pseudonym too. My aim was to have all books written by the same person show up together, not determine what name is on the driver’s licence. That’s never important information.)
So this is my first large disclaimer: The list of titles comes directly from the Goodreads emails, but the list of authors assigned to those books is constructed data. In some cases, the user simply couldn’t recall which of the dozens of books entitled Inhale or Truth she had decided not to read. And the first disclaimer brings me to my second disclaimer: this list of authors should not be taken as hit list. Despite Goodreads’s surety that they were only deleting reviews based on author behavior, this was not the case for many of the titles listed. Before I get into specifics, though, I should probably talk about what these reviews looked like.
There are a lot of things we can’t know for a fact, because obviously the reviews are gone, but I asked all the users if the reviews in question had ratings, or if the review field had any content. Almost all of the reviews in question had no ratings. All of these users adhere to a personal policy of not rating books they haven’t read, with the exception being books that they have read parts of. The only books that had ratings had been at least partially read. Here I would like to note that Goodreads does not have a policy against rating books that you have not read, as that would be both unenforceable and impossible to prove.
I have seen users bemoan that these reviews are somehow skewing the ratings for books, but I would like to point out two things. First, we are dealing with a few hundred reviews against the tens (and possibly hundreds) of millions of reviews on Goodreads. There is no way their removal is going to have a statistical effect. Second, there are thousands of users doing things like “rating on excitement” for unreleased books. Take something like Black Ice, Becca Fitzpatrick’s book which has a publication date more than a year from now. As far as I’m aware, there are no advanced reader copies, and likely the only people who have read this are Fitzpatrick’s friends and family, if even a completed manuscript exists. Black Ice has an average rating of 4.23, which is completely unheard of. 67 users have given it a 5-star rating , versus four who have given it a one. If you want to talk about skewed ratings – and I would like to note right now that ALL ratings are subjective by their very nature and therefore meaningless as some kind of objective metric – then you should start with the overwhelmingly positive ones.
Interesting thread! I agree that it’s a shame some books have to suffer ratings that clearly are invalid. However I can’t think of a way to prevent it, and I didn’t see any ideas in the thread either (I did skim though). I hope you’ll appreciate that if we just start deleting ratings whenever we feel like it, that we’ve gone down a censorship road that doesn’t take us to a good place.
As for manuscripts or yet-to-be-published books, I have no problem with them being in the database. It’s kind of cool to have a record of in-progress books, and I don’t think it hurts anything. I do think we’d need to remove any that weren’t serious in their intent to be a finished book one day.
When there was content, the review content was generally terse, from quick dismissals to “not for me” to “see comments” to a link or screencap to whatever the controversy was surrounding the book. Many of these controversies, indeed, had to do with the broadly defined issue of author behavior. These controversies range from books being pulled from publication for plagiarism, racist or homophobic statements made by the author, the author’s conviction on the charges of owning child pornography, downvoting campaigns instigated by authors or agents , the doxing of reviewers by authors, down to just a bunch of dumb stuff authors occasionally say out loud. I have already written at length about how these “author behaviors” are not equal, but just to reiterate: noting a book has been pulled for plagiarism, for example, is about the book’s unoriginal content, not about the author’s behavior as a word thief. Noting a children’s book author is convicted of child pornography is the kind of author behavior that has a direct import on the content. Many, many people are currently boycotting Orson Scott Card for his political views, and deciding not to read the books by authors because of their beliefs is a political act Goodreads has no business getting in the middle of. The rest I’m going to shelve for the moment, and get onto the next point.
Additionally, some of the books were shelved “do-not-read” not because of the actions of the author, but because the book looked bad to the user. These are a vanishingly small number though. The other large minority of reviews deleted were shelved because the book was pulled-to-publish fan fiction e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey. A pulled-to-publish fan fiction is one where a freely available fan fiction is pulled, the content lightly edited – often a search & replace with the names “Bella” and “Edward” substituted for other names, not to be too snarky here – and then the book put up for sale. P2p books, as these are referred to, are a controversial topic, but I can’t really call the path to publication and the source of the plot lines “author behavior”, except in a way that nullifies most of literary criticism. (Also of note: no reviews of Fifty Shades were deleted, though I’m sure I could find you many that note its p2p status and not much else.) Whether you regard p2p novels as ethical or not, the information that a book is p2p is not about the author at all.
As far as the content of the review, most indicated that they had nothing in the review field for most of their reviews. Often the comments about the author behavior were occurring solely in the comment threads, as there was literally nothing – not a rating, nothing in the review field – about author behavior at all. From personal correspondence with rameau:
I kept the specifics in the comment field from the moment GR first announced they weren't allowing any non-book related information about authorial behavour in reviews.
Or from Miranda, whose reviews constitute 129 of the reviews deleted, a sizable minority:
“None of those books had an actual text review or a rating. Only shelved by me, but all had screenshots or links in the comments.”
If there was no content – no rating, no statement to the effect of “The author is such a dick. I’m not even going to read it!” – then what Goodreads has done here is delete forums on which Goodreaders have discussed their personal boycotts of selected authors, discussions which are going on all over the site right at this moment , and have likely increased exponentially since the vaguely worded new policy about author behavior. Though Goodreads is claiming this is about review content – such as the hypothetical review example from Kara “this book is by an a**hole and you shouldn’t read the book because of that” – many of these reviews literally had no content, and Goodreads has taken action against review threads. I am appalled by this, and you should be too. More than anything else about this debacle, this is the thing I would like you to come away with: Goodreads has deemed the comment threads of a user’s review space actionable to the point of deleting the entire comment thread.
But let’s move away from the self-reported data into the actual data. A searchable database can be found here, and there are screencaps I’ll get up at some point to ensure that if there’s some kind of vandalizing of the data, a record of it in its original form is extant. (I don’t even mean to sound paranoid, but after the copious googling it took to compile these authors – not all, not even most, but a virulent few – I am actually feeling worried that someone might try to vandalize the data.)
So, some very basic numbers:
Number of delete lists: 12 How many reviews deleted, in total: 377 Average number of books deleted, per user: 31.4
The number of reviews deleted, by user:
As yu can see, the number of reviews deleted by user varies wildly. Three users, Carla, JennyJen, and Miranda, had 277 reviews deleted between them, which constitutes almost three quarters of the number of deleted reviews. This looks incredibly personal.
Here is a graphic of the number of reviews deleted by user:
(And a quick note on user names: several of these users asked that I keep their Goodreads screen name out of this. I have assigned pseudonyms to three of them, and shortened one screen name in the interests of brevity.)
A Statistical Sampling of Authors
Overall, the 377 reviews on this list were written by 174 authors, which gives us an average of about 2 books for each author deleted. The actual deleted number range from 1 to 14. It’s fairly easy to sort through the lists and find the author who has the most books deleted, but this isn’t statistically important information. Usually that is an indicator that the author has written a lot of books, and/or the author was shelved heavily by one user only. The more important data is this: what authors’ books are showing up on multiple delete lists.
Again, I want to reiterate: this list of authors is not a hit list. It is simply the authors whose books turned up on multiple delete lists, for whatever reason. In doing my research, I had to unearth the controversies that surrounded each of these writers, and I felt some of the situations were silly or overblown, while plenty of them had merit. In other words, I used my own judgement about the information. To quote rameau again:
BBA [badly behaving author] note doesn't stop me from reading a book (see Jamie McGuire and Orson Scott Card), it's supposed to stop me from spending money without serious consideration.
The following list notes the name first, and then the number of users’ delete lists their books were on:
Cassandra Duffy, 5
Melissa Douthit, 5
Jaq D. Hawkins, 4
Kiera Cass, 4
L.B. Schulman, 4
Layce Gardner, 4
Rebecca Hamilton, 4
Carroll Bryant, 3
Donna White Glaser, 3
Emily Giffin, 3
Heather M. White , 3
Jordin Williams, 3
Lauren Pippa, 3
Marla Madison, 3
Ruthi Kight, 3
Shannon Mayer, 3
Amy Plum, 2
Ava Michaels, 2
Betty Jay, 2
Hugh Howey, 2
Jessica Park, 2
John Simpson, 2
Judyann McCole, 2
Julie Halpern, 2
K.P. Bath, 2
Kendall Grey, 2
Kenya Wright, 2
L. Kirstein, 2
Leigh Fallon, 2
M.R. Mathias, 2
Rick Carufel, 2
Robin Wyatt Dunn, 2
Sharon Desruisseaux, 2
Steph Campbell, 2
Sue Dent, 2
Trisha Telep, 2
William Terry Rutherford, 2
These 37 authors out of the 174 total are important because they showed up on multiple delete lists. Rather than go through all of the authors and try to find the controversy behind their do-not-read status, I have used this group as a statistically important sampling. Of the 377 reviews deleted, 240 were for reviews of books by this 37 authors. 64% of the reviews deleted are covered by this list of 37 authors. All of the graphs going forward deal with these authors only. If anyone wants to do a more complete sample, the database is freely available.
First off, here is a graphic of how many authors on multiple delete lists were indie, with small presses, or with Big Six publishing houses. Sometimes the exact affiliations are hard to parse, and decisions had to be made about whether Big Six distribution was the same as Big Six publishing, etc. You are welcome to parse this chart yourself. Either way, the chart shows the general trends. We’re dealing with largely self-published books here.
Although the reviewer/authors conflicts have been sometimes been characterized as occurring in the Young Adult readership more than others, when you look up the genre of the books affected, that doesn’t turn out to be true. It is a large minority, but plenty of other genres are represented. This is not a boutique issue. Some books are in multiple categories or genres, which is why these categories add up to more that 37.
Next up we have the nature of the controversy that landed the author in question on multiple users’ do-not-read lists. Admittedly, this involves some guesswork, but generally the controversies were easily googleable, and I relied on the reportage of the people involved. I’ve broken the kind of controversy into categories, based on my own sense of how they are different. The categories are:
Political: racist, sexist, & homophobic statements made by author, in addition to one instance of the author being convicted of owning child porn.
Marketing: use of sockpuppets for rating inflation, spamming bloggers, spamming in general.
Reviewer conflicts: personal attacks against readers/reviewers, downvoting campaigns instigated by either authors or proxies, impolitic statements.
p2p fiction or plagiarism: either the author has written pulled-to-publish fan fiction, or there are allegations of plagiarism either in the book, or in sockpuppeted reviews of the book.
(Several authors showed up in multiple categories, just as a clarification.)
The elephant in the room here is affiliation with the website Stop the Goodreads Bullies. I urge you strongly not to give these people traffic, as they are doxers, cherrypickers, and generally people you don’t want to get involved with. The only good thing I can see coming out of this mess is showing the average Goodreader just how unhinged these people are. They lie, they insinuate, and they post out-of-context screencaps of conversations occurring on Goodreads (some on my own thread, and you can read the entire context here yourself. I apologize in advance for how much cussing I do, in general.)
A sizable minority of the reviews deleted were authored by STGRB affiliated authors, and I’m struggling to understand why Goodreads is going after reviews of books by authors they have banned from their site, people like Melissa Douthit and Carroll Bryant. By the numbers, these are largely self-published authors. I don’t even mean to sound snarky, but who even cares about these writers in the larger literary context? Maybe it’s ridiculous to give these writers platform by shelving their books do-not-read and linking to their myriad social media meltdowns, but it is so much more ridiculous to delete the discussion of these events. Goodreads is a social media platform, and this seemingly personal, yet also arbitrary, deletion of conversations should give the average Goodreader pause.
Whether you think these conflicts have any merit, whether you think doxing is legitimate, whether you think sockpuppets are are a valid marketing strategy, it makes no sense to me that users cannot be allowed to exchange this information about the professional, personal, political, criminal, and sometimes, just sometimes, the literary merit of living authors. It is not just a marketplace of ideas, but an actual marketplace, and often the only power we have as consumers, as citizens, is in where we spend our hard earned dollars. Where we spend our hard earned dollars on a leisure activity. The only vote we have sometimes is the one with our dollars, and Goodreads coming in and stifling discussion of who users believe merit their time and cash is, and I’m sorry for the cussing, bullshit.
While I was writing this post, Goodreads “announced” on their Feedback thread that they were going to try to reinstate the reviews lost in the deletions, and some clarification of their policy. Frankly, I haven’t had time to read this, and I’ll leave its consideration for a later date. The reviewers who were subject to deletion also received the following email:
We are contacting you to let you know we are working on retrieving the content that was deleted from your account on September 20. We’re very sorry about how that was handled. In retrospect, we should have notified you and provided you with a copy of your content when we deleted the reviews/shelves.
We also mistakenly deleted your shelf called “due-to-author”. We know we were not clear in our previous response about this. A “due-to-author” shelf fits within our guidelines and is allowed on the site.
We’ve discussed this in more detail with our engineers, and while the reviews have been completely deleted from the database, it turns out we can retrieve the content through back-up servers. We will email it to you for your personal records as soon as the import completes in a week or two. Feel free to re-import your “due-to-author” shelf, but please note that the content that violated our guidelines cannot be re-posted on Goodreads.
The Goodreads Team
So, sorry we deleted your reviews, but they are still illegal according to a policy we absolutely refuse to clarify. If you look at the data, reviews are being arbitrarily and personally deleted, according to no standard I could discern. I leave it to you, fellow Goodreaders, to make sense of these numbers.
A quick note of thanks:
I have been using the word “I” though this essay, but that is inaccurate. This database would not have come to be without the help of dozens of people. Thanks to:
The 12 people who forwarded me their delete lists, anyone who passed notes, sent me links, and otherwise made this social media social; for technical help, a shout out to DMS who built the spreadsheet, and sj for making graphs, and Ziv for number crunching; general thanks to Steph and Wendy Darling for link-farming and karen for reader’s advisory, plus just dozens and dozens of people who found me and told their stories. As sickened as I am by this action by Goodreads, I am cheered by the overwhelming power of concerned people acting together. Single tear, guys.