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Thursday, October 18, 2012

We are Wagging the Long Tail: The Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads

In an op-ed in Forbes, you can find the following infographic about the top 25 reviewers on Goodreads:
[from These are the Top 25 Reviewers on Goodreads]

I'm at #18. And phew, I'm glad I finally changed up my avatar photo to something other than a Tusken Raider hanging out on the beach; that would have been awkward.

I've been active on Goodreads since April of 2008, and since then I have written over 400 reviews. One of the more frustrating pastimes on that site is trying to parse why and how reviewers get the votes they do, scrying the top lists for cultural trends and currencies, arguing about populism versus merit, pitching hand-to-hand combats about what reviews have value and why and how. I've been around this block enough to know that this top list of reviewers looks verra verra different from what it looked like when I signed on, lo, those many years ago, when my friends list mostly consisted of my mother. It would be an interesting if ultimately brutal timesink of a project to chart the ebbs and flows of who this tiny corner of the booknerdosphere ranked as its most voted reviewers. (Which is what "top reviewer" means - it's Goodreads reviewers whose reviews have the most votes.) 

I'm feeling a little lazy and tired in my response to this op-ed, so I'm just going to post the reaction I had on facebook:

 I thought the part about finding better business books through sites like Goodreads was a good point, but the stuff about crowdsourcing, traditional critical platforms, and the rest of it was pretty jumbled. I don't think traditional criticism is dead, or that it is necessarily in conflict with stuff like goodreads or book bloggers - but obviously a lot of people see it that way. (Like the head judge of the Booker prize who stated recently that book bloggers were "harming literature," which I think is a deeply stupid thing to say.) It is true that sites like Goodreads are wagging the long tail though, which any writer who isn't a well established litfic or popular fiction writer - and that is pretty much all of them - should really pay attention to. Traditional critical platforms, like newspapers, are having a whole world of hurt right now, but not just because of social media. Some of it is just the calculus of how many reviews a newspaper can write - what is the average number in a Sunday insert? - versus the absolute barrage available online. Sure, lots of those are crap, but the same can be said for the dumbed down or heavily generalized reviews one can find in the paper.  

I'm "friends" with most of the people on that list, actual friends with a smaller number, follow a few of them, and I've at least heard of the rest. We're a tight knit crowd, even if we're not close friends (or even like each other, in some instances.) We're definitely watching one another's critical reactions though, even if those reactions are to books and genres we have zero interest in.So I know their reviews pretty well. Most of those reviewers have a pretty solid focus in one (or two or three) areas - young adult, or scfi, or crime fiction, or whatever - and they are journeyman reviewers - one or two a week for years. (The anomaly being the woman who has over 10,000 votes for her three 50 Shades reviews.) I have no idea how far our influence spreads - not far being my guess - but I think these reviewers are popular because of an expertise, however homespun, in a corner of literature. And those corners are often not represented in traditional media. You won't find reviews of business books in the NYT, for better or for worse. You don't really find them so much on Goodreads either, but then there was that one Liberty reviewed that sparked off a pretty big firestorm about writers, reviewers and social media. Wag the long tail, baby.
A friend of mine (who is an academic) challenged my use of the word homespun in regards to expertise, calling it "a spurious distinction much aided by the values of the market culture." And she is entirely right about that; experts such as Mr. Booker Prize wouldn't have his monocle in such a twist if his claim to cultural gatekeeping and the arbitration of quality weren't threatened by the democratization of critical platforms. Amateur - which is by definition unpaid - does not mean inexpert. Especially when it comes to areas of publishing that traditional media have ignored or underrepresented.Though I usually prefer to think of myself as a crank, I honestly think this set of reviewers - even the ones I think are assholes - the new face of criticism, spinning their expertises in the home, because the home is the most logical place to spin them. Reading is a sullen art. I've always quipped that the most successful goodreaders have elements of both exhibitionism and introversion in their personalities, desiring to say out loud what we experience in the comfort of our own minds. Criticism is the calculated bleating of those who think too long and too hard about their personal reactions - why do I feel what I feel about this? Or maybe it isn't, but for sure the whole enterprise is rooted in serious engagement with books and the whole sticky ball of wax that is reaction, process, and - dare I say it? - art.

We are the long tail, and we wag what we can in the ways we know best.It's entirely possible I'm just all jazzed to have my picture in Forbes though. Thank heavens I'm not represented by that Tusken Raider, cute as he was.

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