No More Stars: On Ethics and (My) Goodreads Reviews

I have often said, both here and IRL, that I suck at reviewing books: every book is Best Book, if I actually finish it! (This is a marked difference from those days when I was in grad school and finishing was a requirement, and from a lot of other people: if I don’t like it, what the hell’s the point of wasting my time?) My Goodreads reviews have a tendency towards an overabundance of stars: it’s Best Book™! Of course it gets a five-star review! (I used to do this on Netflix, too—and I tended to be a very positive TA, back when I taught.1) At the same time as my star-granting ineptitude is on full display on Goodreads, I engage in careful collection development as an academic librarian (and, before that, as a public librarian)—and, over the summer, even my Goodreads reviews of the poetry I read for the 2019 Sealey Challenge slipped further and further into my past as someone with a graduate degree in literature.2 Those stars do not, as it were, serve me or the ways in which I read.

Much like my internal collection development and display policies,3 my reviewing policies—including on Goodreads—adhere to a fundamental set of moral and ethical concerns. Some of them are incredibly simple: I will not review a young adult book as an adult one; I’ll remember that a picture book is not, at its heart, written for me, but for a child. I try at all times to bear Ranganathan and his five laws of library science in mind, particularly 2 (every reader their book) and 3 (every book its reader). I am not always a particular book’s reader; it is not always my book. But that does not necessarily mean it’s bad—it just means that we weren’t meant to be together. Between Ranganathan and my own classes with Dr. Emily Knox, who encouraged us never to recommend but only to suggest (we should never impose our values on a patron—it’s part of intellectual freedom), I guess I’m even more dubious of stars.

In a word, I need to move away from stars on Goodreads—and I know it damn well. Goodreads is a pretty powerful tool; it can also be a toxic one. I love it for pointing to books that folks might like to read; I enjoy keeping track of my own on it. (I’ve blown my 2019 Goodreads challenge out of the water, by the way! Which, to be fair, was more or less guaranteed when I committed to the Sealey Challenge.) The author KJ Charles, whose books I read and who I follow on Goodreads (and on Twitter), has a knack for writing star-less reviews that, as it were, say everything one might need to know about a particular book. And so, when I actually had a book I did not like, I took a leaf from her reviewing style, and wrote a starless review, trying as always to bear in mind Ranganathan’s laws.

Goodreads is powerful because it is so present; because it’s readily available, and easy to access, and incredibly easy to use.4 It’s free and, to be frank, it’s also fun, and I use it a lot both as Caitlin the reader and as Caitlin the librarian. It is a tool of my trade.5 This makes Goodreads reviews—even those as generally invisible6 as mine—incredibly powerful tools. And, in the words of the Peter Parker Principal, with great power comes great responsibility. As I review young adult books, I need to remember first that I am not the intended audience and second that the characters are immature because they’re teenagers, for crying out loud, their brains are literally not yet developed. Usonian society has an ugly and documented history of targeting Black and Brown children, of seeing them as older or less innocent than they are, of criminalizing their normal behavior. I have noticed, in Goodreads reviews, in Amazon reviews, in discussions, that we have a knack for doing the same thing when reviewing representative children’s and youth books.

This thrust toward, as it were, replicating our structural inequalities through Goodreads reviews, makes me even more chary of the starred review—and, for that matter, of how I interact with books themselves. Am I taking the time to remember that this character here is a teenager? Do I, when writing a review of a picture book, bear in mind that not all children have the same experience of childhood, and that there are indeed young children aware of war or famine or fear or abuse? I have seen so many people argue that picture books exploring, say, war or refugee status are written for adults, and I find this deeply angering and even insulting, as it denies the lived experiences of wide swathes of the world. Along with great responsibility, therefore, comes the mandate not to gaslight in one’s reviewing.

This swings back, again, to the issue of stars on Goodreads. (If you’re curious, the author and former librarian Kelly Jensen writes about why she discontinued Goodreads stars in Book Riot.) Does a star rating really encapsulate Andrew Colarusso’s Creance; Or, Comest Thou Cosmic Nazarite, which was hard as hell to read but worth the effort? I mean, in the case of Creance, I’m not sure my review did either, but it came closer. As I try to bring my reviews more in line with my own moral and ethical standpoint, and with my professional ethics and code of conduct, I am also trying to move away from starring my reviews—even my usual, all-books-get-five-stars! style of starring. I’m not doing a perfect job—I just gave five stars, for instance, to Earth Bound, which I love to distraction—and, when I wrote that review, started it by noting I love the novel so much it’s difficult to review. (That’s a bit of confirmation bias at play: if it fits what we believe/love, then it is Right and Best, and my ethics compel me to acknowledge my own murkiness in the matter.)

My Goodreads reviews—even my non-exactly-book-reviews here—are a long shot from perfection. But both on Goodreads and here on my blog, I try to review responsibly, to remember Ranganathan’s laws, to remember my professional and personal7 ethics, to bear in mind the societies that created us all. For that matter, I try to bear in mind my own personality as I take on someone else’s words. I hate it when people gaslight me, and I try not to gaslight anyone else’s lived experiences when I review work, particularly work from cultures and races that are not mine. I am a stubborn and determined person, and so I try also to remember where I am as I write: I’m not always in the mood, as it were, for young adult, and comma errors irk me more than they should. Those problems are mine to remember, and, perforce, mine to wrangle.

Starred reviews do neither me nor anyone else any good, as far as I am concerned. They tell far less about quality as I perceive it than does a review, even very short reviews.8 I have come to feel, every time I assign a star value, that I’m failing Dr. Knox—what if my students find me (I mean, some of them follow me on Twitter!), and decide that these stars tell them what they should think of what I’ve read? Or what if they don’t feel safe coming to me because of a difference in star content? (Besides, I like ranting away at Goodreads like a frustrated literature scholar. God knows I rarely do it in the wild.) So I lurch forward, trying to remember not to star—and trying, as I review, always to bear in mind the ethics and the morality of judging words.

1 Is it weird for someone with a bleak outlook to be positive? Probably! But I am! People are complicated animals.

2 A few particularly excellent (and wordy) examples of my slide into writing literary reviews of poetry on Goodreads include the following:

Some mini examples include these:

3 I will, one of these days, write in greater depth about said policies.

4 Though I confess I want to become a Goodreads librarian, so I can assuage my inner copy editor, and this is a wee bit harder. I feel like I should be able to wave my MSLIS and get in, but meh.

5 I was stunned, in a not great way, to discover that it is technically an Amazon product. Also, please check out your local indies!

6 They’re actually not always invisible! I’m hardly a Top Goodreads reviewer, yet I am, particularly on poetry, sometimes one of the only reviewers present—or even the only one there at all. It’s a little startling, and the power scares me. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, folks!

7 It’s at times like this that I realize I might be a better Quaker than I think I am.

8 Some of them are decidedly not so short, like this one about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. Which I love.

when i write about writing and/or reading other people’s writing