On strong being the “new” pretty

I drafted this post months ago when the posts linked below were posted; just now got around to fleshing out the text I wanted to quote.

At The Daily Dot, Anne Thériault addressed the implications of hashtags like #StrongIsTheNewPretty and #StrongIsTheNewSkinny in the context of current media depictions of so-called Strong Female Characters (with a shout-out to this essay by Tasha Robinson which I loved). Thériault’s argument is that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss–same old racist, ablist, oppressive beauty norms dressed up as “inspiration” or “empowerment.”

….We don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville (where I first saw the above link) adds that this supposed celebration of strong women rings a bit hollow because when women exhibit strength and fortitude in ways that challenge oppressive norms, they are definitively not celebrated.

Never is that more clear than when a woman actually exhibits strength in her own defense. When she draws boundaries. When she physically harms a man who is trying to harm her. When she engages in self-care. When she categorically refuses to put up with splaining or harassment or catcalling or whatever other horseshit variation of misogyny to which some dude is trying to subject her. . . . That’s how the Strong Woman becomes the weak bitch, when a woman is strong for herself and for the pleasure of nobody else.

Both of these posts are brief but thoughtful and worth a quick read. To this, I wanted to add that not only is fitspo just another shade of thinspo, it’s not anywhere near a new shade. The athletic, fit, toned female body has been celebrated as the ideal female body for several decades. I’ll let Susan Bordo, author of Unbearable Weight, do the talking. My notes are from this edition: Bordo, Susan.  Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. For those of you following along at home, a .pdf of the relevant chapter, “Reading the Slender Body,” is currently hosted by Middlebury. This essay was first published in 1989; the 10th anniversary edition is largely unchanged, and yet its argument is still relevant to this conversation we are having in 2015.

The stated purpose of “Reading the Slender Body” is to explore how diet and exercise are encoded and normalized in culture, and to define the ideal of slenderness that dominates contemporary visual imagery of bodies (particularly women’s bodies). Bordo begins by discussing how bodies can function as symbols in two contrasting ways: body shape is sometimes interpreted to indicate the individual’s position in the social hierarchy, and sometimes it is read as an expression of the internal state of the individual (187). She gives a few historical examples to illustrate: in the early 19th century, successful tradesmen might flaunt a bulging stomach, considered by themselves and their peers to be an outward symbol of material wealth; in the same era, aristocrats favored a slender form that seemed distant and aloof from base hunger or bourgeois grasping. Eventually the bourgeois too came to embrace a genteel slenderness, and around that time excess weight gradually accrued the connotation of moral laxity. The late 19th century is when doctors and what I suppose you might call lifestyle experts started advocating weight loss to the general public, although this would go in and out of vogue over the next century. In a similar fashion, the symbolic function of muscular bodies has shifted: where visible muscles were once associated with manual labor, animality, and weak mental faculties, we now sometimes read muscularity as a sign of self-control and self-discipline (191,193).

Of course, the interpretation of the body is very dependent on other intersecting signifiers of race, class, gender, and so forth. To return to the example of muscles, it’s important to observe that lower class men and men of color with bulging muscles still risk being depicted or viewed as animalistic. And since muscles continue to be associated with masculinity, the muscles of women are expected to be sleek and toned, not bulging. Combined with the specific expectations of female physicality, the slender body is particularly “overdetermined” as the ideal for women, causing women to grapple with it to a greater degree than most men (187, 205).

So what is a “slender” body? One that is not only shed of excess weight, but has smooth lines and taut surfaces. “Until the 1980s, excess weight was the target of most ads for diet products,” Bordo writes; “today, one is much more likely to find the enemy constructed as bulge, fat, or flab” (189). A slender body can be visibly muscled, but not to the point of disrupting a sleek, spare silhouette. A slender female body may have prominent breasts or buttocks, but those attributes should only set off the contrast of a trim waistline and toned limbs. The slender ideal is not necessarily a small body but a “contained” body, with firm flesh that doesn’t wiggle. Bordo considers the slender ideal of the 1980s and the more waifish ideal of the 1960s as more alike than different:

This perspective helps illuminate an important continuity of meaning in our culture between compulsive dieting and body-building, and it reveals why it has been so easy for contemporary images of female attractiveness to oscillate between a spare, “minimalist” look and a solid, muscular, athletic look. . . The two ideas, thought superficially very different, are united in battle against a common enemy: the soft, the loose, unsolid, excess flesh. (191).

In other words, Bordo would almost certainly see “strong is the new pretty” as mere repackaging, another rotation of fashion’s wheel. Sometimes the “it” girl is a waif, sometimes a bombshell, sometimes a sporty Cool Girl, but in late capitalism she is always a fit girl.

Bordo cites one reason for this–and perhaps one key difference between weight loss obsession today versus the 19th century–from another theorist named Robert Crawford: contemporary capitalism puts two simultaneous and conflicting burdens on its constituents. We are supposed to be producers and providers in this economy, and so we must suppress our desires in order to be productive workers. We are also supposed to be consumers, and as consumers we are continually barraged with products meant to incite desire. “The regulation of desire thus becomes an ongoing problem, as we find ourselves continually besieged by temptation, while socially condemned for overindulgence” (199). The ideal of the slender body emerges out of that hostility toward uncontrolled indulgence, or perhaps the anxiety of our lack of control in general:

The firm, developed body has become a symbol of correct attitude; it means that one ‘cares’ about oneself and how one appears to others, suggesting willpower, energy, control over infantile impulse, the ability to “shape your life” (195).

On the flip side, if a body is not firm and contained, it may be read as undisciplined, uncontrolled, willful, careless—a bias that is has been shown again and again in studies of workplaces, medical services, or social relationships. (Here’s a recent one.) Weight bias demonstrates both of the symbolic functions of body shape: in a great deal of media, journalism, and social research, fat on a body is viewed as an outward symbol of inward lack of control. Not coincidentally, fat on a body is also frequently read as a lower-class indicator, or at the very least “absence of all those ‘managerial’ abilities that, according to the dominant ideology, confer upward mobility” (195). The ideology of the slender body feeds into existent biases against nonconforming, bulging, soft bodies. (Which is, after all, most bodies!)

Insert unfortunately necessary disclaimers here: this is not an essay against slenderness! There is nothing wrong with being fit or toned or what have you. Bordo’s essay is a criticism of the ideology of the slender body, a complicated system of ideas and images that elevate the status of slenderness at the expense of other body shapes. The ideology of the slender body is the violent, militaristic language of “targeting” bulges and “burning” fat; the near uniformity of slenderness in the world’s most visible women, who are nonetheless Photoshopped free of their creases and curves; the ubiquity of fat bias; and in a thousand other cultural artifacts.

And this is also not to say that it is wrong to enjoy or admire physical strength, to find one’s own strength empowering, or to work to become stronger. Being strong feels great! And as Bordo emphasizes throughout her chapters, women should not be thought of as “dupes” to certain ideologies of beauty; if women pursue the bodily ideal, it may well be because we desire the privileges that supposedly come with it. Or, perhaps for some, to reject the full-figured curviness of a Victorian or postwar ideal may be a way to embrace “liberation from a domestic, reproductive destiny” (206).

But the aim of “Reading the Slender Body” is to draw out some of the encoded meanings of this body type as it is depicted and reproduced in culture, and that includes shedding light on the ways it operates as a vehicle of oppression. Strength is a privilege enjoyed by the temporarily able-bodied, and being strong does not always correlate to appearing fit or strong; bodies that do not visually meet fitspo goals are not less valuable bodies. And I wish to tie Bordo’s essay back to the links that introduced this post, which remind us that the expressions of strength we value in women are still severely curtailed by cultural demands to be supportive, available, and accommodating. If anything, trying to squeeze “X” (strong, fit) into the framework of “Y” (pretty, skinny) only emphasizes that containment.


More questionable interpretations of Lolita

Sometimes I start a post and then it just sits in my draft box until some relevant circumstance wakes it up and sets it free.

In this case: some time ago, back when I was re-watching Scandal with my visiting friend, this same friend mentioned that she’d recently read Lolita and was blown away. Reading Lolita is indeed a very blowsy experience; I remember feeling swept up in Humbert Humbert’s vortex of self-abasement and ego-puffing, even finding myself annoyed with Lo at times, although I recognized her as a prisoner, a survivor whose struggle is submerged in Humbert’s seductive first-person narrative. That’s why I find the book remarkable: it offers a strenuous exercise in reading with empathy. It’s challenging to look past a privilege narrative and to strain to hear the voice of the oppressed, but as I have asked before: why do we read, if not to identify with others?

Right after we had this conversation, we went to a brewcafe to write and saw a bottle of “wild ale” called Lolita. Because it’s pink and tart, I guess.

I was struck by the coincidence and considered posting a catalog of all the other ways Lolita’s highly recognizable name has been taken way out of context, used as shorthand for the coquettish nymphet that Humbert believes her to be rather than the survivor she actually is. But a quick Google search for Lolita-related products was too demoralizing for me to carry the idea out, so it had to stay in the hopper.

And I didn’t think of it again until today, when I read this dubious contribution to the ongoing debate about trigger warnings, which opens with a flashback to the moment that a graduate school professor supposedly destroyed the author’s love for Lolita and, somehow, his unpublished first novel.

Let me back up a moment and say that I do not understand why there is even a debate about trigger warnings. It seems like a very simple case: go ahead and note on your syllabus when the classroom discussion is going to have an in-depth discussion on difficult material. Don’t like it? Doesn’t apply to you? Don’t understand it? Don’t worry about it! There is literally nothing a trigger warning can do to hurt a student or reader except take away the element of surprise, which would hardly have much of an enduring impact in a classroom setting anyway. The argument that trigger warnings are somehow softening or weakening the classroom experience makes zero sense to me.

To explain why, let’s go back to this one author’s ground zero: he’s been re-reading Lolita periodically for years, he finds that reading it refills his well of creativity, and bam–one day, all lost, because his graduate seminar professor said: “When you read ‘Lolita,’ keep in mind that what you’re reading about is the systematic rape of a young girl.”

But the fact is that if you do not keep that in mind when you read Lolita, you are reading it badly.

There is literally no reading of Lolita that makes sense unless you understand that the narrative, seductive and curlicuing and hilarious though it may often be, is a narrative about a predator who stalks, traps, and imprisons a young girl. If you’ve somehow lost sight of that, you’ve lost, period. Bad reader. You’re basically the brewers of tart pink Lolita beer or the guy who thinks Humbert Humbert is a tragic romantic figure.

You know who will not be able to lose sight of the fact that Lolita is about the systematic rape of a young girl? Anyone in that classroom who has experienced sexual assault or coercion. Which, statistically speaking, is likely to be more than one student even in a small seminar. Students who, if the professor had not dropped that truth bomb, may have spent that section of the syllabus squirming in quiet horror while all the lit-loving bros blithely debated the novel’s formal qualities and trotted out the Vanity Fair “only convincing love story of your century” chestnut. Who very likely would keep silent and not challenge the lit-bros and just write about some other text for the final paper because in many classrooms, it’s the argument with the least emotional power that wins the debate. I can tell you that for a fact, because I’ve been that student.

By the way, this example is not even a trigger warning, really, so I’m not sure what purpose it serves in a New Yorker article ostensibly about trigger warnings. (To me, this just goes to show that the arguments that are getting the most airtime on this debate are so far from the point that it’s clear that the authors feel something else precious is being threatened.) An example of a trigger warning might be this: my class is going to be spending several days on a novel that includes some graphic scenes of self-harm and sexual violence, and it’s important that we discuss those scenes, but I am for sure going to mention that in advance of the discussion, because the last thing I want is for the students in the classroom who have experienced self-harm or sexual violence to be taken by surprise, and to feel alienated and fall silent while the discussion is carried on by anyone else who has less emotional stake in the topic.

Literature has emotional stakes. We want it to have high stakes. That’s the reason the whole debate has blown up in the first place: the way we read literature matters.

All the more reason, then, to make learning spaces safe for those for whom the emotional toll of text is the highest.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Writing in Public

Did you know that it is NaPoWriMo? Last year I challenged myself to read a poem every day, since I knew I’d be too busy to write so many and too shy to share. This year I made no such committment, but fortunately I follow a few poets who are churning them out, so I am more or less reading a poem a day after all. Nicole Steinberg has been posting poems that riff off the headlines of posts and articles from high-traffic websites like The Awl and Salon; I like that they veer into territories I’m familiar with from her other poems, but they are their own strange new beasts. She plans to take them down after a week, so today might be your last day to read “Why are millenials so unfuckable?” which is my favorite so far, probably due to 90s video game references. Hannah Stephenson, too, posts poems at an alarming (to a slow writer like myself) rate. You’ll probably like “Let’s Have Class Outside Today” especially if, like me, you’ve been both the student and the teacher in that conversation, and the ever-so-slightly warmer sunshine of April makes you want to do everything outside.

Former museum colleague Kara linked me to this Museum 2.0 post about Hemingway, an online tool designed to help streamline your writing. I felt very wary at first–remembering too well my encounter with the unfortunately named Writer’s Diet–but 2.0’s Nina Simon makes a good case for the tool as a way to produce concise copy for exhibit labels or grant applications. I was intrigued, since right now I am rushing to polish up piles of catalog copy by the end of the month and a key element of that task is streamlining. I ran a couple of works-in-progress through the app and was unsurprised to see them both rated “bad” (too many “very hard to read” sentences plus passive voice and excessive adverbs); however, they are in pretty good form for copy which must appeal to a fairly specialized class of people and fit in a number of keywords to increase search relevance. You can’t please everybody!

Approximately a thousand years ago in internet years, I linked to an article in which two scholar looked at the question of “Should Academics Blog?” and came up with a resounding yes. Their evidence mostly comes from an quantification and analysis of the reception of an immensely popular article (also about academic blogging) which they wrote, promoted, and tracked through social media. I’ve been meaning to compile a longer post on the debate for some time, but I have to accept that I never will, so here’s a quick rundown.
First, my entrypoint to this argument is that I am an academic (sort of) who blogs. I blog because I read a lot about the topics that interest me, and my response to the reading tends to spill out of me in writing. The blogging platform has other benefits: namely, it has brought me into conversation with other thinkers and writers, which never ceases to surprise and gladden me since I began my research in comparative isolation. Blogging also has certain costs: mostly time, I think, as it takes a certain amount of time to write and briskly proof or factcheck the posts before I make them public and attached to my given name. It also takes a certain amount of time to engage with that broader community through social media–rewarding and pleasant time, but that’s time I’m not spending on further research or writing. But for me, there’s no question of whether to blog or not; it’s just something I do.

But the question is often posed to me by academic friends who’ve observed my blogging and wonder if it would be worthwhile for themselves and by first-time authors who ask me, as a university press marketer, what they can do to promote their book. And my answer is quite different from the post I linked above: only if you want to. The authors of that post (Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson) authored an extraordinarily successful article in terms of clicks and downloads for several reasons, and their social media platform was only one of them: they also had a much more broadly relevant topic than the average journal article can claim, and their work was available (non-paywalled) for much longer than a typical article for that academic journal. So while blogging can allow academics to seize a greater part of the “attention economy” (I am fascinated by this term, indicating that attention is finite and commodifiable), like any economy, you have to pay in to get payout.

Here are the pros of academic blogging, near as I can make out: Blogging is in most cases a free public forum; this is less of an issue in the States, one of the last bastions against mandated Open Access, but in many overseas publications, it does or will cost scholars money to have their work published. A blog can be a broad forum, reaching many more people than a journal, and it may be linked up with social media to exponentially increase readership if social media is handled effectively. An author’s existing social media platform is very appealing to publishers. On the web, scholarship can become much more of a conversation, since your feedback and response can be instantaneous. And–this is more important for some authors than others–you can reach a broader range of people, nonacademics as well as fellow scholars. (However, Mewburn and Thomson note that the academic-general reader dynamic is not usually what’s at play: “While arguments are made for blogging as an outreach activity, where academics ‘translate’ their work for a non-academic audience, in our sample we saw more evidence of conversations happening between academics – and much of it about academia itself. This led us to conclude that the blogging discourse, is similar in purpose, if not necessarily in form or content, to the academic discourse happening in journals: academics talking to academics in an effort to advance knowledge and understanding.”)
The cons include: blogging and social media promotion is just one more example of unpaid labor that the young academic is expected to perform in order to compete in the academic economy. It takes time–a valuable resource to the busy academic–and the time you spend is not always repaid. Managing blogs and social media effectively is a skill: it’s one that many of us develop to some degree in our personal lives, but deploying social media savvy for promotion is a delicate business of getting the relevant information to your target readers without annoying them. And there’s nothing more annoying–and sad–than an author who signs up for Twitter or WordPress for the first time just to promote their work; tweeting is a genre, blogging is a genre (or a collection of subgenres), and promotional writing is too; it takes time to learn and adapt to writing in those modes. (Which can be a pro as well, if you are invested in reaching nonacademic readers.)
Those of my readers who are also blogging academics, I am deeply interested in your thoughts on this.

Finally, just to make this a truly eclectic linklist, here is an adorable infographic to breakdown the effectiveness of serif and sans serif fonts in print and electronic contexts.

Starting to like Booklikes

It took me some time to initiate this move, but I finally imported my booklist from Goodreads to Booklikes. And I am happy in my new home. You can check out my book log here: http://literarysara.booklikes.com/
For the moment, it defaults to a blog view, which is kind of funny, since I already have a blog–two, even! But I like that it highlights my short reviews, and you can always switch it to a timeline view or a bookshelf view.

Starting up was a little dubious. Booklikes had automatically followed a bunch of book blogs on my behalf, which I meticulously unfollowed until I can make my own decisions. And although the importing was spectacularly easy–export a .csv file from Goodreads, import into Booklikes, wait until it’s done–the import seemed to be going very slowly. When I went to bed, only 8 of the books have been successfully imported.

But when I woke up in the morning, they were all present and attractively arranged on this digital bookshelf.

This is how Booklikes stacks up against the list of functions I was looking for in bibliocentric social media:

  • I want to keep track, for myself, of the books I read and want to read.
    + Booklikes does this in more or less the same manner as Goodreads, with shelves and read/to be read designations.
  • I want other people to people to see my booklists and I want to see the lists of people I search or friend (if they make those lists viewable).
    + You can definitely see my book history. I could see yours if you have a page; your bookshelf is public but you can make individual reviews or books private.
  • I want to be able to give and receive likes and comments.
    + You can like, reblog, and comment. Booklikes can be integrated with a couple of other services, so in addition to the comment function available to other Booklikes members, you can add the option for friends to log in via Disqus or Facebook to comment. I really like that it’s opt-in.
  • I want to be able to create and maintain book groups or communities.
    – This doesn’t seem to be an option as yet, except by way of blog commenting. The only community I’m leaving behind is my Food Studies group, and I’ve been meaning to get all my food research bibliography onto the food blog anyway, so I will press on and see if this element is added in the future.
  • I want a book info page, not a book order page, that I can link on my WordPress blogs.
    – There is not quite a book infopage in the way that Goodreads listed the bibliographic data and promo copy of a book. But I can link to my review page if I need to reference something on the WordPress blogs, or I can link to Powells Books or similar.

A few unexpected perks:

  • You can rate with half-stars. I love that.
  • The blogging function is pretty sophisticated–just as functional as WordPress, a lot more slick than the HTML capabilities of Goodreads’ review window. If you keep a blog mainly for the purpose of sharing books you’ve read, this is a good option for you.
  • You can also subscribe to an RSS feed of the blog. It would be even more awesome if you could subscribe to an RSS of a particular shelf–say, my food studies shelf if you’re a fellow food scholar–but if you can do that, I haven’t figured out how.

Booklikes is still pretty new and somewhat in beta–users might need to add books that are not yet in their system, for example, and apparently early adopters struggled a bit with the import function, as the staff struggled to keep up with the sudden influx of Goodreads refugees. But it’s attractive, fairly comprehensive, and easy to use–and you needn’t get Amazon involved unless you wish, as the search options permit selection or deselection of various international affiliates.

Say hey if you’re a fellow user.

You should message me if: you read women’s fiction

Book Riot posted this excerpt from a recent interview with Meg Wolitzer, whose careful, observant fiction I really enjoy. Wolitzer often speaks out against various institutional biases against women authors, and in this interview she theorizes about the way packaging can discourage male readers from picking up new books by female authors. Book Riot’s Josh Corman considered his own reading habits and admitted that the male authors on his bookshelf greatly outnumber the female authors, but he doesn’t really think about it that way:

I feel no less aware of or interested in Téa Obreht or Karen Russell when compared to, say, Adam Levin or Gary Shteyngart, and yet the sizable male-to-female ratio still exists. So while I don’t feel like I fit neatly into Wolitzer’s observation, the evidence doesn’t exactly avail me.

Without diminishing my respect for his candor and willingness to self-examine, let me just say: if I only had a dollar for every time I hear that one.

Back in the day when I maintained an OkCupid account, I thought long and hard about my minimum standards for an equal partnership and included this caveat under the header of “You should message me if”:

You like to read – although perhaps, like many, you don’t read as much as you’d like.  If you’ve compiled a list of favorite books, the list includes some written by women.

The phrasing of “You should message me if” invites a checklist, and the checklist invites a response that checks off each item to confirm the qualifications of the respondent. Even so, many of the men who messaged me simply skipped that line, focusing on other criteria such as female friendships or an interest in cooking. Of those who acknowledged my female author specification, responses ranged from qualification to “gender-blindness” to the admission of privilege, with or without rationalization. Some were genuinely interested in talking about books by female authors they’d read. Others only made a note of their reading habits to insist that it didn’t matter.

I am not posting excerpts from those messages to provide anecdata. (If you want real numbers to quantify gender biases in literary publishing or readership, VIDA is all over it.) I am not posting them to invite mockery (spelling and grammar in particular are not fair game for jeers here). I’m posting them to give a sense of what this conversation can look like on the ground, and why I am tired of having it.

I’ve been trying to come up with female authors who I’ve read, and liked. Unfortunately, the list is shockingly short. The only person who I could come up with is J.K. Rowling, which is a bit to obvious of a choice. I found it rather surprising that this was the case, and I really don’t have an answer as to why. I’m going to have to think about it.

My entire house is given over to books and there are many women among my favorite authors. Just for starters, Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” is definitely in my top ten books of all time list.

Until I read your profile, I didn’t realize that more than 80% of the books I like are written by men. I think it’s interesting, but it’s probably nothing strange. Anyway, from the questions I gathered that we have a lot of the important things in common.

I’m not sure if among my favorite books are many written by women (and being favorite changes quite often, although there are some all-time stars), but one of the most peculiar ones I read in the last years was written by a splendid, cynical, East-Germany born feminist (Are there English translations of Sibylle Berg?), hopefully this prevents me from being disqualified (the other conditions I fulfill).

some of my favorite poets, in no particular order: marie howe, mark doty, joy harjo, audre lord, Neruda, etc. etc. my dad is an english professor and a haiku poet, so needless to say, it runs deep in the fam. i do love to cook, and i definitely don’t read as much as i would like to. i minored in women’s studies, so there’s plenty of my favorite books, essays, and poems written by women.

So, I assume by what you said, most men find it strange that women prefer female authors? I tend to like whoever writes best about what I want to read. Sounds vague eh? well, I’m just being honest is all.

And also that your statement about having books by women listed in your favorites really gave me pause. Now I am thinking about that.
[later message] New and improved with some women authors. I did really like “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern so check it out. Kind of makes you feel like you wish Cirque De Soleil would make you feel, but doesn’t.

It is only strange that most of your favorite books are by men because of the propensity for people to choose favorite books that are “classics” i.e., from a time before the feminist revolution when women were rarely published.

Kudos for have a Margaret Atwood book that is not the Handmaid’s Tale on your list.

My favorite book is written by a woman.

In my entire life, up until reading the last sentence in your profile, I have never considered the gender of the author for something I’m reading.
A link recently made its way around my friends on Facebook pointing out that JK Rawlings wrote a whole series around a boy, instead of a girl. I suppose for some that raises questions or just eyebrows, but it never occurred to me.
However, it might be because I’m male. Not that that makes me a Neanderthal, rather that maybe I can’t appreciate the plight of a female writer because I don’t have a connection.

Words are cool. And for the record, I like female authors just as much as male authors.

While the proportion is probably embarrassing, I can safely say that many of my favorite books are by women. Emma, Orlando, Cold Comfort Farm and Busman’s Honeymoon, to name a few.

It’s not my fault! The only sci fi one I can think of is Ursula LeGuin.
And I can’t think of aaaany comedy ones! Although this could just be me not looking very hard
Go write a book I’d like 😀

Social Media in the Age of Amazon

I began and abandoned a Goodreads account when I started reading for my doctoral program’s qualifying exams. My notes and my seemingly slow progress were too personal to share even with the handful of friends who used it; I was not ready to admit to anyone outside of my program that we don’t read every book on the exam list from cover to cover. But I started a new account two years ago when I was gifted a Kindle and found myself suddenly reading for pleasure again. I wanted to show people the books I was reading, and talk about them, and sometimes read about them to stay in those worlds a little longer. I found LibraryThing a little too cluttered with information and too card-cataloguey in presentation for this purpose, but soon became a regular user of Goodreads my second time around. Some people call Goodreads “Facebook for books,” but I enjoy most of those elements: I like cataloguing my recent life in books; I like online communities; I like receiving likes and comments for my book reviews, which are often the only way I can communicate about books I’ve read, since most of my peers don’t read the same books I do. 

With Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads, I have to reexamine what I want out of this kind of social media. I feel uneasy about this acquisition for a number of reasons (not least because we are all calling it an acquisition, not an alliance, which it obviously is not). In no particular order:

  • I had already been feeling that Goodreads was getting a little too plugged in–for example, automatically friending me with people I know on Facebook without clearing it with me first. I’m a firm believer in opt-in social media linkage–I want to decide to link my blog to my Twitter and my Twitter to my Facebook; I don’t want those platforms to make decisions for me, leaving me to either go along with it or opt out (which, in the example above, would mean unfriending friends whose lives I enjoy following on Facebook but whose bookshelves I don’t care to see.) And Amazon is notorious for info-grabbing and -sharing. For one example: several of the feminist blogs I read are hilariously populated with litterbox ads this week since I looked up the reviews for a new litterbox last week.
  • Relatedly, the acquisition would give Amazon information about the books I buy not on Amazon, which includes nearly all of my books that aren’t e-books. I’m not really into giving Amazon more ways to track my patterns of consumption. I doubt it would even refine Amazon’s ability to recommend new books to me, since Goodreads isn’t a good guesser either.
  • If I continue my Goodreads account after it is acquired by Amazon, that would pull my carefully worded book reviews into a rougher and wilder comment section than I am accustomed to. Goodreads’ population is a gentler, more literary people than one finds mostwheres on the internet; that’s why I like it.
  • I also regularly link to Goodreads on my blogs: if a reader is curious about a book I mention and wants to know more, I want to link them to an informational page, not a purchasing page. If I did link to a purchasing page, I would not link to Amazon; I would research and choose to support a smaller bookseller whose values I can deal with.
  • And there lies the rub. As a voracious consumer of books, I am a frequent Amazon user. My Kindle transformed my reading habits and reignited a passion for reading that had, honestly, gotten a little ground down by my doctoral program. Amazon’s business model is consumer-focused, and it works. But as a publisher, I have an insider view of how difficult and strangling Amazon can be for a small press. I can imagine and sympathize with the challenges Amazon presents to small booksellers–even big booksellers, as we well know. I appreciate the services that Amazon provides, but I can’t in good conscience support any business endeavor that extends its long-armed octopoid reach.

But if I choose to opt out of Goodreads for good (all puns intended), the path isn’t easy. I want the following features from a social media platform that focuses on books:

  • I want to keep track, for myself, of the books I read and want to read.
  • I want other people to people to see my booklists and I want to see the lists of people I search or friend (if they make those lists viewable).
  • I want to be able to give and receive likes and comments.
  • I want to be able to create and maintain book groups or communities.
  • I want a book info page, not a book order page, that I can link on my blogs.
  • It’d be nice to enjoy the occasional perks of interacting with authors and participating in contests, but that’s definitely icing and not cake.

The only platform I know of that offers all of those features is. . . Goodreads. Further, if I cancel my Goodreads account, I may not be able to transfer all my carefully written reviews, my lists and likes, the group I created to combine food scholars’ knowledge of food books.

But I’m still going to try a few things out. Book Riot, who has been all over this transaction as soon as it became public, offers a list of 12 Alternatives to Goodreads; of them, BookLikes seems to have the most approval, and BookLamp sounds intriguing as well. Some of these services allow users to import lists from other sites, which would be helpful. I’d be curious to hear from other readers what they use or have tried. 

Related reading:

WSJ: Amazon’s Goodreads Acquisition Triggers Backlash

The Washington Post: Why Amazon Bought Goodreads

Book Riot: Readers & Publishing Industry Pros Talk About the Amazon Goodreads Acquisition