Why Does Goodreads Have a Problem with Fiction by Women, About Women?
Introducing the Madievsky Rule
If you’ve used the internet to read book or film reviews in the last decade, you’ve probably heard of the Bechdel test. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced the test in her comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985 as a means of assessing the ways women are portrayed in fiction. The test consists of a simple yes-or-no question: Does it depict two women in conversation about something other than a man? The Bechdel test doesn’t assess the quality of representation, nor does it determine whether the work is told through a feminist lens. It’s less a summative evaluation than a quick-and-dirty assessment of whether the work meets even a basic representational standard.
In the spirit of quick-and-dirty rules of thumb, I have my own literary pet theory. We can call it the Madievsky Rule. The Madievsky Rule is this: 3.5 stars on Goodreads is the sweet spot for contemporary literary fiction written by women about women.
I’ve been using Goodreads to keep track of books I’ve read and want to read since 2011. For a general interest site with over 90 million members it’s stunningly mediocre. I’m always getting excessive notifications I have no memory of signing up for, and searching my “shelves” in an intuitive way is basically impossible. Amazon owns Goodreads and has little incentive to improve the site since no other competitor has nearly as many users or as vast a digital library. Most Goodreads users I know use it not because we actually like it, but because we haven’t found a better alternative.
As an author with a book listed on Goodreads, I absolutely stalk how my book is performing. As a reader, I can’t resist scanning the star ratings of books I’ve read or am interested in to see how they’ve been received by my friends and other users. In my nine years on the site, I’ve noticed a trend: excellent (and often critically-acclaimed) women-centric literary fiction tends to fall into the gulf between 3.2 and 3.8 stars. It’s where nearly all my favorites live. I’m thinking of books like The Idiot by Elif Batuman (3.64), The Pisces by Melissa Broder (3.22), Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang (3.70), My Education by Susan Choi (3.26), What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (3.62), Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet (3.75), Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier (3.4), The Vegetarian by Han Kang (3.58), Luster by Raven Leilani (3.68), Open Me by Lisa Locascio (3.2), Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh (3.73), Tampa by Alissa Nutting (3.45), New People by Danzy Senna (3.25), and Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang (3.7), among many others.
What do these books have in common, aside from being written by women about women? Many include frank, immersive depictions of women’s sexual desire and women fucking. The sex does not fade to black, and reviews describe it as obscene, dark, disturbing. Several of these books explicitly depict masturbation, menstruation, and defecation—realities of living as a woman that are rarely shown in fiction at all. They often reckon with racism and white supremacy. They resist conventional forms. They transgress against heteronormativity through queerness and a general abdication of—for lack of a better word—cleanness. In the eyes of many Goodreads users, they are books about yucky women being yucky.
My favorite male-centric literary fiction, on the other hand, is faring quite well on Goodreads. Most of the novels and short story collections by men about men that I’ve loved recently are chilling in or around the 4s. Many of my favorites, including Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (4.23), Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (4.26), Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (3.94), These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever (3.87), Real Life by Brandon Taylor (3.95), On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (4.05), and Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra (3.85), share similar ground in terms of queerness, explicit sex, confrontations of racism, formal experimentation, etc., yet they seem to sit more favorably with Goodreads users than their female counterparts. To be clear, the praise for these excellent books is entirely deserved. And it doesn’t surprise me that Multiple Choice, which is written in the form of a standardized test, is scoring the worst of the bunch given its experimental structure. The difference between 3.85 stars (Multiple Choice) and 3.75 stars (Make Your Home Among Strangers—the highest-scoring of the women-authored books I mention) isn’t dramatic. But why do these male-authored books seem to be doing so much better on the whole?
Let’s look at some Goodreads reviews of the women-centric books I’ve named. First, a 4-star review of Lisa Locascio’s coming-of-age novel, Open Me, about a young woman who travels to Denmark and confronts xenophobia, misogyny, and her own sexual embodiment:
I was intrigued and captivated by the parts of the book that others might find too much or excessive—the sexual awakening that focuses intimately on Roxana’s body, and her body’s responsiveness to other bodies. Roxana is a woman of deep, unquenchable appetite for connection, and it’s rare to read novels about this where a woman’s appetite is presented for what it is, instead of a problem to be solved.
That last line hits on what I think is so special about Open Me—Locascio’s skillful and unflinching portrayal of a young woman’s hunger for sex and self-knowledge. But, as the reviewer points out, it’s not for everyone. In a 1-star review, another reader laments:
I’d love to read an interview from Locascio about who the intended audience was and what she wanted to accomplish with these disgusting descriptions of Roxanna [sic] not bathing for days and comparing her smells/playing with her different discharges, etc. Sure, she’s “learning” herself… I guess, but have we really come to a point in reading culture where there was a need for this kind of plot?!
Pour one out for all the folks whose faith in literature was shattered by a fictional 18-year-old touching herself and smelling her fingers. From reading other reviews of Open Me, it’s clear that many users came to the book expecting erotica or young adult fiction, and were unprepared for a deeply literary novel that doesn’t fit in either category. Others complained that they could have done without the uncomfortable examination of racism against Balkan refugees in what they expected to be a young girl irresponsibly fucks her summer through Europe story.
Susan Choi’s My Education is also an erotic coming-of-age novel, about a young graduate student’s entanglements with an older professor and how they break down and redefine her sense of self. Or, as one rambling 2-star review puts it:
My Education is a brilliantly written, incomprehensibly boring novel… On the surface, the subject matter (Hot. Lesbian. Sex! And some Hetero sex thrown in too because… why not!) is not inherently boring… on the jacket Michael Cunningham writes “She has written lines that could be framed and displayed at a sentence festival.”… What kind of jerk-off would want to go to a sentence festival, anyway?… I haven’t read her other work, but based on this novel, Choi should give up trying to be a fiction writer.
I’ve often heard Choi described as a writer’s writer, partly owing to her formal experimentation and maximalist prose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these qualities aren’t received with open arms on a normie platform like Goodreads. But if you’re repulsed by the thought of a sentence festival, why are you wasting your one wild and precious life on literary fiction?So often, our love or disappointment or mixed feelings for a book come down to the indescribable bits, the parts that can’t be distilled into easily digestible discourse.
Despite their middling star ratings, most of the women-centric books I’ve noted are critically, if not commercially, successful. The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize, Luster is a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, The Idiot was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and all of these books were named top critic’s picks by multiple publications. They are largely beloved by their core audience—readers of literary fiction—and only tepidly accepted among the larger Goodreads community. Perhaps the reasons for this are obvious: readers outside a book’s core audience are probably less likely on the whole to be into it. A free, mainstream site like Goodreads, in which each user’s rating has equal value in the calculation of a book’s overall rating, means your neighbor’s opinion is worth just as much as Parul Sehgal’s, and their taste may differ.
My hunch is that for these books, Goodreads ratings tend to go down, not up, with hype and critical success. Once publishing imprints have decided to invest in a book, it’s common practice to send free review copies not only to legacy publications, but also to bloggers and other nonprofessional reviewers to generate buzz online. A higher publicity budget, well-placed reviews, major prizes, and hype can lead to people impulse-reading books that aren’t normally up their alley—and venting their frustration on Goodreads when they don’t meet expectations. How many of us have picked up a massively-hyped book and felt a little cheated when it didn’t do it for us?
So often, our love or disappointment or mixed feelings for a book come down to the indescribable bits, the parts that can’t be distilled into easily digestible discourse. I’m not blaming anyone for not loving the same books as me or for wanting to publicly share their opinion. And I’m not positing that women-centric literary fiction that performs well on Goodreads is normative and boring, or that low ratings mean a book is trash. One of my favorite new novels, Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation, is rocking 2.8 stars, maybe owing to its trifecta of experimental structure narrated mostly through dialogue, hyper-visible attention to language, and a female narrator that many reviewers call “unlikable.” And Brit Bennett’s excellent bestselling novel The Vanishing Half, which examines the ills of white supremacy and features a trans supporting character, is performing very well, at 4.31 stars. I can see why experimental storytelling, queer and explicit sex, racial reckoning, and messy protagonists could be polarizing to Goodreads users. What isn’t clear is why they seem to be more palatable when they center men.
Of course, this is all very unscientific. Because Goodreads has no quality control, star ratings may not accurately capture how even the Goodreads community feels about a book. There’s nothing stopping users from nonsensically pairing a flattering review with a terrible star rating, or from leaving a review with no rating attached at all. Totally incoherent reviews count just as much as the most thoughtful ones. The patterns I’ve noted are specific to my taste, and your star rating sweet spot may be totally different. (Is it?)
So, why even care? Marketing data shows that we’re more likely to be influenced by negative product reviews compared to positive ones. It’s hard to know how that translates into Goodreads ratings and if that, in turn, translates into book sales; I don’t know if the male-centric books I’ve mentioned have sold more copies than the women-centric ones. But in our publishing climate—where women authors (especially queer women and women of color) are often assumed to be writing autobiographically, are dismissed for writing work that is “domestic” and characters who are “unlikable,” and are reviewed significantly less than men in major media outlets—this ratings discrepancy doesn’t feel benign. You could call it a sweet spot, or you could call it a glass ceiling.
I’m declaring that 3.5 stars is where that ceiling is—not to disparage books above or below that, but to assure writers and readers of women-centric literary fiction that exceptional books with mediocre Goodreads ratings are not the exception, but the rule. So, if you’re a woman who’s poured her most tender and ambitious hopes and dreams into writing literary fiction about women, only to have Goodreads users declare, “every story is revolting” (Homesick for Another World), or “poverty porn and sexual taboo without the great writing necessary to back it up” (Sour Heart), or “my own conflicted feelings about being aroused by descriptions of sex with a neonate are not why I hated this book” (Tampa)—congratulations! You’re in great company.