Category Archives: Uncategorized


My Russian Professors

Actually there was only one; but he contained such echoes – of Nabokov, of Brodsky – that I attribute his lessons to a larger culture, to a lineage of Russians. Alexander Dolinin announced his fastidious standards in the first lecture. He was skeptical of group identity (“individual genius is all that counts”) and refused to teach verse in translation (“Pushkin in English is not Pushkin”). Dolinin’s survey of Russian prose fiction was my first class at the University of Wisconsin. Outside – the crisp and glittery end of summer on an elm- and maple-wooded isthmus dividing a pair of algae-green glacial lakes. For the next nine months I would always be reading some Englished classic of Russian prose. We followed Dolinin from the faro tables and winter balls of Pushkin’s prose Petersburg to the lustily mown acres of Levin’s estate; from the crowded Crimean pier where Anna Sergeyevna lost her lorgnette to the Arctic reveille of Denisovich and the zeks. The Oxford World and Penguin Classics provided only the silhouettes of Russian writers, and we were yawning undergrads in an early-morning elective, and Dolinin couldn’t go very deep – but nonetheless he was able to model an intellectual sensuousness, an impassioned relation to tradition that I did not encounter elsewhere.

Dolinin’s was a tall frame, usually bagged in a big sweater and loose cords. Boris Grigoriev’s portrait of Alexander Korovin, seen in a traveling Mir Iskusstva exhibition, once prompted me to recall his face – the half-haired head, the light eyes, the mouth held in a seemingly pained, tight-lipped sneer-smile that displayed, I thought, the contest of scandalized disgust and patient pedagogy.

Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916
Grigoriev, Portrait of A.A. Korovin, 1916

I saw the sneer when he riffed Humbert-like on a local mattress store (“The Happy Sleeper? The sleeper has no fears, no regrets?”), and when, reaching for some contemporary specimen of Gogolian poshlust, and finding the beloved Titanic, he provoked the howling protest of the entire class. He smiled during forays among us. Despite Pushkinskii Dom and the glasnost editorship of an illustrious émigré he did not hold himself aloof behind podium and pre-typed remarks. Holding a ragged reading copy he would step down and wade out into the hall, darting neo-Platonism, James Joyce and Horatian tags at heads being covertly supplied from a single earbud or bent over an issue of the student newspaper folded many times to isolate the daily crossword in a small, stashable square. Neo-Platonism was for the Silver Age poets; Joyce for the resemblance of Leopold Bloom to one of Babel’s narrators; and Horace’s commonplaces – for centuries pass phrases among the learned – for, well, everything. These digressions or self-annotations held one as much as the testable topoi for traces of which, however garbled or fleeting, the grad student graders combed our Blue Books. Dolinin brought his erudition to bear. His digressions were pitched slightly above our heads – the connections to books beyond the syllabus graspable, but only just. The refusal or inability to completely cut the material to our teenage range was notice of our novitiate status, a subtle spur to further reading.

So spurred, I read Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One in the lamp-lit afternoons of the long winter break. I penciled “Dolinin” next to Mandelstam’s definition of Acmeism: “nostalgia for a world culture.” Mandelstam’s attitude is not, as Brodsky would have it, “distinctly Russian” – Europe’s unity is a mirage common to the intellectuals on its fringes – and as a scholar Dolinin was at home in many literatures as a matter of course. But the passage did strike me, even if it did not explain him. I thought of Dolinin again – recalled his age and his manner – when I came to Brodsky’s elegiac evocation of his 1960s cohort of book-burrowed internal émigrés, “poorly dressed yet somehow still elegant,” with their love for the “non-existent (or existing only in their balding heads) thing called ‘civilization’” – “the only generation of Russians that had found itself, for whom Giotto and Mandelstam were more imperative than their own personal destinies.”

Brodsky's bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.
Brodsky’s bookcase in his Leningrad apartment.

Learning as a personal imperative was precisely what made Dolinin a distinctive teacher. One day, lecturing on We, he asked to whom Zamyatin was alluding when he named a character “Mephisto.” No one answered (or was willing to raise a lone hand). “You all live in a cultural vacuum,” he sneered. To us the idea of being educated to a canon was inconceivable – when not an ideological anathema. And few professors, among the statistically inevitable number of instructors required to staff the nation’s many colleges, would have dared scold us.


All I possess are eight slim volumes, / And they contain my native land.

(Khodasevich, on his Pushkin set)

In 1939, Vladislav Khodasevich – for Nabokov “the greatest poet Russia has yet produced in this century” – died of cancer, penniless in Paris. (I see too readily the flat where he was too ill to receive visitors, and the dingy tiles and flimsily screened separate agonies of the municipal ward Nina Berberova after visiting him called “a hell on earth.”)  A decade before his death Khodasevich ceased to write verse. He situated his personal tragedy in a general twilight of Russian literature, as Pushkin’s “long, life-giving ray” (Nabokov, in The Gift) dimmed over the diasporic cities and the younger émigrés. In an obituary Nabokov reminded the émigrés that whatever Khodasevich’s tribulations he was “safely enshrined in timeless Russia.” “Timeless Russia” sounds like an Orthodox iconostasis of the gleaming sainted, but I now picture, after years reading Nabokov (in 1939 poised on his career as a Russian professor), the comprehensive stacks of a North American research library. A miraculous mirage of Russia, a monastic repository untouched by war and upheaval, is how the Waindell College Library appears in Pnin. Timofey Pnin, so awkward in his American milieu, finds refuge in the library where he has his “scriptorium in the stacks…his paradise of Russian lore.” Despite its remote location and warehouse-like steel shelving, Waindell’s Slavic collection is an enchanted portal through which “dewy-eyed Timofey” re-enters his father’s library and handles the same Russian classics in “horrible and pathetic cameo bindings, whose molded profiles of poets” – “Pushkin’s slightly chafed side whisker or Zhukovski’s smudgy nose” – he had idly palpated as a child.

The gratitude announced in Pnin, and obliquely mentioned in Lolita (Humbert’s “nympholeptsy” is quelled, though not cured, by “the solace of research in palatial libraries”), appears again in Nabokov’s 1964 Playboy interview, in which he names “great libraries and its Grand Canyon” among America’s wonders, and says he may return to roam the nation’s “library stacks and mountain passes.” He told the Paris Review that a “first-rate college library with a comfortable campus” was a “fine milieu for a writer.” In a letter to Edmund Wilson he called Harvard’s libraries “wonderful,” and while researching his Eugene Onegin translation and commentary, marveled at finding in the Widener stacks a copy of the eighteenth century dream manual Tatiana consults in Canto Four.  John Updike said it is pleasant to think of Nabokov working on his Onegin “in the libraries of his adopted land,” “laboring with Janus-faced patriotism” on a bridge “whereby the genius of Pushkin is to cross after him into America.”

In the Slavic stacks of the UW Memorial Library I followed up lecture hall glimpses of this “timeless Russia.” I loved Silver Age memoirs, the necropoles of the Symbolists; and I came to inhabit, alongside the Boston and Bloomsbury of my declared major, Ivanov’s Tower, the Stray Dog Cabaret, and the House of the Arts. Not quite believing I was doing so, I opened a first edition of Nabokov’s first novel (Mashenka, Slovo: Berlin, 1926), a jewel in the general stacks. Its title page was stamped with a little Bronze Horseman – the émigré printer’s nostalgic device.


I examined editions of Pushkin, some handy and demotic, others monumental, shrines of scholars. Scanning his stanzas I knew that under my ignorant eye the alien Cyrillic signs “reflected and renewed one another, shared each other’s heat, sheen and shadow” – and each line was alive with a secret, hieratic iridescence.

The Pushkin bardolatry is a more ardent tradition of criticism than the one modeled by my excellent English professors who, dwelling in the different centers and centuries of the empire of English, rarely projected the focused, scripturo-tribal intensity I found in the Pushkin criticism of Nabokov, Khodasevich, Tsvetaeva and Ahkmatova. I obtained a good literary education eavesdropping on Russian scriptural debates. The critical functions of allusion and parody; the innovations of remembering; the writer’s selection of his sponsors from the mass of predecessors – all first demonstrated to me by Dolinin or by the reading he spurred.


My high youth! The great roads in every weather, a supernatural sobriety, a disinterest matched only by the most accomplished beggars, and such pride at having no country, no friends—what idiocy that all was! I’m only realizing it now!

(Rimbaud,  A Season in Hell)

 I finished high school in schiolistic raptures over Pale Fire. For graduation I got every Nabokov book, except Strong Opinions – and so checked into the dorm with a stack of pastel paperbacks; many old emotions are pressed in those pages.

“In hospitals there is still something of an eighteenth century madhouse,” Nabokov told an interviewer. The all-male dormitory is another vestigial Bedlam. There was often shit on the bathroom walls, in childish smears and swoops. My neighbors lounged in grimy underwear, their doors open, swigging gin – Hogarthian tiple! – from plastic bottles, amid the din of video game gunfire. Early one morning my roommate twitched awake, wobbled to his feet, and pissed all over the floor and the small fridge. The water fountain sometimes held a puddle of puke – hearty and stew-like, with burrito bits, or foamy and thin, with a yeasty tang. Whatever this was – and I still don’t know – it was not a place for the fastidious. And I was fastidious.

Because this hive of country boyhoods – let’s call it that – surpassed my experience of squalor, I didn’t believe it was real. The metaphysics of Invitation to a Beheading – the grotesque sham world in which Cincinnatus is imprisoned ruptures and dissolves just before his execution, and he makes his way “in that direction where, to judge by the voices, stood beings akin to him” –  became mine. I even typed out and pinned to the bulletin board of my dorm desk this passage:

Not here! The horrible ‘here,’ the dark dungeon, in which a relentlessly howling heart is encarcerated, this ‘here’ holds and constricts me. But what gleams shine through the night, and what—. It exists, my dream world, it must exist, since, surely, there must be an original of the clumsy copy.

But the book usually open on that desk was The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. I re-read again and again the wistful urban suites of the early 1920s – “A Letter That Never Reached Russia,” “A Guide to Berlin” – in which Nabokov celebrates his place of exile with the curiosity, optimism and receptivity he would retain through a further half-century of geographic and linguistic displacement. The night-strolling narrator of “A Letter That Never Reached Russia” delicately registers “an aged Great Dane whose claws rap on the sidewalk,” and locates happiness

in the moist reflection of a streetlamp, in the cautious bend of stone steps that descend into the canal’s black waters, in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness.

City dogs, wet pavement, and dancehalls also appear in Khodasevich’s embittered final collection, European Night (1927) – I encountered a handful of these late poems in David Bethea’s biography of Khodasevich – but not as sources of enchantment: “another [dog] will scratch with its sharp-clawed/paw the well-worn granite”; “the orchestra blares, the ass sings”; “And my rage and grief seethe/ and my walking-stick incessantly taps/ on the alien granite.”

I felt like Khodasevich – but imitated Nabokov. I compiled “A Guide to Madison,” a group of sketches – gratefully lost, entombed in a defunct computer – with which I pushed myself to record, in that awed, wistful tone that grates if at all forced, such delicate trifles of my surroundings as I thought might be redemptively, Nabokovianly “enchanting.” I recall something about a city bus stripping a shower of dead leaves from a low bough; and sparrows wheeling and dipping against a gray-gold winter sunset. But the tone was forced; and the liveliest images of those years are lively from spleen. Of the beery provincial waste that is the setting for Sologub’s The Petty Demon a sneering Dolinin said: “sounds like here!”





General Grant goes around the world

In my ideal library Mark Twain wrote Around the World with General Grant. On earth, however, the General commenced his travels before he and Twain were well acquainted, and even if they had been Twain was a famous author with a schedule of lucrative lectures, not at all what Grant needed and found in John Russell Young – a pure correspondent, an instrumental reporter whose lively dispatches from the epic world tour (Liverpool to Nagasaki, May 1877 to September 1879) would keep Grant in the domestic eye and impress the American voter (who might be asked to consider a third Grant administration) with the honors Europe and Asia were showering on the ex-president. Young notes that while cruising between Malta and Naples on an American warship, Grant read and enjoyed Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

This edition is an abridgement of the popular two-volume coffee table book – or parlor piano-top book – Young published after he got back. Around the World with General Grant was a lavishly illustrated atlas-cum-gazetteer that allowed Americans to glimpse exotic geography, culture and politics over the shoulder, as it were, of a national hero and nominal Everyman. In the engravings Grant is familiar and repeated, Gorey-like, talismanic; the beard, the cigar, and the frock coat, though his headgear varies: a bowler while strolling European streets, a pith helmet in the desert and in the tropics, a glossy top hat in official receptions.

“Smooth twaddle” is what Henry James would have called Young’s narrative. But Young’s glibness is overpowered by the interest of the historical moment – a moment in which Grant, as the voice of a young New World power whose recent consolidation and display of military prowess has stymied British and French designs, preaches anti-imperial idealism to Asians oppressed by European powers – and by the drama of the witnessed scenes, which show Grant discussing the cares of state with Bismarck; blushing before the dancing girls summoned by the Majaraja of Jeypore; mediating a Sino-Japanese dispute (the chapter on Grant in China is amazing); candidly talking shit about colleague and opponent generals in the American Civil War; and much more.Young’s account for the most part presents an officially masked, phlegmatic and platitudinous Grant, but there are glimpses of the spirited solitary and restless horseman later biographers have revealed:

We had an escort of lepers as we took our places in our wagons, and were glad to hurry away. We kept our journey, our eyes bent toward Jerusalem, and looking with quickened interest as Mr. Hardegg told us that the blue mountains coming in view were the mountains of Judea. Our road is toward the southeast. The rain falls, but it is not an exacting shower. The General has found a horse, and when offered the affectation of an umbrella and urged to swathe his neck in silk, says it is only mist, and gallops ahead.

Alaska: good, but try Hawaii first


If you only read one Michener book, read Hawaii. If you decide to read a second, read this one. Full disclosure: the other Michener works I’ve read so far include Tales of the South Pacific, Return to Paradise, Sayonara, Chesapeake, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Hawaii.

So what makes it so good?

This is the history of Alaska told across the span of 29,000 years, from the first Siberian tribespeople crossing the Bering Sea, up to present day. For the most part, it is the history of the unglamerous and mostly unsung; men and women hoping for riches, to be sure, but usually lucky and grateful to merely survive in this challenging environment. Michener selects excellent historical highlights to give us a sense of Alaska: Siberian tribesmen fleeing community strife, Russian exploration of the Aleutians, 18th century New England whalers, gold rush boomtowns along the Yukon River, Eskimo villages along the Northern slope, salmon fisheries in the southern panhandle, bush pilots and dislocated Depression-Era Minnesotan farmers in the central interior, and the oil boom of the 1970′s.  Historical fiction really shines when it comes to places like Alaska. Compared to say, France, there isn’t that much actual recorded history. Indigenous peoples didn’t write their history down, and Western cultures haven’t been there very long (300 years or so), or in very great numbers.  Historical fiction can at least give readers a sense of the place and its past, even if it can’t offer real events, names, or places.

first appearance of British fur traders, in the 1700′s

Fundamental to Michener’s writing is an understanding that true accomplishment- whether the contruction of lasting institutions, or enduring wealth, or momentous social change- comes only at the hands of determined and enterprising individuals who take risks, make sacrifices, work intellegently, and enjoy instances of pure luck. While the overall narration is one of economic and social development, not everyone meets with success. Accidents, the unforgiving physical environment, and human calamity beset these characters, and some do not recover. The stunning and unexpected deaths of Jeb Keeler and Buck Venn drive this home powerfully.

Russian settlement in Sitka, Alaska- 1800′s

Going beyond mere mechanical storytelling, Michener deftly outlines philosophical aspects of settlement- particularly in the 1800‘s. On one hand, trade and development could only begin with adventurous, entrepaneurial spirits, working independently …free of micromanaging government or corporate home offices. This is the “producer-as-hero” motif which Ayn Rand tends to overdo. Whereas Rand makes her producer/heros akin to infallable superbeings, Michener recognizes their human failings; many of his producers are misfits, either aloof of mainstream society (e.g. Mr Klope in Dawson City), or disenfranchiesed on the grounds of social taboos or legal trouble (e.g. Missy Peckham). For them, Alaska was a a fresh start in a land culturally and physically remote from the rest of the world.

Rugged, self-reliant figures carve out empires for themselves here, according to their own rules, and guided by self-interest. This view romanticizes Libertarian aspects of frontier life; but Michener tempers it well with the downside of lawlessness: gangs and renegades like ‘Soapy’ Smith terrorized honest citizens like Tom Venn. Michener’s delivery of these issues elevates the entire book above mere recitation of historical facts. It becomes what I think most historical fiction aspires to be: not just informative and entertaining, but actually thought-provoking and germane to our current place in history.

Alaska was published in 1988, late on in James Michener’s career, when his experience and craft were at their peak. Despite its heft, it reads fast. In fact, I would place it on par with Hawaii for readability. Hawaii comes across maybe slightly better due to the author’s obvious love for the subject; he had personal ties to the Islands. Alaska, however is probably the technically superior book. I believe it juggles more characters and storylines, yet maintains readability. I think this must be a testament to Michener’s growth as a writer. As it follows multiple generations of characters through a wide geographic area, Alaska’s transitions are smoother than Hawaii and Chesapeake‘s. Those earlier works felt more compartmentalized in time and space… characters would play out their drama, and then the close of their era would end each chapter.

Alaska seems to have more linkages, fewer discontinuities. Take, for example, the story arc of Cidaq: her movement from the Aleutians to Sitka early in life transport the story’s physical setting, and then her life in Sitka raising her son (Arkady) moves the timeline smoothly into the next generation. Also (and this is a minor point, but it impressed me): there is a smooth shift in narration from Kendra Scott to the Japanese mountainclimbers when they pass, unknowing, in an airport. In his earlier, less sophisticated works, it seems like Michener would probably have ended Scott’s chapter and started anew with the Takabuki storyline. This felt smoother.

Climber on Denali (highest mountain in North America)

The four detailed maps are mostly sufficient to support the text, which is an improvement over past Michener works. Better still, pages vii-viii of the foreword lay out clearly which elements in the story are fictional, and which are faithfully-depicted historical fact. Every work of historical fiction should have this. If an author wants to mix the historic record with fiction, I’m willing to grant a lot of artistic license, but at some point, I want to be able to sort out which was which. It can be fun to read historical fiction in preparation for travel, but you don’t want to be the idiot at the back of the tour group, asking “Can we see the place where Luke Skywalker and those peasants stormed the Bastille?”


“I begin to discern the profile of my death.”

This account of Grant’s long dying, of the lucid lingering in which he composed his Personal Memoirs, made me think many times of Memoirs of Hadrian – especially the short opening section in which the emperor begins to discern, after a life of warfare and perilous travels, his quiet, domestic death, and in which he describes the abdications of his failing body:

 To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still…if the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of a centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man? … My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man. He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and perhaps better than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will.

“Horses seem to understand Ulysses,” said his mother, perhaps hinting only horses could. From his cadet years he was acknowledged the finest horseman in the army, and the mastery of large, spirited, unmanageable-looking mounts was one of the few personal demonstrations this shy man allowed himself. Tellingly, he chose to smoke his doctor-decreed last cigar with a Hudson Valley horse breeder, on a fine autumn day, while they were out having a look at the colts.

Flood’s book is blandly written and strangely organized, but the latter chapters quote a wealth of contextual detail. The get-well letters from schoolchildren, the condolence telegrams from former rebel generals and lodges of Confederate veterans, all the funereal logistics of Manhattan crowd control and mourning fashion (by 4:00pm on the day Grant died Bloomingdale’s was sold out of black crepe; the New York Times noted that “in the narrow streets and the tall crowded buildings where the poor make their homes the sign of grief is nearly on every door post…in many cases it is nothing but a narrow strip of cheap black cambric fluttering in the breeze from the topmost story of some tenement house or a small flag bordered with a piece of folded crepe from a wornout bonnet”) allow the reader to sense the nature and magnitude of Grant’s fame in the twenty years he lived after the war. He was the foremost living symbol of peaceful unity – the nation was locally fraught, but generally at peace; its unity mocked, beset, but not fatally endangered by labor strife in the North, racial terrorism in the South, and, out West, amid the piecemeal settlement, sporadic warfare and nigh-genocidal dispossession. A society confused but mostly functional, its injustice and inequality somehow borne, its ideals regularly betrayed but still vital enough to inspire immigrants and the young, its citizens ever-hopeful of adapting, rising, overcoming; a country always, said Bernard DeVoto, in the process of becoming something it had not been; a welter of souls, strangely channeled, by force, by whim, and deposited somewhere.The semblance of community, and frequently the substance.

The national tributes Grant received in his illness, especially those from old rebels, gave a calm to the “Conclusion” of his Personal Memoirs.  “The expressions of these kindly feelings were not restricted to a section of the country, nor to a division of the people.” A prospect of felicitous integration – what he called “a commingling of the people.” The styles of Grant and Yourcenar’s Hardrian intersect at a lyrical legalism, a civic sublimity:

Prior to the rebellion the great mass of the people were satisfied to remain near the scenes of their birth. In fact an immense majority of the whole people did not feel secure against coming to want should they move among entire strangers …This is all changed now … The war begot a spirit of independence and enterprise. The feeling now is, that a youth must cut loose from his old surroundings to enable him to get up in the world. There is now such a commingling of the people that…the country has filled up “from the centre all around to the sea”; railroads connect the two oceans and all parts of the interior; maps, nearly perfect, of every part of the country are now furnished the student of geography.


I desired that the might and majesty of the Roman Peace  should extend to all, insensibly present like the music of the revolving skies; that the most humble traveler might wander from one country, or one continent, to another without vexatious formalities, and without danger, assured everywhere of a minimum of legal protection and culture…

Yourcenar said that in her wartime hiatus from work on the novel, the emperor, “the most official yet the most hidden form of all,” had gradually emerged from Hadrian’s other selves – “The fact of having lived in a world that was toppling all around us taught me the importance of the Prince.” Grant’s memory was for a long time obscured in his nation’s era of general peace, when unity was assumed, order assured, and rebels romantic; what does his memory mean for us now that the Federal political system of the United States is again broken, again at an impasse?


Amazon buys Goodreads!

Otis Chandler announced today that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, meaning Amazon now owns Goodreads, Shelfari, and a 40% stake in LibraryThing through Abe Books. (Though, I’m given to understand, the stake in LibraryThing is not a controlling stake.) Patrick Brown, community manager for Goodreads, issued the following statement when asked about review policy changes, which are forefront for many users (including me):

 Our review policy seems to be a frequent topic of concern, so let me reassure you that we have no plans to change how we handle reviews. We do not expect to switch to Amazon’s review policy. 

For those wondering if our site will continue to be supported, I can emphatically answer “Yes.” We are still trying to rapidly grow our team and we think this means exciting things for the future of Goodreads.

Having no plans to change the review policy doesn’t mean the review policy isn’t going to change. (Boy, that sentence has too many negations.) Here are three Amazon policies which could negatively impact the more reader-oriented community of Goodreads.


Not everyone likes cussin’, and I can understand a commercial venture keeping cussing out of their product reviews. It’s like a bookstore not dropping f-bombs in their window displays. (Although when Amazon deletes reviews for quoting the title of a work, such as what has happened for works like Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere: Three Novels or Snowballin’: I Fucked Frosty, that’s some crazy silliness that I can laugh at only because it’s so, so terrible.) (Full disclosure: I know the authors of both of these books.)

The real issue here is that Goodreads, as much as it has been about books, has always been a social network first. While there are the occasional teens on Goodreads – the terms of service specify you have to be 13 – the Goodreads community is largely made up of adults talking to other adults. (And, for serious, if you think people 13-17 haven’t heard profanity, you are living in a dream world.) More importantly, we haven’t been here to shill books, but to discuss them.

I can’t imagine Goodreads beginning to police for language though, partially because it would alienate so many users – out of several hundred Goodreads reviews, I’m sure I cuss in at least half – and partially because it would be expensive. Goodreads has been a largely unmoderated site. Reviews are only taken down if they are both flagged and actionable, and there is no huge staff counting nipples and making sure no f-bombs are dropped. It’s possible I’m being naive about how expensive a semi-literate staff would be, one that could run a quick search for Carlin’s seven. It is also possible I’m naive about how much Amazon cares about alienating Goodreads’s users, because with 16 million, there’s going to be plenty who think it’s just fine the profane get run out.


The concept of “helpfulness” isn’t one that necessarily comes in to literary criticism. Nor does it matter much in the personal reaction, satirical piece, or completely off-topic nattering of some Goodreads reviews. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Celebrity Death Match when it occurred; it struck me as more pointless than the usual pointless stuff I engage in online. I, however, loved every second of the Shouting Teen Reviews when they were burning their way through the population.

I admit I don’t understand how this works, but it is my understanding that if a review is down-voted on Amazon enough, then it will be deleted as unhelpful. I have said this before, but Goodreads is a social network, and socially speaking, it is a disaster to give semi-anonymous human beings the ability to be semi-anonymously shitty to one another. Maybe the Celebrity Death Match was stupid to me, but it was a blast for those involved, and I don’t see how my interjecting a down-vote in the social enjoyment of others is anything but a bitch-move.

Obviously, the worry is that Amazon will change Goodreads from a social network to a product review platform, and herein lies the problem. Facebook will never ever institute a dislike button (which is not to say that Facebook doesn’t have its own issues) and Otis was always clear down-voting would never be a part of Goodreads with him in charge. He’s not in charge anymore, and all of this “we have no plans…” stuff is corporate bullshit and everyone knows it. Down-voting would result in the tyranny of the majority, and would give leeway to people with agendas – whatever they are – to try to spike voices and opinions that run against the current. The iconoclast can be fucking annoying, don’t get me wrong, and alternate voices are wrong as often as the mainstream ones. But getting down-voted simply for voicing an unpopular, silly, light-hearted, or off-topic opinion is majorly dumb, and hurts the social network.

Author Reviews:

I am an enthusiastic armchair participant in the roughly seven hundred thousand author-reviewer spats that occur on Goodreads (and the larger bookoverse) . While readers have always said some harsh stuff about books, in the age of social media, the rubbing of elbows between the average writer and the average reader has become…maybe not more personal, but certainly more possible. Goodreads has certainly leveled the field for a lot of indie, mid-list, and otherwise largely unknown writers. Classes of books, like romance or YA, which have been largely ignored by traditional media reviewing platforms, hav ound robust communities of readers on Goodreads. (Though I’m not even close to preteneding that Goodreads is the only place for this.)