I discovered Goodreads when I was 13, and I’ve been hooked since then.
I’ve always described Goodreads as “Facebook for people who like books.” As it is, I use Goodreads just as one uses Facebook: constantly and (almost) obsessively.
It was through Goodreads, actually, that I became conscious of my reading decisions, thanks to the site’s recommendation feature.
Just as YouTube recommends videos based on whatever you’ve been watching lately (sometimes rather unfortunately, especially if you’ve gone down a 4 a.m. video-watching spiral), Goodreads offers suggestions inspired by the books you’ve indicated as “read” on your profile. This is something I’ve used to my advantage every now and then, since it can be super helpful. It’s an automated and altogether innocent part of the website, but it made me realize something about the way I have picked books my whole life.
In my youth, I read a mixture of young adult fiction and childhood classics such as “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables.” These are genres where women are predominant. As I entered high school and began reading assigned books, my perspective changed considerably. I was an aspiring literature major even then, and I loved my English classes. We started reading George Orwell, William Shakespeare, Albert Camus and Edgar Allan Poe, among other American and European men.
Young and understandably impressionable, I came to believe that these works were important in a different way than the books I read in my youth. My childhood books, in my mind, were for fun — but it was the novels that were discussed in the classroom that I thought were actually worth reading.
But this led to a strange and disturbing phenomenon every time I marked a book as “complete” on my Goodreads profile. In particular, I have always been fascinated by Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, and I have mostly read winning titles written by men, such as Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.” I told Goodreads which books by men I had just read, and Goodreads, understandably, would automatically recommend other books by men.
I don’t rely wholly on Goodreads recommendations. But these recommendations reflect a real-life phenomenon: books by men (most often white men) are the ones that become mainstream. These are the books we are exposed to more than any others, and then we seek similar books after we read them. Books by women and other marginalized people are often sidelined as either adult fiction that goes unnoticed or young adult fiction that receives little serious consideration, aside from breakout series such as “Harry Potter” or “The Hunger Games.”
Of the 89 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (which, from 1917 to 1947 was known as the Pulitzer Prize for Novels and later changed to “fiction” when short story collections became eligible to win as well), only 30 have been awarded to female authors. Horror, another genre I love, is monopolized by men such as Stephen King, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz.
There is literary fiction, which appeals to the most intellectual cravings of an adult audience, and then there is “women’s fiction,” sometimes known as “chick lit,” which is rarely taken seriously by critics who dismiss books that are written by women for women.
Is it fair that I have to learn to go out of my way if I want to read novels by people with similar life experiences to my own?
Growing up, my mother would often take me to her book club, which was part of an organization known as Las Comadres. This book club has chapters across the United States, and its mission is to exclusively read books by Latinx authors.
When I started analyzing my own experiences with literature and why I chose the books that I did, I used my mother’s book club as a starting point — if she and her friends wanted to read books by authors that represented them, they had to make an effort to achieve that. This was something I didn’t understand when I was eight years old and listened to the group discuss their read of the month.
Now I’m a month away from turning 19 and I’m a comparative literature major focusing on Latin American literature. It all makes more sense to me.
Books by men are the most discussed books — this is an objective fact and one that I am still learning to make my way around. To diversify my view of literature is always going to be difficult, especially since I will continue to be assigned mainstream books by mainstream men while completing my bachelor’s degree.
But I continue to diversify my interactions with literature anyway, as much as I possibly can. Maybe someday soon, my new reading history will inspire Goodreads to provide me with a much more expansive list of recommendations.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.