What Is A Reader? How Readers on Goodreads are Changing the Canon in the Twenty-First Century

1. Abstract

Matthew Kirshenbaum’s essay “What Is An @uthor?” argues that today’s social media landscape provides authors with a different means to confront their public personas.[1] Authors can tweet back to their readers, like William Gibson tweeted to an MLA panel in January of 2015 on his novel The Peripheral, to engage in immediate and mediated conversations about their work on a global scale. In this short paper I ask “What is a Reader?” because the Amazon-owned social media site, Goodreads, changes how readers respond to literature. While literary culture was once accessible primarily to those who had the means to acquire formal education, now literature is widely accessible and frequently free online; this shift in access is tied to an evolving version of literary knowledge in the digital age. There are free, online lectures about literature through TED Talks and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and discussion forums on the Internet are widely available through Goodreads, LibraryThing, Amazon, and Facebook’s Year of Books. While “lowbrow” or popular literature is not easily separated from “highbrow” literature in any historical period, the difference between the two has never been so muddied as in the twenty-first century.[2] In this paper, I explore how the medium of Goodreads influences how readers respond to works by close and distant reading the comment section for two well-reviewed books on the site, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, a novel about the rape of a Native American woman by a non-Native man and Stephanie Myer’s Twilight, a series about vampire romance. I situate the comments section for these two books within the broader context of comments posted on Goodreads about literature in order to highlight how online delivery systems can impact how and what we read. Because online delivery systems, like Goodreads, have the power to promote certain works over others, what constitutes literary value continues to change and therein their appeal to audiences beyond academic institutions. As a consequence, the taste of the large online public begins to define the classificatory matrix foundational to canon design; in turn, these seemingly “objective” classifications forged through algorithmic machine intelligence begin to fossilize a new canon. And yet, in circulating some texts selectively over others, these systems of counting and accounting define what counts as literature.

[1] Kirshenbaum, Matthew. “What Is an @uthor?” Los Angeles Review of Books. 6 February 2015. Accessed 7 Oct. 2019.

[2] One example of how “lowbrow” is not easily separated from “highbrow” literature in any historical period is the recent response to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. David Chinitz writes about Eliot’s long-term interest in comic strips and crosswords (2003); Barry Faulk demonstrates how popular London music halls impacted Eliot’s works (2011); and Robert Lehman writes on Eliot’s use of satire in the drafts of The Waste Land (2009).

Ashley Champagne (ashley_champagne@brown.edu), Brown University, United States of America

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