Over the past few years, I’ve been a part of many different reading challenges and I love to take part in the Goodreads groups that go with them to have people to talk to about the books we are all reading. One of the things I love most about reading challenges is the ability to tailor it to my own tastes, at least to some degree. As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to do challenges that give lists of specific prompts to fulfill, and I find it so fun to cross things off the list and have the scavenger hunt of trying to find books to fit every prompt. I’m open to trying new books and the challenges give me a bit of a push sometimes to try something that I might otherwise have never picked up.
The downside of being part of these reading challenge communities though is that sometimes people seem to take things a little too seriously. Inevitably, there are a few prompts that I absolutely dread, whether because they are outside my comfort zone, they are difficult to fulfill, or I’ve already read that genre and know that I don’t like it. I’ve had examples over the years of each of these. In general, I find the reading challenge groups that I’m a part of tend to be more supportive than not, but there always seem to be a few people who take it upon themselves to be the “challenge police” and try to control what other people are choosing.
On the one hand, I get it. I’m definitely a rule-follower when it comes to these kinds of challenges, and I want the books I pick to be a clear and obvious fit for the prompt so that I’m not left questioning whether I can really cross the item off. I would imagine that people who are trying to police other people’s choices are thinking along the same lines — they think that in order to “count,” the book must stick pretty closely to the prompt. I’ve had a few books that I’ve picked in the past that didn’t quite fit, but I went with them anyway. For example, I picked one of the books in the Delirium trilogy for a prompt requiring an “adventure novel” because it came up on a Goodreads list of adventure books, and I definitely would not have considered that story an adventure. You could make a case for it for sure, but I would have preferred something that fit the prompt a little more closely. The thing is, that is my personal preference and other people are okay with looser interpretations — and that’s totally okay!
This came up recently as well in my favourite Goodreads challenge group, since we are in the process of voting to create next year’s challenge. A prompt had been voted in earlier in the year calling for “a children’s classic you haven’t read yet.” It was kind of a surprise when that one made the list since there had been absolutely no discussion around it during the voting process, and there were quite a few comments afterwards expressing that they weren’t excited for it. At the time, keeping in mind this is after the prompt had already been selected, a discussion arose about loosening it up to state just “a children’s classic” and remove the extra restriction to only include books you haven’t read yet. Several people seemed interested, and the person who originally suggested that prompt agreed that they would be fine with changing it. However, it was never changed on the list of prompts, so I decided to ask the moderators what was ultimately decided. The general conclusion was that it could not be changed after the fact because we couldn’t know for sure whether people would have voted for it in the modified form, but the moderators might open a poll at the end of the process to see if people wanted to change it. I found that a little odd since what we were asking for was a really minor change that didn’t even exclude the original prompt — people can still choose a children’s classic they hadn’t read, but would also have the option of choosing to reread one. In the end, the discussion shifted away from interest in voting on it, and instead it was left down to “it’s your challenge, so you can loosen it up if you want to.” I personally struggle with that because I think the way it is written inherently excludes rereads, and would have a hard time justifying to myself choosing a reread when it says “that you haven’t read,” but that’s a limitation on my part. What was great though was to have so many members jump in to comment that there’s no reason for anyone to feel restricted by it, and everyone is free to interpret it as they wish. It’s my choice whether to stick to the prompt the way it is written, but at least the other option is there.
The “challenge police” tend to show up when they see people posting about books that don’t seem like a great fit for the prompt. I noticed this earlier this year with a particular prompt that called for “an essay anthology,” which led to a lot of debate in the group’s thread about what counts as an anthology vs. a collection. It seemed that the creators of that challenge assumed that people knew what was meant by anthology when the prompt was listed, since at the time they offered no further definition of what it was. Some group members seemed to be defining “anthology” in the strict literary sense of the term, whereas others took it more loosely as “a book of essays.” There was debate over whether an anthology had to contain one author or multiple authors, which was made even more complicated by someone looking up the dictionary definition of anthology, which included both various authors and one author as options. Eventually, someone from the website hosting the challenge jumped into the discussion to clarify how they were defining anthology, and stated that many of the books that members had listed above would not count. To be fair, that statement was made about a week after the challenge list was originally posted so it was still well before the challenge had “officially” started, but it didn’t quite sit right with me to have someone tell people that their choices wouldn’t count when in reality, no one is checking on their progress.
I can understand policing people’s choices if the reading challenge was some kind of contest to see who would finish first, or if everyone who completed all the prompts within the year would get some sort of prize. In that context, it would make sense to have strict criteria about what counts and what doesn’t, but that is just not the case. The reading challenges that I’m part of are challenges that people take on because they want to, and many people adapt the challenges to suit their own tastes and fit around the amount of time they have. I can understand pointing out when someone’s choice very clearly doesn’t fit the prompt (ie. reading Of Mice and Men for a prompt requiring a book over 600 pages…and I pick that example specifically because that book showed up a Goodreads list of long books), but if the choice still generally falls within the realm of what the prompt is asking for, is it really necessary to nit-pick? As another example, last year I had a very frustrating prompt requiring a book published by a micropress. Once I did some research to figure out what the hell a micropress even was, I quickly discovered that I was just not interested in any of the books I was finding, nor were they easily accessible to me. Most books that are published by micropresses (basically a small, independent publisher that produce books on a small scale) are chapbooks and most of them were poetry. I was left with three choices — skip the prompt completely, read something I had absolutely no interest in for the sake of crossing an item off the list, or adapt it to make it work for me.
As I mentioned above, I generally like my choices to be a clear example of what the prompt is asking for, but what I should also mention is that I’m more interested in what I consider the “spirit of the prompt” than necessarily following it exactly to the letter. What I mean by that is it accomplishes the same thing that the prompt itself is trying to accomplish, even if it doesn’t technically fit. So, when a prompt calls for a micropress, I decided to choose something that was published by an independent publisher that was relatively small-scale, and ended up choosing something from Swoon Reads, which is a crowdsourced publishing company where people upload manuscripts and they are read and voted on by others to decide what gets published. I decided that was close enough. For the essay anthology, I picked Everyday Sexism, which was a book of essays but not really an anthology. In this case, I was limited by my local library closing for renovations and in the process getting rid of many of the books they had in stock, so my choices were limited (unless I wanted to buy a book for the prompt, which I didn’t). I decided it was better to pick something that I had some interest in reading and that I could easily find, instead of worrying about whether it exactly fit the technical definition of anthology.
I think one of the reasons people get so offended by the challenge police is their approach. I was “challenge policed” myself once, but I didn’t take offense at all because the comment was very respectful. The prompt was for a book set in the Southern Hemisphere, and I picked a book that was set in Nigeria, not realizing that Nigeria is actually in the Northern Hemisphere. Someone very kindly pointed out my mistake, and I ended up shifting that book to another prompt and picking something else. In contrast, I saw the opposite happen this year with another member of the same group. The prompt was for “a title that is a whole sentence” and one person had posted in their progress thread about a book they had picked. Another member who happens to be an English teacher decided to criticize that person’s choice on the grounds that the title was not technically a complete grammatically correct sentence, and therefore the book didn’t count. Keep in mind that this feedback was unsolicited, although you could argue that by posting her plans on a message board, the group member was opening herself up to comments. The English teacher pointed out the mistake in quite a harsh tone, and even at one point made a statement to the effect of “Well, I’m an English teacher so I have the authority to tell you that it doesn’t count.” Needless to say, the group member became defensive and it spun out into an argument between the two of them when the person insisted on sticking with their choice. At the end of the day, this is a group where the rules are quite loose and people are welcome to adapt their challenges, so how is it benefiting anyone to try and control what they are reading?
In fact, the only context where I can see it being necessary to police other people’s book choices is when that is part of the challenge itself, and they agreed to that level of pickiness when they signed up. There is one Goodreads group that I joined because I was very interested in seeing their lists of prompts, but I quickly decided that it wasn’t for me because it had extremely strict rules about what books would count. This group runs on a points system, where members get points for completing tasks within a 3-month period, and different tasks are worth different amounts. The group has all kinds of rules about different genres and even formats. For example, books must be over 100 pages, and children’s books must be “validated” by searching for them on AR BokFinder and have a specific score in order to count. Graphic novels, comics and manga can only be used for low-scoring tasks, and have a range of restrictions on them as well. Page counts must be for the specific copy you have. E-books must be pre-approved by moderators if there is no print edition available, etc. I’m sure it makes a lot more sense to people who are actively involved in the challenge, but it seems like a lot of extra steps. And that’s not to mention the rules around claiming your points for the task — members need to post it with the task number and a task description, must link to the book on Goodreads, clarify how it fits the task if it is not immediately obvious, etc. Certain kinds of books must be pre-approved for length. In a case like this, it makes sense to have challenge police involved to make sure people are adhering to the rules, and members of this group must be well-aware of the rules when they agree to take on the challenge. Plus, earning points wins the “reward” of being able to create a task for a future challenge.
In general, I’ve found that most challenge groups are much more lenient than that, where people are free to make the challenge their own. It makes no sense to me to have people so adamantly insistent on double-checking people’s choices to make sure they are doing the challenge “properly” when there are no set rules about how it must be done. I’ve seen people get really creative and take on challenges using only children’s books, only graphic novels, all non-fiction, etc. Some people like to do 2 books per task. Some people choose their favourite prompts and skip everything else. The point of a reading challenge is to be fun and encourage people to read, and policing their choices is a very quick way to kill the excitement for most people. No one wants to be told that they are “not allowed” to read a book that they are really looking forward to just because it doesn’t seem to fit. If they think it is close enough to a prompt and they are choosing to read it, then let them. Even if you think the book doesn’t fit at all, at the end of the day, it is their challenge and they can do it their own way. If you do decide to offer a suggestion, at least make sure you do so respectfully and remember it is not your job to force the other person to agree.