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Last week The Candid Cover posted a teaser from Mechanica, by Betsy Cornwell. The blurb intrigued me, so I checked it out on Goodreads, and scrolled down to some of the reviews. This was a mistake. One commenter said, “Wait a minute. I read this book a couple years ago. Except then it was called Cinder.” I haven’t even read this book, I have no opinion on it other than that it looks interesting, but this comment left me immediately defensive about it. I think it’s incredibly unfair to an author, who no doubt started writing this book before Cinder was published, to reduce all their work to, “Something else has a similar premise, so this must suck.” Comments like this are the reason I stopped reading the reviews on Goodreads in the first place, because so often I feel like the negative ones are straight-up bitching rather than criticism that helps someone decide if the book is for them.

I’m not really a fan of negative reviews in general; often if I do read a book that I’ve been hesitant about because of negative reviews I find that the issues brought up in the review simply didn’t bother me, and I wish I’d read the book sooner. This is something I’ve really noticed in the past several months since I’ve been participating in Coven Book Club, because we focus on recommendations rather than reviews there, and I find that, for me, that’s a better model for discussing literature.

This is a big part of why I don’t read the reviews on Goodreads; if I am going to read negative reviews, I prefer them to be from someone whose tastes I’m familiar with (this applies to all reviews, really), so I prefer reading reviews on the blogs I follow, where I can get to know a blogger’s individual tastes.

However, there’s a difference between a negative review and bitching. It is, quite frankly, rude to call a book a rip-off, especially when the similarity doesn’t extend beyond a simple premise. Many, many people have re-written Cinderella, and making her a mechanic is a reasonable choice based on the original tale; it’s a job that involves working with her hands, as Cinderella does in the tale, but it’s more stereotypically masculine than housework. Cinderella is associated with a lot of feminine traits – passivity, beauty, kindness, generosity – that giving her a “masculine” interest is a reasonable progression from that. In other words, it’s perfectly believable to me that two different women decided to do a retelling of Cinderella and both of them separately decided that making her a mechanic would add something to the tale.

It’s fine to say that you couldn’t get into the book because it was too much like Cinder. I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know how similar the two stories are (though judging from the blurb for Mechanica the only similarity seems to be that both are retellings of Cinderella in which Cinderella is a mechanic, but both appear to take it in different directions), but perhaps for some readers Cinderella-as-mechanic was so unusual for them when they read Cinder that the two are forever linked in their heads, and so they can’t read another book with a similar premise without Cinder popping up in their minds. That’s fine. But it’s a huge leap to go from saying, “It didn’t work for me because the premise was too much like Cinder” to calling it a straight-up rip-off.

It’s important that Goodreads be an unbiased forum where readers can speak freely about what they think of books without interference from authors or publishers. The entire concept of the reviews feature is to allow readers to say what they think of books in order to help others decide if the book is suitable.

It’s this second part, though, that I think is lost with many of the negative comments I read. Calling a book ‘craptastic’ (not something I’ve seen on reviews for Mechanica, but something I’ve seen in the past) doesn’t help others decide if they should read the book, not if your only justification for this assessment is something along the lines of “This book sucks and I hated all the characters”. The same goes for calling it a rip-off based only on the blurb. Not only is it uninformative, but it’s disrespectful to the authors who are the very reason Goodreads exists. Authors, and books, should not be immune to criticism. Whether a book has purple prose or romanticises abusive relationships, it should be criticised, but there is a difference between criticism and insult.

This is not, of course, unique to Goodreads. When I was eleven or twelve, long before Goodreads existed, I remember people accusing Jill Murphy of plagiarising JK Rowling with her series of books set at a school for witches. That she wrote in the 70s. However, it’s something that I’ve seen more on Goodreads than elsewhere, and I think it’s something the Goodreads model allows to thrive, because it’s easy for anyone on the internet, basically, to write whatever their first thoughts are about a book blurb. It’s not an easy problem to solve, though, not without compromising the integrity of the reviews, because being able to say whatever you like about a book is important to an honest review. I’m more disappointed that people are petty enough to do this kind of thing than advocating that Goodreads seek to change it.

There are a lot of excellent reviewers on Goodreads, people who identify strengths and weaknesses of the books they love and the books they loathe, but lately I’ve just been feeling like I have to put on armour just to wade into the reviews, and I’m not even the target of their disdain. I think it’s time for me to return to what I used Goodreads for initially: as a tool for keeping track of my TBR, regardless of what other members think of those books.

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