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When a Bad Review Isn’t Bad

Some time ago, I vented about a careless review of one of my books. But that doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with all bad reviews. Reading tastes vary. It’s highly unlikely that there will be unanimous praise for or criticism of an author’s offerings. Authors know that and accept it. But sometimes a bad review still conveys to the reader enough about the book to alert readers with different tastes to what they might find enjoyable–even as the critic pans those parts.  As an example, I’m going to reprint here a review that dinged my romantic comedy, My Own Personal Soap Opera (written as Libby Malin). This appeared in Publishers Weekly:

Malin’s latest is heavy on humor, but disappoints with plot. Frankie McNally is the head writer for Lust for Life , the longest-running (and currently lowest-rated) television soap opera, and while she can’t shake the sense that she should be writing the Great American Novel, Frankie’s use of the show to “work out her innermost frustrations” through the characters has therapeutic value. But when management calls in “marketing guru” Victor Pendergrast to save the show, Frankie’s suddenly a little less comfortable. Victor immediately clashes with Frankie on the show’s biggest problem: how to address the fact that a real-life jewel thief has adopted a modus operandi similar to one used by a thief on the show. Meanwhile, Frankie’s predictable attraction to Victor is at odds with the sparks she feels with the show’s leading man. Malin (Fire Me ) coaxes plenty of laughs, but the multitude of misunderstandings and contrivances needed to resolve the mystery and concoct a happily-ever-after are painfully melodramatic, even by daytime TV standards. (Apr.) Reviewed on: 02/15/2010

When I read this review, I did cringe at first at the “disappoints with plot.” But then when I got to the end, the final “painfully melodramatic, even by daytime TV standards” actually lifted my spirits. That’s because this was my goal in writing the book. Oh, not to be “painful” — who wants to do that?–but to be “melodramatic,” even over-the-top compared to “daytime TV standards.” I wanted the denouement to be head-spinningly-outrageous. Obviously, I succeeded. 🙂 And anyone who likes that kind of madcap storytelling might have thought, “Hmm, I might enjoy this book.”

I’ve read comments about bad reviews from readers that talk about that precise effect–that is, details in a bad review that alert them to aspects of a story they would find appealing, even if the reviewer wasn’t in love with the tale. This Publishers Weekly review falls into that category. The reviewer did a terrific summary of the book’s main plot points, and the criticisms, while unvarnished, are not gratuitous. They are specific. And that makes all the difference in whether a bad review is really “bad.”

When a reviewer takes the time and care to craft a critique that gives the reader a)  a fair and dispassionate summary of what’s in the book; and b) the specific aspects of the book that didn’t work for the reviewer, that’s not necessarily a bad review, even if it contains criticism.

So, this writer is grateful for the attention from Publishers Weekly for this goofy story of mine, My Own Personal Soap Opera.

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