f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Reading Critically

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Reading Critically

There’s been a lot of hullaballo here and there about whether to critique or not to critique and whether book critics are actually the spawn of Satan his ownself and whether we’d all just be better off getting along.

This isn’t a post in that vein. Instead, it’s a small thought about the skill of reading critically, in general, and whether this is something we can learn, develop, and turn on and off as needed.

No matter what we think of “critics” I don’t think anybody has fully denounced the need for critical feedback of our writing at some stage. Nothing we put down is holy writ, and if you think it is, I have a jacket with rather long sleeves I wouldn’t mind snugging around you. (Or failing that, I implore you not to send me your work.)

So if we do want people to comment and critique our work, we are saying that there is a particular kind of reading we want them to employ. And I think it’s different from simply sitting down with a book and enjoying it at the beach.

I’ve written before about some traits that I think most good “readers” have. The “discerning” part mentioned on the list is the trait that comes most into play in reading critically. It’s an awareness while reading of the mechanics and machinery of the story. It’s a trait editors develop throughout their careers…the ability to read with a pen in the hand.

And it’s quite different from pleasure reading. In-house here, one of The Intern’s prime responsibilities has been launching and managing a new review aspect to our department.** A little like focus groups, this is gathering input from potential readers on projects either before they're contracted or before they're edited.

Proposals and manuscripts go out and we get readers’ thoughts in return. What one always takes with a grain of salt is how critical these reviews are. People’s mindsets and expectations are completely different when given a review “assignment” next to simply picking up a book and reading it for enjoyment.

The “review” focuses on the negative. What can and should be fixed? This is the time to get it done, so focus on the broken. The “intention” of the review is critical in nature.

Pleasure reading is often the opposite. Theoretically, you’ve spent money on a book intending to enjoy it. Do you really want to ruin that by nit-picking a book to death? (I, for instance, just finished Michael Connelly’s The Closers. Is it an astounding piece of literature? No. Did I give myself over to it for four hours and simply enjoy the experience? Yes. Did I find any major things that detracted from my reading experience? Nope. Could I have found lots of minor things? You bet. I just didn’t try.)

Amazon, in some ways, has done a bit of a disservice by turning everybody and their uncle into a critic. The day of the pleasure read may be dead. Not only is it not enough to read a book, now you’re supposed to have formulated and posted your opinion on it within hours of closing the cover. That’s not a trend that’s necessarily all that positive. It does honestly reflect the self-absorption and narcissism of our time…eg., the final word on this book hasn’t been said until I weigh in.

We do needs critics. We don’t all need to be critics, however. Except in our own writing and when we’re called on by friends. Otherwise, what’s the harm in reading something for the enjoyment?

**If you are interested in joining our growing list of potential readers, The Intern would love to hear from you. You can email her here.