No, not the kind where some rude jerk on the Internet comes along and tells you that you’re worthless. We’re talking about the kind of criticism where some rude jerk in a highly respected literary publication comes along and tells you you’re worthless.
When I was in college, earning that Journalism degree, there was a lot of criticism to be read and I learned something very interesting from it – critics can take any word from any part of speech and turn it into a noun describing a literary phenomenon, thus proving that Whedonspeak is a real literary concept. Literary criticism is also a real thing and a useful tool for the aspiring writer. Why? Well, there’s a lot of reasons. The simplest and most straightforward is that literary criticism, for all that it is sometimes pretentious and frequently boring, is one of the densest, most insightful and useful breakdowns of what stories are and why they work an author will find.
Yes, it can be very uncomfortable to have a total stranger submit your own works to that level of scrutiny. Eventually, that level of criticism will be useful to you (assuming anyone ever decides to try it) but in the mean time there’s no reason not to read criticism of other authors. You see, even if the things you read about don’t apply directly to your story you can still get tips that give great insight into how you might improve your own writing process.
Here are a few things that literary criticism is good for:
- Criticism lets you get another’s perspective. And not just any other person’s a literary expert’s opinion (well, maybe an expert maybe just a shmoe on the Internet). While literary experts are like all other people, armed with subjective opinions and fallible intellects (but don’t tell them I said that), there’s one thing they have that most other people don’t – a vast amount of experience with literature. Simply by reading huge amounts of fiction one can start to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. While some experts will approach any work of fiction looking to plaster their own agenda all over it most are simply trying to break a story down and see if it stands on its own merits. Which brings us to…
- Criticism shows you the shortcomings of a piece. Every writer makes mistakes, even Stephen King. Criticism carefully examines every aspect of those mistakes and paints them in neon colors so they will be easier for you to recognize. Really understand the mistake, whatever it was and regardless of whether you think it applies to you, and you’ll quickly come to grasp how to avoid it. Even if you’re already aware that the aspect of the work under discussion was a mistake you may still learn new things about what went wrong or how to correct it.
- Criticism shows you the strengths of a piece. Writers are very good at writing great stuff but they don’t always stop to explain how they did it. Sometimes they can’t always articulate how they did it clearly and understandably. Sometimes the critics can’t either. But when they do they highlight every part of those successes as clearly as they do with mistakes. While plagiarism is bad, understanding what works in what is good is the first step to making something good yourself.
- Criticism shows you the context of a piece. This is especially true of works that are more then ten or fifteen years old. Even if you were alive and reading at that time there may have been aspects of culture, the author’s life or the publishing industry they worked in that you were not aware of. This provides better understanding for what did not work, what did work and what only worked because of the piece’s context. There are often layers of nuance that even a very perceptive lay reader will not catch simply because they have not done the legwork that the professional critic does. Rather than do all that legwork yourself, let the critic do it. That’s why they get paid, after all.
- Criticism provides a language for discussion. Critics do a lot of Whedonspeak for a reason. They need to reduce their concepts to a useful shorthand and do so without hesitation. Like in many industries there’s a lot of jargon to be learned (and it’s not always picked up quickly) but if you read enough criticism then you to can begin to work through these concepts in a much more convenient shorthand. So long as you do this to smooth discussion along and not to be a snob this is a great bonus!
Yes, as the name implies literary criticism has a tendency to be a little negative. But that’s only because that’s the only way to get all the positives! Criticism is the heart and soul of discussing writing – you don’t have to have a degree in literature to provide useful commentary on themes, character or plot. You just have to sit down at the table and remember that not everyone will agree with you. So find three or four critics to keep track of and read up (or watch or listen in) on what they’ve said and start gleaning those tips and considering those opinions. It’s not as good as having a dedicated editor looking over your shoulder – but in some ways it’s the next best thing and frequently it provides benefits an editor can’t.