Everybody’s a critic

So criticism is good for you, whether it’s criticism of your work or someone else’s. The next logical question is, what critics provide useful feedback? There’s a lot of critics out there, ranging  from Michiko Kakutani, literarian extrodinair, to Noah Antweiler, the Spoony One. What are their relative values and weaknesses?

Well, in short, it really depends on what kind of aspect of a work you want to examine.

In general, highly literary critics are going to grapple with issues like theme and symbolism. Many works are crammed full of tiny subtleties that are all designed to point the audience to a single conclusion about a work, many of them so subtle or so vague that the audience either misses them or isn’t sure what to make of them. When you add in creators who add symbolism without bothering to consult with an expert on what it’s supposed to mean (I say this with tongue firmly in cheek) or who add symbolism for the express purpose of muddying the waters, it’s easy to wonder how much value there is to reading that kind of highly literary criticism.

The answer is, a lot. As I’ve said before, many creators are building their stories with all the care of a master jewel thief planning one final heist. Careful examination of that kind of work is definitely beneficial. But all but the most patient and painstaking minds will find that it grows dull after a while (and not a long while at that). I try to read one or two works of serious literary criticism a year – currently I’m working through “Reading Joss Whedon,”edited by Wilcox, Cochran, Masson and Lavery. Also, this is the kind of criticism you only tend to get from books and journals, the kinds of things it’s better to get from a library (cheap) or dedicated research database (expensive) than try and dredge up online, so access to it is not as easy as the next kind.

You see, below literary criticism but above the layman’s criticism is the criticism you get from people who spend a lot of time exploring stories and have become experts on narrative structure and examining the craft of writing. We’ll call this semi-literary criticism. There’s a lot of people out there these days that dabble in this kind of criticism. Already mentioned are reviewers like Kakutani (who I believe has done some true literary criticism as well) and Noah Antweiler (who has done no literary criticism and has the motto “Because bad movies and games deserve to be hurt back!”)

While Spoony can be both excitable and crass he does put a lot of thought into his critiques and takes the time to thoroughly, sometimes too thoroughly, explore his points. It might be tempting to write him off, since he doesn’t have any background education in writing or film, but the fact is you don’t really need much beyond reading comprehension and a nose for lazy writing to be a good semi-literary critic and Spoony has both in spades. Spoony has examined the plots of a number of video games as well. While that’s still kind of useful for a hardcore writer many of his critiques are not going to translate to other mediums directly.

Doug Walker, The Nostalgia Critic, is a movie critic and leading member of the League of Super Critics and his work is very good. While he is a movie critic first, and thus addresses issues such as the strengths of an actors performance or the technical level of a film’s cinematography, there’s still more than enough said in his typical review about plot and characterization to inform attentive writers watching his work.

There’s very few to no video reviews or podcasts for written fiction that I know of – Linkara’s Atop the Fourth Wall for comic books on Channel Awesome, liked with the Nostalgia Critic above, coming the closest that I can think of – but a good way to find in-depth analysis of a book is to hit up Goodreads. I don’t recommend doing this with a book you love as the Internet has absolutely no regard for the things you love and that will probably hurt. But if you had a title you thought was mediocre, chances are the people on Goodreads have analyzed why it’s lousy or not lousy six ways from Sunday and there’s a lot you can learn from reading that kind of thing.

And, of course, I have also dabbled in semi-literary criticism right here, and hope to continue doing so for a long time.

So we come full circle back to you. Yes, you too should indulge in criticism. The more criticism you read the sharper you mind should become and the sharper and more insightful your abilities to pick apart writing and analyze it should become. Practice it as much as possible on your own so when you disagree with other critics you’ll be equipped to talk about why. Who knows, you might eventually be able to make your living as a literary critic yourself! Don’t worry, we won’t hold it against you if you do.

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