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.

Criticism

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.