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Reading Critically

Fried Egg

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A recent entry on Ian Sales' blog made the following point:
I think it is important, however, that if you want to seriously discuss science fiction, or any fiction for that matter, then you need to read critically. Otherwise it’s just squee. It’s no good being knowledgeable about a novel’s universe or story, you also need to understand how that story works, where the author has succeeded and where they have failed, and why.
I'm interesting in understanding more fully what it means exactly to read critically. In what ways does it differ from how one might ordinarily read a book?

It would also be interesting to know from contributors to this thread whether they think they read books in such a way and how often.
 

biodroid

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Why would I read a novel and study it like a textbook unless it was for school? I read for enjoyment and surely if people are well read in genres they can speak their minds. It is only their opinions after all and not the be all and end all.
 

Mark_Lawrence

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A recent entry on Ian Sales' blog made the following point:

I'm interesting in understanding more fully what it means exactly to read critically. In what ways does it differ from how one might ordinarily read a book?

It would also be interesting to know from contributors to this thread whether they think they read books in such a way and how often.
Having observed a number of genre people who laud each other for reading critically I have to say that the small batch I saw appeared to be prejudiced beyond all reason, having clearly reached their conclusions before opening the work. This was apparent from their exchanges on the book/s in question before reading them. It was never in the least doubt what conclusions they would reach and the 'critical reading' was just an exercise in cherry picking material to support their thesis.

My daughter studies English [brag] a Cambridge scholar with a full scholarship to Harvard recently awarded [/brag] and what I've seen of academic critical reading through the lens of her experience is very different from what I've seen... elsewhere. Critical reading for her and those around her is an analysis of theme and structure in the context of wider literature and the movements within it. It's not a pseudo intellectual attempt to push an agenda.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I do now, I didn't used to, and I suspect most of the aspiring writing crowd would say the same. I've just started Joe Abercrombie this morning, and these are the sort of things running through my mind:

Logen's voice, did I like it? Did it stay constant, or slip just a little? I thought the latter, but it seemed to work well anyway.

Glotka: his internal thoughts were a little intrusive for me. But I loved a repeat of the imagery of how he walked. So that repeat was about two and a half pages on at the end of the section.

Or, I read Her Fearful Symmetry at the weekend, and found pov shifting a little clumsy, found my incredulity stretched.

I enjoy reading a little less than I used to because of it, and definitely don't read as much because of it. But, when I'm blown away now, it's total blowing away. I read it once, quick, for the story, and then love reading lines, working out why they worked, working out how the characters worked for me. I read TimeTraveler's wife about six times in a row, figuring out how the author got me so bought into these characters. Then I went and read Rachel's Holiday to see how the same impact -- loving the characters -- was done in third. (The fact that I bawled at the end, again, indicates she still pulled me in.) Or Before I die, I used some of her techniques for a pov character in my last wip.

So, yes, different, and definitely gets in the way of enjoyment, but for me, I do it to learn what works for me, and to try to be able to do it myself.

The skills, when I teach critical reading skills (for managers, but the skills are the same), are to be able to read beyond the top surface, to pick up themes, to be able to question what's in front of us and it's validity (like what I was doing with Glotka), a logical approach to reading.

PS I hope, soon, to be able to read something non critically again. But I think writing might always have spoiled reading for me, just a bit.
 

Extollager

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I would hesitate to say that one should "read critically." That might seem to imply a kind of over-"vigilance" that could get in the way of good reading. I sometimes put it as reading "alertly."

The effectiveness of some stories depends on one reading in a relaxed and not very alert way. (I don't mean that the authors necessarily consciously counted on such reading; maybe they did, maybe they didn't.) Take Conan Doyle's "Speckled band," which I've read numerous times with enjoyment. If one reads alertly, one realizesthat the story is preposterous: that the wicked Dr. Roylott could be able to train an Indian snake to crawl from one room into another, to crawl down a dummy bell-pull (just even the crawling down a limp strip of cloth is pretty hard to believe), to approach its victim without awakening her and thereby prompting questions, etc. The victim's bed is bolted to the floor so that its position relative to the bell-pull will be correct; the victim would never ask why? For that matter, the victim would never ask why the bell-pull is not attached to a bell but remains in place? And so on.

Some stories can be read for casual entertainment and work well just as such. And then some can hardly be enjoyed if one doesn't read attentively, asking questions whether about plot details or about other things.

An author may become exasperated if he or she feels that readers are reading h/h stories with too much or, I suppose more often, too little attention.

I think much fantasy and sf has to be read in a fairly relaxed frame of mind or else problems arise -- such as I've suggested for "The Speckled Band," or of other sorts. We may be accustomed to reading sf and f without our minds being all that active. Some authors, unhappy about what they might have perceived as a sort of unspoken bargain between authors and readers (the one to write entertainingly and without requiring alertness, the other not asking for careful writing and richness), may write with shrillness of tone or impose deliberate difficulties of structure, etc. to try to jolt readers into reading more alertly, but then their work may be faulted for pretentiousness, etc.

The situation may be complicated if the same author has written stories that "need" to be read basically just as relaxing entertainment, maybe giving an easy thrill, and then also stories that reward alert reading. Also the story's venue may affect reading. A story with a lot to offer may have appeared in a pulp magazine with a garish cover and fail to get the alert reading that would reward a reader. The reader needs to be discerning, so maybe that's what I'll say, that we need to be discerning readers. We'll read "The Speckled Band" and, as it were, make allowances for, or indulge, certain weaknesses, in this case as regards plausibility. With other stories we'll indulge other kinds of faults, such as imprecise or clumsy use of language. With still others we'll read and read again, receiving more and more of what is there to be received.

A clarifying short book on all this is C. S. Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism.
 

Dozmonic

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He explains reading critically in the quote you have there:

you also need to understand how that story works, where the author has succeeded and where they have failed, and why
Look at the pacing, the delivery, the structure, the characters, everything as a whole and on its own. It's just about making a story work and making sure it's complete and as good as it can be.

We all do it to some extent when we read books. There'll be a character we don't like, or a bit of the book that seemed pointless or dragged out. Those are things that, if we were writing the book, we'd look at changing because they don't work for us.
 

Toby Frost

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To me the main difference is that one is that one consists of "Do I like this?" and the other comes down to "Why do I like this?".
 

Boneman

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I'm with biodroid.

If I read critically there'd be absolutely no pleasure in it, (which is the reason I'm reading, after all) and my MA in Creative and Critical Writing [brag] taught me one thing, amongst many. The intellectual exercise of critical reading has very little to do with being anything more than that... ask 20 individuals to critically read a piece and you will obtain 20 differing opinions. That last word there, is key. If I wish to seriously discuss SciFi/fantasy, I do it from what is in front of me; I do not need to how the story works, or how and why the author succeeded or failed, other than in my own opinion. This can (naturally) be biased towards things I like and dislike - I cannot read Iain Hamilton books, for instance, because the writing style jars so badly with me, personally. There, I've advanced a criticism of a writer, but it's based entirely on my own personal preference/opinion, which does change, and who knows? Maybe in a few years I'll read him again and find I like his books.

I read for pleasure, but when I've critiqued whole books for others, I will read a second and third time, looking at it critically. I always say to every one of them : this is my opinion and if it gels, then think about changing it - if it doesn't, ignore me, because you're the writer, it's your words (your hidden opinions, possibly) and asking someone to change things because it I don't agree with it, is completely nonsensical (unless I'm a multi-million selling author/agent/publisher, of course...).


As Dozmonic says above, if we were writing the book, we'd look at changing because they don't work for us. But Since we're reading a book that's already in print, that has no chance of changing in any way shape or form, reading critically is an exercise that can help us formulate our own opinions, and nothing more.
 

steve12553

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Why would I read a novel and study it like a textbook unless it was for school? I read for enjoyment and surely if people are well read in genres they can speak their minds. It is only their opinions after all and not the be all and end all.
I also don't read critically. I read for enjoyment. On the other hand I do miss a lot of things when it comes to discussions on books. If I felt the need to get into a particular work deeper, I would probably pick it apart rather than just live it as I do now strictly for enjoyment.
 

Juliana

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When I work on a translation, I necessarily have to read critically, as a good translation involves picking something apart in one language and putting it together in another. It means I notice all the flaws in a text.

When reading for pleasure, I switch off that part of my brain entirely and just enjoy. Which is why I never take part in the more critical Chrons debates, and probably makes me a rubbish Beta, too! I'll tell you if I liked your book but won't be much good at suggestions... :p
 

Mouse

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I'm also with Biodroid.

I do sit and think 'god, this character's irritating' and what not, but I do that watching the TV so...
 

Timba

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I am in the reading for entertainment group. I think Springs hit on a basic truth, dissect the book too much and you begin to diminish the enjoyment. I do not write and given my already significant passage of years am highly unlikely to ever do so. As such I see no value to me in looking at literature this way. Having said that, I do notice odd sentence structures, typos, word errors (their versus there) types of things but usually that only results in a brief pause while I decipher what I think the author was trying to say or confirm in my mind the proper word and then it is on with the story.
 

AnyaKimlin

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For me reading, watching, reading critically is about understanding why I love something but I never do it on the first pass. To me it is not about themes it is about understanding the technique another author has used.

At present I am sat listening/watching Dolly Parton as I cannot think of a better writer of characters - she is stunning and her methods of tugging at the heart strings are so simple. I have to say she has stood up to my critical understanding and I love her work more as a result.

But, like others I read mostly for enjoyment and only pick it apart when I want to incorporate something into my own writing.

If I want my stories to have the "magic" to transport readers then I need to be able to still experience it for myself.
 

biodroid

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Brian, I tend to review in my limited capacity about how the book made me feel, was it exciting, was it entertaining, were the characters realistic enough? I am not dissing Ian Sales but I feel if I look too deep into the inner working of a novel to critique it then I am missing the point.
 

Mangara

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Why would I read a novel and study it like a textbook unless it was for school? I read for enjoyment and surely if people are well read in genres they can speak their minds. It is only their opinions after all and not the be all and end all.
Agree.

Though as I begin to look into writing theory I seem to view things with a different eye now!
 

ratsy

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Well I love to read and since I have started my hand at writing recently I already find myself reading differently. I am looking at things I never used to pay attention too. I just hope that I will not get too critical. I want to learn writing skills as I read but also want to enjoy reading at the same time. If it becomes a chore then reading isn't a relaxing hobby it becomes work.

Edit: Springs, I will have to read Her Fearful Symmetry again. I read it when it first came out and didn't mind it. Interesting premise at least. My wife read it and claims it to be one of her favorite books of all time!
 

Connavar

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It depends on the situation. If im reading a book only for entertainment i wont read it critically and analyse it. If its an important book in a fields history or a book that tries for more than entertainment then i have prolly choosen that book to read critically and understand more than it is fun read or not. I have interest in reading critically the way literary scholars do it.

Mark Lawrence is right, writing reviews is vastly different than the academic critical reading way.

For me some books are both fun read and interesting to read as it more than entertainment and see the bigger picture. I dont read books only for fun these days, i need some books to be much more. I take them really seriously. When im studiying Arabic classic prose, poetry for my own pleasure its to read them more critically than just say this is a good poem i enjoyed. The literary classes í have taken really enriched my interest in reading. Reading Homer only for fun is pointless. When i read The Illiad recently, i was reading critically every page. To understand why this works so well as poem,epic storytelling.

Reading books only for entertainment is not interesting to me anymore. It means i would limit books to mass produced books by less than great authors. Im not talking about serious mainstream authors but i like to study,analyse classic,modern great fantasy authors for example. It depends on who you are. Im the kind of reader who might take a PHD in Modern Arabic Literature just because my interest to learn,analyse books.
 

Extollager

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I doubt whether it is a good idea for most people to "read critically" a story that they have not read before. For one thing, how can you know, ahead of time, whether the story (or poem, etc.) rewards that especially alert kind of reading?

I think teachers often do students a disservice in asking them to read "critically" books that they have never read, and that they will not read more than once before the designated class meeting. At the least, I think that, if a teacher is going to ask students to read something "critically," the teacher should specify something to look for, preferably something that doesn't make too great demands on readers. So, for example, it would be okay to tell first-time readers of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to be on the lookout for references to light, the sun, lightning, etc. But teachers who expect students to bring to class reading experiences that are comparable to their own are probably setting students up for unsatisfactory reading. The student may read in a stop-and-start manner that interferes with reading pleasure.

And I would say that any literary work ought to provide pleasure. (Of course there are different forms of literary enjoyment, as there is a difference between a fastfood meal and a meal befitting one's 30th wedding anniversary.) I would say, though, that the provision of some form of literary enjoyment is the only thing an author as author is required to provide. (As a decent human being, he or she should also provide an imaginative experience that is fitting for a morally decent reader, but that isn't a specifically literary obligation.)

Critical or, as I have called it above, discerning reading, is largely concerned with reading enjoyment. There are some stories, such as "The Speckled Band," that provide an enjoyment, for the willing reader, dependent on the experience of atmosphere, suspense, comedy, or the like. Unduly vigilant reading will likely spoil such a story! But then there are also stories that yield satisfactions that readers will experience only when they read discerningly or perhaps discuss the story after reading it with good readers. Many of Nathaniel Hawthorne's stories are of this type. If I were to read "Rappaccini's Daughter" with the same kind of attention that I read "The Speckled Band," I would miss much that the former has to offer, and I might be inclined to fault it for being too slow.

Experienced, discerning readers can, even on a first reading, pick up cues as to how a given story should be read, including how slowly or how rapidly. But a rereading is especially helpful.

Does all this sound about right?

I'm afraid that the entrenched emphasis on Theory in college English departments often promotes problems with reading. Especially given that so many people simply read less imaginative prose and poetry than they could if they spent less time texting, watching movies, etc., it is really a shame to fuddle a 19-year-old with Lacan and Derrida when the student should mostly be reading (and rereading, and reading so that he or she can reread) widely and deeply in imaginative prose and poetry. Conversely, the student who has ready widely and deeply will be much better able to benefit from what is valid in a Theoretical discussion of a work -- and to detect baloney from a teacher or fellow student who speaks amiss about a given work.
 
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