Become a Critic

The word “criticism” has gotten a bad name in recent years. When we hear the word, the first thing that comes to mind is probably someone pointing out all the bad things about what someone else is doing.

So when I say that, as a reader, you need to become a critic, that might make you feel a little bit uncomfortable.

When it comes to reading, however, criticism is not about pointing out the bad things about a book or poem or story. In the literary world, “criticism” simply means developing an opinion about what you’re reading—and being able to explain WHY you think the way you do.

There are many, many different ways you can critique a piece of writing—I took a whole class on literary theory and criticism in university, and that was just an introduction to the topic. For most of us, though, becoming a critical reader doesn’t need to be that complicated. There are just 3 questions I recommend you ask yourself to start developing your opinions on the books you read:

1. Did I enjoy this book?

Simple question, right? You can probably tell me right away if a book was fun to read. But this question actually has two parts, and it’s the second part that’s the most important:

Why or why not?

If you want to think more critically about the books you read, you need to go beyond a simple “yes” or “no” answer and ask yourself why you liked or didn’t like the book.

There are two main reasons why this question is helpful. First, it helps you narrow down what you enjoy in a book and what you don’t, and that’s going to help you pick books you enjoy in the future.

Second, explaining why you liked or disliked a book helps train your brain to notice cause and effect in other areas of your life. When you have to explain why you feel a certain way, it teaches you to be more self-aware. When you start identifying why you feel good or bad on any given day, you can start making choices that increase your odds of having a good day.

2. Is this book well written?

Whether or not you enjoy a book might have nothing to do with how well written it is. In a previous blog post, I described five possible responses an adult can have to a book. Some of them seem obvious, like “This is good [it’s well-written] and I like it,” and “This is trash [it’s poorly written] and I don’t like it.”

But three of the responses you can have to a book are more complex than that:

  1. “This is trash [it’s not great writing], but I like it anyway.” I’ve read plenty of books that aren’t particularly well-written—they have predictable plots, simplistic language, and cookie-cutter characters—but they are so. much. fun to read that I don’t care if the writing isn’t great. Never feel embarrassed about liking books that aren’t objectively “good”—if you’re reading and you’re enjoying it, that’s great.
  2. “This is good [it’s well-written], and although I do not enjoy it right now, I believe with perseverance I could come to like it.” If you’re reading only for pleasure, you’ll probably put down a book that doesn’t feel fun to read and never give it a second thought. I believe there’s value, however, in recognizing that you might find yourself enjoying (or at least appreciating) a book more after you’ve put some effort into it. It takes your opinion of the book one step beyond a purely emotional response; that’s the first step toward successful literary criticism.
  3. “I can see that this is good [it’s well-written], but I don’t like it.” Sometimes you can recognize that something is well-written—the writer uses language well, or maybe their plot is strong, or maybe the characters are believable—but you still don’t like the book. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Not every book is for ever reader, and it’s important that we develop enough self-confidence to admit it.

Here’s why this question matters: whether or not you enjoy a book doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how well-written it is, and the sooner you can separate these two judgments in your mind, the more you’ll get out of the books you’re reading.

Why or why not?

What makes a book well-written? I want to say, “You’ll know it when you see it,” but I realize that’s not particularly helpful if you’re new to the idea of critiquing your reading. So here are some specifics:

When reading a novel, I generally look for 4 things: strong plot, well-rounded characters, effective use of language, and a theme that makes me think about things that matter.

For nonfiction, I expect a coherent argument, practical action steps to put the book’s message into practice, and a writing style that sounds like a real person, not a robot.

Feel free to create your own criteria; there are very few rules here.

3. Do I agree with the message or worldview this book promotes?

Every book communicates a message of some kind, whether the author intended it to or not.

On a very basic level, the author’s own worldview is going to seep into the story in the way he or she describes the character’s actions. You can pretty easily tell if an author is portraying a character’s actions as admirable or as foolish, and that can tell you a lot about the author’s values and opinions.

Some books, especially the ones I would call “good literature”, more actively try to persuade us of something. Some of the messages I’ve encountered in books include, “The tiniest of our actions could change the course of history”; “Being too dramatic and imaginative makes you foolish”; “Women need to abandon society’s expectations of them in order to be truly happy.”

Why or why not?

Once you’ve identified a message in a book, ask yourself if you agree—and, most importantly, try to explain why.

There are two reasons why it’s worth your time to think about the message or worldview a book promotes. First, it’s one of the easiest ways to figure out your own beliefs about a topic. If I ask you what you think about any given topic, you’re probably going to draw a blank. It’s a lot easier to agree or disagree with someone else’s opinion and use that as a jumping-off point to examine your own worldview.

Second, responding to an author’s worldview is how you join what’s called the “Great Conversation” that’s been going on between readers and writers for centuries. Reading someone else’s opinion is “hearing” them; formulating your own response, whether it’s in writing, in a discussion with a friend, or just in your own mind, is your answer to what the author “said” in their book.

This Conversation is the reason I love reading books from every era and country and genre. It thrills me to know that I’m thinking about the same topics that people have cared about for decades, centuries, maybe even millennia. Any topic that has remained relevant over time and throughout societal and cultural changes is a topic that matters to all human beings, regardless of where or when they come from. And topics like that are worth developing opinions about.

Think of the last book you read (or a book you’re currently reading) and answer these three questions about the book. Let me know what you think in the comments!

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