Critical Reading

This is a continuation, of sorts, of the infamous Critique post and the less controversial Reading for Pleasure post.  I guess the flip-side of seeking Critique is participating in Critique as a reader.

I take that back. It’s not really a flip-side.  My position is the same.

The problem is the same. And in the Reading for Pleasure post, I pretty much laid it out. I’ve spent years tackling a reading critically problem.  It surfaced when I started “learning” to write, and going to peer critiques. Here’s the thing… critiquing is mind numbingly easy.  When you start from a position of trying find what’s wrong…you will.  Give me a week with Shakespeare, Gatsby, Hemingway… I’ll find something to criticize. But, good Lord, why would I want to do that?

The Lonesome Dove post showed that I haven’t completely conquered this demon, though I wasn’t overly critical… and I am REALLY enjoying this book.

So the selfish answer is I don’t want to critique because it is no fun. I read to be entertained.  The other collateral damage I’m trying to avoid is that reading critically means less time in my creative mind… not to mention, giving criticality that kind of power over my reading gives it an “in” when I sit down to write.

What does this means for fellow writers?  Do I not want to read your stories, poems, essays?

I do.  I want to read and enjoy them. I would be honored.  If your stuff is on the market, I’ll most likely purchase it (or borrow from library) and read it. If I don’t purchase it, and you share your work with me, I will be grateful and thank you for the opportunity to enjoy your work.

Unfortunately, if you come to me and ask me to share “what’s wrong with it?”  I won’t be able to help.  That’s critical reading, and I won’t purposefully take on that task for the selfish reasons I mention above.  I will, however, share one of my core beliefs:

The greatest quality an artist can have is belief in oneself.



6 thoughts on “Critical Reading

  1. Great post!

    I have a rather unlikely critique partner. I guess I can call him that. He calls me his alpha reader, and I give him general feedback. On his last book I was even his culinary consultant because one of his characters was a chef, as I was once upon a time. That was fun. But he and I treat the process pretty casually. He prefers I read as he writes, and I prefer no one to see my work until I’m finished. There’s no pressure. I think this arrangement is wonderful and rare.

    I sometimes think people seek out critique partners in order to feel better about their own writing. There’s this thought, conscious or not, that they hope they find a ton of errors or plot holes in their partner’s work, so their partner will know who is superior. The pushier the person, the less I can believe their motives are pure and genuine. Huge red flag for me.

    But, you’re right. If you engage in a ton of critical reading, you begin to change the way you read everything. Reading when you’re a writer is a little weird anyway. Hell, everything is a little weird when you’re a writer. I want to enjoy reading, not always nitpicking it to death. It doesn’t matter if I would’ve used a semicolon or split it into two separate sentences or if I would’ve used a stronger verb. If I’m worrying about those things, I’ve completely missed the story and am cheating myself out of the escapism.

    Still, though, it seems having a metric ton of critique partners and 87,000 beta readers (might be a slight exaggeration) is on trend, especially in the indie community. I guess we’re trying to make our own gatekeepers, which is funny since many of us got into indie publishing because we didn’t particularly care for the gatekeepers. So, there is a certain amount of pressure to engage in this. Good thing I’m mostly a hermit.

    Do you ever think it’s a marketing tactic by some indie authors, though? Pre-marketing, maybe? If it is,it’s probably not a good one. Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. Have a great weekend, Tony!


    1. Aila, 87,000 beta readers is definitely a marketing tactic. I’ve seen indie authors talk about building their list of loyal fans, getting Amazon reviews, and eliciting strong sales numbers that way. I guess that’s fine for authors who are business people at heart, but… I’m not.

      Then again, people who use betas as a marketing tactic aren’t writing from the heart. They’re “writing to market,” they’re able to churn out fairly formulaic works in high demand because some people really like formulaic genre fiction. It’s literary comfort food, and those readers are only too happy to join a beta list or have a say. When it’s business, you can afford, I guess, to try to make beta readers happy?

      Anyway. I only critique screenwriting, LOL. I tend to choose only books I can lose myself in — I want to think, but only about what that author wants me to think about, not why they chose a particular way to do it. There’s got to be a level of trust there. Oddly enough, though, I can’t say the same for movies and TV shows — critiquing those somehow helps me think more critically about story, pacing, characterization! Possibly because when I’m writing, I’m imagining a scene that unfolds in my head, so critiquing something on the screen helps *that* process in some weird way? I’m spitballing, but on some level it makes sense….


      1. Christa, I just found your comment buried in the Spam folder amongst all the lovely comments in special characters that I don’t understand :). If I had more than just a couple of beta readers, I simply could not even open their comments. Seriously, a huge stable of beta readers? How do you not get conflicting advice on every page? (rhetorical question)


    2. Hi Aila. I’m a no input until the story is done person, too. As for the trend for a ton of beta readers, again I’m kinda like you…scratching my head, wait a minute… I self publish because I don’t have patience for the velvet rope (and I like having the control), why would I seek out an army of beta readers. It reminds me of what is going on in industry right now…especially with “start-ups”. My company calls it “fastworks”…you get your product 70% done, and release it to a portion of customers for feedback. Then use that feedback to complete the product. The thing is… I didn’t make the decision last year that I’m going to do this…I am going to be a writer, so I could test “product” on how it will work in the market. I want to write. And I want it to be my own. So, now I’m rambling. I think it is a marketing tactic. So, I’ll just remind myself I suck at marketing, and continue writing. Hahaha. Thanks for commenting.


  2. I think critical reading is a completely separate enterprise from pleasure reading and I can’t fault you for wanting to stick with the latter rather than the former.

    I frequently do more critical reading (particularly of classical literature) than I do pleasure reading. My main goal is not entertainment, but transformation. I’m not reading Dante’s Divine Comedy right now because it’s a page turner (although to me, it definitely counts), but because I want to understand how this momentous work has shaped history and hundreds (if not thousands) of other books for over seven centuries.

    For me, this journey is not just about reading the primary work itself, but also multiple critical evaluations from historical sources as well as from various modern and postmodern Critical Theories (structuralism, narrative theory, psychoanalytical theory, archetypal theory, etc). When I read Emma by Jane Austen last year, I read six or seven essays examining the work from a feminist perspective, a Marxist perspective, etc. Some of the premises within these works I can agree with, and many of them I do not, but in encountering those ideas I am able to articulate my own thoughts better, and thus I find value in it.

    Reading this kind of theory would probably feel like going to the dentist for you, and I get that, but for me, I’d much rather read this stuff than most of what’s been published in the last 50 years.

    One of the things I really enjoy about my friendship with you and in reading your blog is that you are very different kind of reader and writer than I am, and reading your perspective on things helps me figure out that not everyone thinks like I do. I’m glad–it would be really boring, otherwise!


    1. David, I agree. I, for one, often find I learn a lot from those with a different perspective. You probably already know this, but I read more widely than this blog or the fact that I write exclusively popular/genre fiction would lead one to believe (though you’re right…I don’t read critical evaluations). I do read the same way (both when I’m reading pulp and “literary” fiction), though… to be entertained, but then I sponge up some of the other stuff … and I feel like, this and Aila’s post need a much better response, but my lovely wife is waiting patiently for me to whisk her away to Mr. K’s to feed our book addiction. More later…hopefully.

      Liked by 1 person

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