This essay, by Charles Atan, originally appeared on his blog on 3/25/09.
A friend had a recent blog entry on how irrelevant critiques are to a writer’s craft. On one hand, he’s right. You don’t need to develop a critical framework to write stories. You don’t need to be able to analyze stories and pick them apart in order to be a good writer. My perspective on things however is that I’m not a genius. I’m not that talented writer whose first draft is prize-winning and ready for publication. I have to work at stories and continually strive to become better. And one of the ways I accomplish that is by analyzing stories.
Before I go on, I’d like to clarify what I mean by critiquing and analyzing stories. If you’re in a book club, the questions you’ll probably be asking is what are the themes and motifs of the story and applying Formalist/Marxist/Feminist/Post-Modern readings.
As a writer, I’m not interested in that line of inquiry as much as the technique. I won’t be asking whether I liked this or that character but rather what makes the character compelling. It’s not about whether I agree with the author’s agenda but rather how the agenda is delivered and whether it’s subtle or heavy handed. Everything’s still subjective of course and there is no objective answer to these questions given a particular story, but that’s the kind of analysis that I pursue, as opposed to the scholarly approach to criticism.
If you’re just a casual reader, you don’t need to develop this skill set. In fact, such critical thinking can hamper your enjoyment of certain stories as your awareness develops. It’s akin to a member of the audience learning the tricks of a magician. When it’s performed in front of you, because you’re familiar with the sleight of hand and the position of the mirrors, it might appear dull and formulaic. That’s not to say this is without its own advantages.
When you do come across a remarkable story, the reward is that much greater as you’re conscious of the intricacies of producing such a text. Even better is the narrative that’s so effective that it causes you to momentarily forget all that you’ve learned and simply appreciate the story for what it is.
Likewise, if you’re a "writer," this isn’t a requisite. You can simply write your manuscript and submit them to wherever you feel appropriate. The editor certainly doesn’t have a checklist asking whether you’re capable of analyzing and critiquing stories. All they care about is your final output–the text–and whether it’s up to par with their standards or not.
So if analyzing stories is "non-essential," why bother? For me, it’s about improving. This is actually a two-step process. First is the analysis. Why is it important for you to be able to analyze stories and observe what works and what doesn’t? So that we can improve. Why is it that one of the most common writing advices out there is to read a lot, whether those in your field or those outside of it? It’s the polite way of saying "read this and learn!"
Simply reading a book or story however is how your mind learns unconsciously. Analyzing stories brings it to the fore, so that you’re aware of your own processes: Maybe this story is great because of the dialogue. Why is that? How can we replicate it in our own stories? What are the pros and cons of such a technique? That’s not to say you can’t learn the same things through simply reading it.
One of the habits I unintentionally picked up from reading Tom Swift novels was the inclusion of adverbs such as "he quickly ran" or "she defiantly shouted." I had to unlearn them in college and trained myself to settle for more appropriate nouns. Which just goes to show that you can learn the bad along with the good.
Theoretically you can attend a class or get a mentor to teach you these things formally. Well, aside from the cash flow problem, you need to look for such a teacher and the problem with some teachers is that they won’t always have identical aesthetics as yourself.
Maybe you both agree that establishing good characterization is the key to an effective short story but your teacher might not appreciate the fact that you plan on writing genre literature. Or maybe he or she thinks that one of your favorite authors is trashy and not worthy of respect. Face it, each writer has his or her own set of values and you’ll have to discover yours on your own, either consciously or subconsciously. When you encounter the question who your writing influences are, you’re facing this dilemma head on.