Writing Criticism for the General Reader

Writing criticism is a craft, and an article about writing it for the general reader may be practicable and useful, but not easy. Some may even disagree with my premise, claiming that criticism isn’t a craft but a science. (I’ll address that later) No one method, no ‘correct’ approach appropriate for all literary work, is to be found. This is because writers, whether in verse or prose, may write about anything and everything.

Also, they may write in any mood, any style, and with any attitude towards their potential audience. Consequently, a pluralist approach should be considered: in other words, acknowledging there are more ways than one to the heart of a work of creative literature.

In practice, though, many works invite one particular type of approach. If, for example, the work is clearly comic or tragic, or based on fantasy or realism, it should be tackled appropriately. It is works that can be viewed as many-sided – even if one side is more obvious than others are – that merit the pluralist treatment.

This is where my argument that criticism is a craft – as opposed to a science – enters the discussion: and it hinges on the use of the words ’cause’ and ‘effect’. The craft lies in the ability of the critic to examine a piece of prose – or a poem – in such a way that:

1. The writer’s cause for writing it is clear (or, if not clear, then at least apparent) and

2. The effect of the piece results in the general reader being convinced or persuaded that it is worthwhile (or not, as the case may be) reading the original work, without being led down the path of deconstruction by way of sociology, psychology, anthropology, or the like. In other words, keeping it simple.

Science enters the equation when the critic examines literary causes and effects from a material standpoint; when the ‘-ologies’ I cited in the previous paragraph are in evidence. Word-for-word distillation of the text takes place, supplemented by biographical details of the writer, resulting in a concentration on a descriptive rather than a creative opinion of the piece. This approach is not really suited to the general reader, because its intensity demands special interest and specialist knowledge in order to achieve comprehension.

In conclusion, a piece of literary criticism aimed at the general reader should offer an understanding of someone else’s creative work using the text honestly and objectively, and without resorting to detailed analysis.

Paul Grainger, 04 Apr 01


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