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On Being a Critical Reader

One of the greatest pleasures of having writers as friends is when they ask your opinion on their works in progress. It’s always an honour to be asked, no matter how obtuse or muddied you might believe your opinion can sometimes be. I recently fed back some thoughts on a best friend’s (very excellent) short story collection, and I’m ploughing on through the second novel of a very talented so-and-so, who shall remain nameless.

And while it is an utter delight to be allowed exclusive access to someone else’s inner sanctum, it often strikes me as a singularly odd reading experience quite unlike any other. This is especially true for the novel. It came to me with just its title and nothing else. No blurb to read on the back, no cover to give clue to the contents; just black words on white paper and the knowledge of who had written them. That latter, at least, was one hint: I have read the author’s first novel, so I know his style, I know his concerns. But this vagueness was my only lead-in, everything else was a thrilling blank.

And thrilling is the word. It’s a particularly rare experience in our hyper-trailered, preview-saturated world to have something land on your lap with little-to-no preconception of what it actually contains. This impulse has turned me off film trailers recently too; I avoid them wherever I can, seeking instead the pleasure of first-hand discovery to mitigate against the nagging disappointment of having seen all the best bits already. My cinema-going experience has been much enhanced.

So with the novel, I armed myself with a new pen, settled in on my reading chair and let the words do the work they alone are charged to perform. At the end of each chapter I’m interrogating my feelings and noting them down. I’m honest when I think the tale might have drifted or gone for a wander down the wrong path, but I’m also striving to capture the excitement of plot twists, or moments of gorgeous prose (happily, there are many in this particular tome), or brilliant nuances of character. Normally, I am a fast reader – too fast sometimes, desperate to reach the next book – and I perhaps don’t allow myself to live within the emotions the story is evoking. But here, when my task is feedback, I’m wallowing in them like a walrus, and just as happily.

But there is a balance to strike. Sometimes I have to remind myself to lose myself. It doesn’t serve anyone if I hold myself out of the world as a purely critical, omniscient, aloof observer, one eye processing the syntax, the other hunting for spellos and grammar antics. So the cap goes on the pen during a chapter, only coming off if my heart starts racing in thrill or my brow furrows in confusion. And I try not to linger too long with the end-of-chapter summaries – in fact, I restrict myself to the amount of white space that happens to be left on that page. And then it’s on, hungrily, to find out what happens next.

Feedback itself can be a challenging thing to approach. You need to be brutal, but you should be fair, you need to trust your instincts, but it helps to continually acknowledge that everything is subjective and what I might loathe someone else might love. In my writing group we have a rule: if half the group loves a thing and half the group hates it, the thing stays. Sometimes the most divisive elements are the ones that drive the creative arts forward.

Being a critical reader means allowing yourself to trust your own instincts. I’m reasonably well-read, and well versed in many forms of narrative beyond novels, so if something nags, I note that it does and leave it at that. It’s up to the author to examine the doubt at the heart of the nag. But if I really dislike or disagree with something, I’ll drill deeper into that and excavate the why of it. I know from my own experience that such insights can be utterly vital.

The very best writers, I suspect, are the ones who can map out the terrain of their critical feedback and find a way of marrying up their own vision with the instincts of the critiquer. The two things will never jigsaw together, and nor should they, so the writer is left with a near-impossible task: accept and reject the feedback depending on their own creative instinct. It is a very hard skill to master, but perhaps it is the most important one.

Now if you'll excuse me. I need to find out what happens next.

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