How to Criticize Famous Authors

If you’ve ever discussed literature in an academic setting, you’re probably aware of the fact that people are very reluctant to seriously criticize famous works and authors. A great deal of time is often spent accentuating the positive aspects of popular writers, but we don’t spend much time on the negatives.

The problem with this is that it leaves students ill-prepared to tear down their idols. This might not seem like that much of an issue, but one of the ways a solid becomes a great writer is by attempting to overcome the weaknesses of their literary influences. For example, while Shakespeare is deeply indebted to his contemporary Christopher Marlowe’s villains—monstrous, larger than life characters like Barabas and Faust—his greatness isn’t in reproducing the characters in his own work, but improving on their flat characterization and lack of humanity with more complex characters like Shylock and Prospero.

This sort of evolution would be impossible to achieve without the ability to recognize the flaws in works that you genuinely love and admire, so one of the key abilities of any writer must be the ability to tear apart your idols, find what works, and leave the rest behind. And while this might seem hard at first, there are a few things writers can do to help themselves look at the stories they love with a more critical eye.

Criticize a Work as If You Were Revising

First, always treat a story you’re criticizing as a living work that you’re revising. Read passages aloud and mark where they feel awkward or stilted; think of what pieces you would cut if you were in the author’s position; and above all else, be honest about places where you find yourself bored. Treat it as savagely as you would your own work and you’ll be finding things to criticize in no time.

The other thing to remember is that to find an author’s weaknesses, you should always start with their strengths. Does the author use beautiful descriptive language? Do they have an ear for natural dialogue? Does the story show a real command for narrative structure? Once you understand the strengths of a work, you can easily restate them as a weakness. An author with beautiful descriptive language can be “too concerned with the external world and not concerned enough with the inner world of their characters”, excellent, naturalistic dialogue can become “a bunch of talking heads”, and a mastery of narrative structure can be nothing more than “predictable and formulaic stories”.

Criticize What Doesn’t Make Sense

Finally, think about the things that don’t make sense or that you don’t understand. The natural tendency is to dismiss or ignore these parts, we’d much rather think about the parts we love, but these can be some of the greatest sources of narrative criticism. Focus on these aspects of the story with a laser-like intensity and ask yourself why they bother you or why you don’t understand them. This should naturally lead to questions that can strike to the very heart of the story.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to accentuate the positive in literature. Deconstruction can be a tiresome task if it’s done without purpose. However, if you pull apart a story to strip away the unsightly bits and find the beautiful pieces of machinery that make it work, you’ll become a bit closer to stepping past your influences and developing your own voice and style.

That’s all for our discussion on managing influences. Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the tools of the trade and how they can help and hurt your own writing process. Until then, stay safe and keep writing!

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