Critical reading means criticizing your reading

Today we are lucky enough to have a guest post by Robert Jackson Bennett, the Shirley Jackson award-winning author of MR. SHIVERS. His second novel, THE COMPANY MAN, is out now, as is his first published short story, “A Drink for Teddy Ford” in the BROKEN TIME BLUES anthology. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, where he spends most of his time wondering what happened to all of the time he once had.

Many thanks to Robert for his valuable insights.



I find reading to be a very mysterious process. It is an almost thoughtless or instinctual practice, a translation of shapes and figures on a page into an enormous glut of knowledge that is overloaded with associations, emotions, perceptions, and philosophies. And it is an act that is impenetrable to outsiders: reading is internal, solipsistic, a one-sided relationship between the reader and the text. Even the writer is excluded from this process, to an extent, for what is written is not necessarily what is read. I am always wondering what strange fruits my words are growing in someone else’s head, and am often surprised to hear other people’s thoughts about my writing. They do not necessarily take away what I thought I was putting down on the page.

If you want to study writing, or just reading in general, I think it is crucial to understand that a reading of a text – by which I mean how you take in the information provided, extrapolate it into a mental world, and then interpret it – is not necessarily as individual an act as you might think. For while the writer might believe that the reader is an audience, nodding along as they listen to the story, this is not so. I have always felt that the reader is a co-creator of a story, often doing about 70% of the work. The writer can suggest – sometimes they can suggest with a great degree of calculation and precision – but in the end, it’s up to the reader to mentally construct the characters, the story, the ambience and mood, and even the unspoken philosophy below it all. (If there is one. Again, that’s up to the reader.)

To think critically about reading, you have to always be asking two questions:

1. What is the writer trying to do with the story right now?

2. What am I trying to do with the story right now?

Yes, both the reader and the writer are trying to do something at every moment in a text, whether they know it or not. It doesn’t have to be significant, but they are doing something.

Now, you may ask what a reader is doing with the text. Because after all, the text is the text – it is inarguably right there, on the page, and you can’t say it’s something different when we can all see what it’s saying plain as day.

But that’s not true. The text is more like a blueprint, and the reader is constructing something from that blueprint. It is the reader who loads the story with the images, personal associations, feelings, and flow. Their fingerprints are all over it – not the writer’s. What is made in the end is made wholly by the reader. It is almost a part of them, or possibly a reflection of them. The more I talk to readers, the greater I appreciate people’s ability to see what they wish to see, for good or ill.

But the writer isn’t exactly powerless, of course. They are doing the damn writing, after all. And they wish to control what the reader interprets at every possibly moment. They set the limits, and suggest how we should navigate between these limits. Some suggestions are easier to ignore than others; and others are suggested so strongly and so subtly, the reader can’t even tell that they’re following someone’s directions.

It’s almost like brainwashing. Yes, I said it, because honestly, the writer explicitly sets out to control the reader’s thoughts and emotions: they want to make them laugh, cry, ponder the imponderables, and quiver in fear, all on cue. How is that not brainwashing? Even the hackiest, silliest writer out there wishes to control the reader’s attention and thoughts when they engage with their stories. They want them to ask – will she make it? Will he choose the right girl? Will they ever be happy? Will this end the way I want it to end?

You must understand that writing, like most arts, is a matter of deception, subversion, and manipulation. The writer is attempting to control the reader. Oftentimes, the reader doesn’t even realize this. Yet it’s so. And you need to see how they’re trying to control you.

Look at the prose. Wonder why they structure this sentence this way, or this paragraph, or chapter, or hell, the whole novel. These things have a grammar to them, a logic, and understanding why the author has the story function within this logic sequence rather than another is key. Try and see if there’s any pattern in the way the author describes things – is one character always paired with light, frothy, emptily pretty surroundings? Is that a good way to sum up their character? If so, did they just trick you into understanding this character without ever directly describing them?

At the same time, the reader is, consciously or unconsciously, changing the story. When you skip a part of a story, you’re essentially editing it out, cutting it. When you reread and rereread a section, you’re zooming in on one aspect, studying it closely – as the author would have done with prose, had they thought to. And I can’t even begin to describe the way your own memories, feelings, and mood shape a story as you read it. Because you’re you, not me, and such things are as inaccessible to me as they are to the writer of whichever story you’re reading.

There are a lot of assumptions in reading that you will have to break past, if you want to really dissect someone’s writing. You don’t even know they’re assumptions because you’re stuck in your head. It is an arduous process, and it almost always ends in a question that’s very difficult to answer:

Why do I think this way? Why do I perceive what I’m reading in this way, and this way alone? Is this the intent of the writer? Or is it me? It’s rabbithole thinking, and you might just have to learn when you need to stop. Otherwise, as Vonnegut put it, you’ll disappear up your own asshole.

It’s possible that thinking this way about writing can take a lot of the fun out of it. That’s a complaint I’ve heard a lot. But if you want to study writing, and I mean really study it, I firmly believe that these are the steps you’ll need to take. Because writing isn’t fun. It’s a tough, demeaning, tedious process. So to get inside that process, you’ll have to tackle the outflow and product – a text, and the reading of it – in a vigorous, incisive manner, and you can work backwards from there to understand its origins.

And yeah, it may take some fun out of the stuff you casually read. Jerry Seinfeld once said that comedians never laugh at another standup’s act – they just say, “That’s funny.” Because now they know how it works. They can see the strings in the puppet shows. They know where the rabbit’s hidden. If you keep coming at stories in this sort of way, you’ll start seeing the strings and rabbits, too.

But every once in a while you’ll find a book that trumps you entirely. You’ll find a story that is so involving, so well-realized, so mystifying and enlightening that it proves impenetrable to your incisions. It makes you feel like a kid again. And even if you can see the strings and you come to understand how it works, it doesn’t lessen that fun. It just makes you appreciate it more. Because now you know how hard it is.

And if you keep at it, maybe you’ll make a story like that one day. I know I hope to.

Trackback URL

  1. Shadowflame1974
    22/08/2011 at 2:58 pm Permalink

    I find that even movies are sliced diced and analyzed when I watch them.  Books too.  The more I write, read and edit, the more critical I am.  Makes for some interesting discussions with my family who gush over books that I tear apart.  O.o