In this unit, we're looking at literary critique.

Critique: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

Critiquing other people's work might not always feel comfortable at first, but it's a really useful way to start to understand how stories are put together: what works and what doesn't.

In order to write a critique, we first have to perform a literary analysis. This means reading a work thoroughly in order to understand:

        Which literary techniques an author has used.
        Which techniques have been used well.
        Which techniques could have been used better.

 

But, what is a literary technique?

A literary technique is a technique or tool employed by an author to create a satisfying story.

We have already covered a wide range of literary techniques in this course. These include:

Descriptive writing: How well has an author used language and description to create a sense of place? Does the story transport you to another time and location, and make you feel as though you are actually there?

Literary perspective: Is the story told from first, second or third person, and does the choice of literary perspective work well for this particular story?

Character development: Are the characters well developed? Do they feel real, are they believable, and does their behaviour seem to match their personality? Do they have identifiable motives and goals?

Dialogue: Does the dialogue feel natural, is it good dialogue, and does it help to move the story forward? Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Is everything said out loud or does the author employ subtext and body language to imply subtler meaning?

Plot arc: Is there a clear beginning, middle and end to this story? Can you identify a climactic point? Does it follow the traditional Freytag's Pyramid? Note: not all stories do, but, if they don't, it's worth noting that and explaining why the story still works (or doesn't) even without a clear plot structure.

Conflict: How does the author introduce conflict to the story, and what type of conflict? How does this pull the reader in or move the story forward?

Chronology: Does the author tell the story lineally or do they jump about the timeline? Do they play with flashbacks or premonitions? Is this entertaining or confusing, or both?

Hook: Is there an identifiable hook or question that pulls the reader into the story? Do they start in medias res or not? If they don't, what other device does the author use to grab your attention?

Style of language: Do they write like Hemingway, in short sentences and straightforward prose, or are they more of an Oscar Wild, using flowery words and plenty of metaphor? Are the prose clear and easy to follow or do you need to decode symbolism along the way? Do you like their choice of language, does it fit the story and the characters?

Worldbuilding: If the story does not take place in our own world or reality, have they invented a convincing alternative? Does the world make sense, are its rules and customs consistent? Is it believable and does it pull you in? Note: even a fantastical, magical world needs to be believable. We can believe in magic, but only if the tale is well told. Check out the term suspension of disbelief, which is when we are willing to believe the impossible for the sake of a good story.

 

So, you already know a wide variety of literary techniques. You've used them yourself, now it's time to analyse how other writers use them, and how well they use them.

The following is a helpful video on how to write a book review, or just 'a review' in shorthand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People leave reviews on websites such as Amazon and Goodreads, to let other people know what they thought of the book and whether it's worth buying. For this reason, reviews don't include spoilers. A spoiler is when you tell people exactly what happens in the book and spoil any surprises, like how it ends. The joy of reading a story is to discover what happens along the way. If you spoil the surprise, people won't bother to read it and they might get upset with you for blabbing.

However, you can ignore that advice about spoilers in a literary critique. With a critique you are not writing for the public, you are writing for your tutor and for other people who know the work. As your group  already knows the story well, you won't be spoiling anything by referring to specific events in the plot. It's far more important to give a detailed analysis in a critique than it is in a review.

So, accept all of the advice in the video above, except the bit about 'don't include spoilers.' You can ignore that for our purposes.

EXERCISE

Pick a story to critique. It's generally easier to go for one from a short story collection, rather than a full-blown novel. During the course, we use Versus, which is a selection of short stories by Rwandan authors, but it isn't very easy to get hold of because it's no longer in print. There are plenty of short story collections by other authors that are available, though.

The structure of your critique should take the following form:

Summary: A brief summary of what the story is about, who the key characters are, where it takes place and what the main themes are.

Overview: Your personal, subjective opinion of the story. How you felt about the story and the characters. Whether the style of language and choice of literary perspective worked for you. Whether you felt emotionally engaged with the story and how it manipulated your feelings along the way. Whether the story and the characters' actions made sense. Say what you liked and disliked, but say why you liked or disliked it.

Strengths & Weaknesses: An objective look at the techniques used. What worked well in the book and what could be improved upon? Do not simply write 'this was good,' or 'this was bad.' A statement should refer to the author's use of literary techniques. For example, "The author's use of metaphor made the story more poetic,"  "Overall, the dialogue sounded natural, but at points the language seemed too formal for friends who know each other well," or "the use of non-linear storytelling was confusing in places, it wasn't always clear whether we were in the present or the past." Try to back up some of your key points with quotations, to clearly illustrate what you're talking about, however, don't overuse these. Quotations are there to prove your point, not to fill space.

 

Closing Summary: This is similar to the conclusion of an essay. Here, you bring together the main points of your critique and state your overall opinion about the piece.

If you want to have a go at writing a critique in line with university standards, you can also include the following restrictions:

  •  Your critique should be written in first person.

  • Aim for a maximum wordcount of 1,200 words. So, around 200 words each for your summaries and 400 words each for the remaining two sections. This is a rough guide and quality is more important than quantity.

  • Do not title each section 'Summary,' 'Overview,' etc. It should be clear from the content of your writing which part of the critique we are now in.

  • Format to APA layout: Times New Roman, 12 pt., double spaced, first-line indent. No cover sheet or table of content. 

  • All quotes will be assumed to be from your chosen story, so no need to include references unless you are including an external source.

 

However, it's more important that you take your time and really study the piece in depth than worry too much about the format or wordcount. This is your chance to learn what you can from another writer's style.