On the Reading and Critiquing of Books

[H]ow should we read a book? Clearly, no answer that will do for everyone; but perhaps a few suggestions. In the first place, a good reader will give the writer the benefit of every doubt; the help of all his imagination; will follow as closely, interpret as intelligently as he can. In the next place, he will judge with the utmost severity. Every book, he will remember, has the right to be judged by the best of its kind. He will be adventurous, broad in his choice, true to his own instincts, yet ready to consider those of other people. This is an outline which can be filled in at taste and at leisure, but to read something after this fashion is to be a reader whom writers respect. It is by the means of such readers that masterpieces are helped into the world.

I came to Virginia Woolf’s essay by way of a blog post at The Hedgehog Review, “The Idiosyncratic School of Reading.” The post itself had some fruitful avenues for discussion, particularly the tidbits about those literary figures of the nineteenth and twentieth century who thought that there was a fixed “way” in which one should read, a way which needed to be explicated by the literary elite to all the unwashed peasants of the world: “He who would read with attention must learn to be interested in what he reads. He must feel wants or learn to create wants which must be supplied. If it be history that he would read with attention, he must feel deficiencies that will not let him rest until they are supplied.” (Noah Porter, Books and reading: or, What books shall I read and how shall I read them?, 1870).

There is a grain of truth in Porter’s words. I was personally able to make myself into a better reader by doing just the thing that Porter commands: force myself to pay attention to things for which my knee-jerk reaction was boredom. However, just because it happens that such a method was useful for me, it does not follow that we can extrapolate this directive to all readers in all places at all times. Woolf’s essay, in contrast, shows that books, being the offspring of authors’ minds, are not only as different as people are different from one another, but the ways in which they are “good” or “bad” are equally variegated. This is the great problem with canons. A particular book list makes a great starting point for a reader, but it is terrible as a fixed guidepost to navigating concepts like good and bad in literature—this is precisely because every journey of a particular reader with a particular book will be unique.

All that said, the element that stood out most for me was Woolf’s description of a good reader at the top of this post. I saw in it not just a description of the kind of reader I strive to be, but also an inversion of the worst readers I have ever received critique from.

The first element Woolf notes is that the good reader will “give the writer the benefit of every doubt.” Throughout my time in my first two writing groups, I was bombarded with the kind of feedback that betrayed a distinct lack of any such doubt. The main way in which this manifests itself can be summarized by way of example: The reader has read chapter one of a forty chapter novel. The reader tells the author something to the effect of, “Detail A conflicts with B. Detail C with D. And detail E with F. You need to fix those.” Unbeknownst to the reader, who has only read chapter one, details X, Y, and Z, which will be revealed across the next few chapters, will alleviate the reader’s misconception that A is in conflict with B, and so forth. Now, if the reader has reached chapter twenty, and A has been demonstrated to be in conflict with B many times over the course of the draft so far, then this deserves to be remarked upon, but even then only tentatively, as though the author is preparing to spring detail X upon the reader at any moment.

Next is: “a good reader will give the writer the help of all his imagination.” It was shocking to me just how many science fiction and fantasy writers lacked imagination, given that strange, alien landscapes and surreal alternate worlds are primary components of the genre. That the reader and writer should try to be imaginative in SF seems like it should go without saying.

“A good reader will follow as closely, interpret as intelligently as he can.” I can think of numerous examples, throughout my work on Voyage Embarkation, when I received feedback that simply contradicted was explicitly written on the page, e.g: “Zeemz and Nezim should yell at Kal for destroying their food source.” Text: “Biofarms don’t grow food.” These weren’t instances of readers failing to grasp subtextual subtleties (although, admittedly, that would have been nice). They were instances of feedback givers ignoring what was explicitly and unambiguously stated in the text. The other stand out occurrence in this vein was a reader who told me I needed to fix a supposed problem of events happening impossibly close together between chapters one and two of Voyage Embarkation. When I pointed out to this individual the that chapter sub-headers clearly indicate these chapters to be some two weeks apart from one another, the reader told me that she ignores sub-headers, in any book. This remains the one instance in which a reader indicated to me that they felt justified ignoring the text, and it remains a great example of unacceptable reader behavior.

“[A good reader] will judge with the utmost severity. Every book, he will remember, has the right to be judged by the best of its kind.” If the feedback givers of my former writing groups succeeded at any part of Woolf’s analysis, it was with the first sentence here. Where they fell short, I think, was in comparing and contrasting stories with “the best of their kind.” As I gained more experience in the groups, I discovered that the individuals composing them were astonishingly poorly read.

(I must here briefly interject that the readers and feedback givers who help me today with drafts of my writing are as close to Woolf’s ideal as one could hope for. My description of feedback I received in years past does not apply to the people helping me today.)

Woolf’s final description of the good reader is as close as I have ever seen to the gold standard: “He will be adventurous, broad in his choice, true to his own instincts, yet ready to consider those of other people.” Woolf identifies here the difficult tension in critique. A feedback giver, optimally, should be ready to share incisive observations but at every moment remain psychologically and emotionally open to the possibility that they may be incorrect. It is a tightrope walk. Good feedback givers will hone the art of delivering incisive feedback in a manner that is direct but also not abrasive, in order to maximize the potential that it will be considered by the writer.

Woolf ends the paragraph with a return to the idea that readers need to choose their books themselves. As Gibson’s Hedgehog Review article notes, Woolf lived in a time when it was common for the academic elite to maintain canons. Those books in the canon were considered good, and everything else, bad. Woolf is likely one of the earliest voices to suggest that the reader, instead, should discover for themselves what is good and bad.

To my mind, Woolf maintains a complex position that is all too often simplified today. Starting in the 1980’s with the advent of postmodernist literary criticism, it became common to move to the opposite extreme from Woolf’s time: Good and bad don’t exist, and a book can mean anything a reader thinks it to mean. I reject these assertions. To my mind, Woolf had it right. Good and bad have a reality, but that reality is fluid and constantly evolving. To have any chance of grasping even a small part of it for any amount of time takes intelligence and patience. It requires sampling widely, but also maintaining standards. It requires listening to the experts, but remaining critical even of them. It is a difficult mode to inhabit, but the rewards are, in my opinion, well worth the effort.