Crit Groups, or Hey, Am I Too Easy to Please?

These books right here in this stack? Every last one of 'em was TOTALLY AWESOME, DUDE

I recently joined a brand-spanking new crit group with a couple of friends, which is great in a few ways. One, they’re both amazing, funny and outrageously talented – they entertain the crap out of me, and their pages are a joy to read. Two, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a serious crit group, and I think I’ve missed hearing about other people’s manuscripts in this much detail. And three, now that I’m back to critiquing other writers on something resembling a regular basis my critical eye is coming back into focus. You have to get that gear of constructive criticism in your cranium spinning smoothly again if you wanna be a good crit partner, after all. The process of recapturing that focus has introduced a fascinating little worm of doubt into the loamy compost bin of my mind, however, and this is what that worm’s saying: am I not critical enough as a reader?

I’m talking about when I read solely for pleasure, because (for me, anyway) reading for pleasure lacks that same imperative to apply one’s critical energies like a searing laser beam. I’m talking about a book like Jaclyn Moriarty’s THE YEAR OF SECRET ASSIGNMENTS, which I just finished reading tonight. Such a good book! Hilarious! A snappy live-wire voice, rat-a-tat-tat pacing, a balance between deep emotions and helium-light humor, it’s awesome! Which is great, right? And I thought the same thing about Laini Taylor’s LIPS TOUCH, and China Mieville’s UN LUN DUN, and Courtney Summers’ CRACKED UP TO BE, and Suzanne Collins’ MOCKINGJAY…um…huh.

This line of thought probably started when I read MOCKINGJAY, now that I think about it. There’s been massive amounts of discussion and dissection of that book, as you’d expect from the highly-anticipated conclusion to a bestselling trilogy that’s sold approximately 85 gajillion copies. And as you’d also expect, some people liked the book more than others, and some people liked it less.  I found myself experiencing an odd state of disconnection from some of the things that were pointed out as serious flaws in the book, because I thought it was great. Which is not to invalidate the legitimacy of anyone’s criticism, but I dunno, I cared less about the flaws than about the stuff I liked.

Later, in one of the Twitter litchats, I saw a few comments about China Mieville’s books, and issues people have had with the depth of his world-building and a perceived lack of characterization. Again, I saw the validity of those perspectives, but I felt distant from them, and I started to think of my own experience in terms of forgiveness.

Maybe I’m just a forgiving reader. Do you think? I’m not trying to make anyone think I read with blinkers on, or that my analytical mind just curls up into a ball when I’m reading just for sheer enjoyment – I do notice things I don’t like, and sometimes I will put down a book because I just can’t get absorbed in it. (I’ve suffered a few slings and arrows for my inability to enjoy Thomas Hardy and J.D. Salinger.) But when I really like something about a book – the prose is stunning, it makes me cackle like a loon, the characters are lovable and real – it’s pretty easy to get past the stuff I don’t like. The parts I like end up meaning more to me than the parts I don’t like. I can forgive the stuff that’s flawed. My reaction after reading many books is “aw, that was AWESOME!” I have that reaction a lot.

What does that mean about me as a writer? Ehh, I don’t know, probably not much, except maybe I’m not milking every possible spicule of craft-growing nutrition out of the books I read. Maybe it just gives me one more powerful reason to be in a crit group, which (like I said) really does cause my analytical peepers to open wide. But what does it mean about me as a reader? I think it might mean something really good, actually. Maybe it means I can still get lost in the singular pleasure of reading books, and that I’m still capable of feeling a powerful, visceral connection to someone’s literary work, a connection strong enough to carry me through any troublesome patches of flotsam.

Maybe I can still be swept off my feet by a book. That’s kind of a nice thought, eh? I don’t object to that idea at all.



16 thoughts on “Crit Groups, or Hey, Am I Too Easy to Please?

  1. I don’t object to that idea either!
    It’s all so subjective anyway. When I as a reader don’t connect to a work, then I am mostly sad for me 😦
    But if I am loving it, just swimming in its awesomeness and joy (or heartbreak) then who cares about the finer points of HOW MUCH BETTER THIS COULD BE?
    Certainly not me!
    I think when you read with your heart the way you do, you can only be a better, more joyous writer for it! 🙂


    1. I hope you’re right, Katia! I do find myself picking at things which I think could improve in SOME books, but I don’t know, I think I do it less than I used to. Which is weird, because the most common refrain I hear is how it’s harder to NOT pick away after becoming a writer.

  2. I struggle with this too, because there are some books that I LOVE that are decidedly, um, not that good. So I love the idea that maybe I am still a book romantic who loves being swept off my feet by a book.

    Here is the question I want answered, though: what IS it in those books that sweeps us off our feet? And how do I get some?

    1. Hard to say, right? Sometimes I think it happens when a book taps into my own life experiences in some way, through some detail – I suspect that happens more often than I consciously realize. I get swept up by the emotional content of books, but I also get swept up by books that I think are just cool in terms of world-building and inventive plotlines. Wish I could bottle it.

  3. Hey, Mike–enjoy it! I consider myself a pretty critical reader, but in a book I’m loving, it’s like there are two little voices in my head and they can coexist just fine. I can notice all the “ly”s in Rowling’s The Sorcerer’s Stone and not care one bit, because the book is BRILLIANT. I do read more critically than I used to, and I probably put down books more often, too, but if a book is great, I just note the little “offs” and keep reading and loving it. 🙂

    1. I get that too, Becky! Maybe that’s another thing that happens more often than I realize – I suppose it’s entirely possible that a lot of my critical dissection is occurring on a subconscious level? But yeah, HARRY POTTER is a great example.

  4. It’s hard to find that balance, because I do believe most readers are forgiving. But the people who are willing to represent us or publish our books aren’t necessarily among those forgiving folk :)So how do we hone our crit skills, keep that joyful ability to get lost in a book despite nitpicky flaws, and apply both to our writing?

    1. IT IS UNCERTAIN. I do think being in a crit group really serves that purpose for me, and in a way, openly discussing books is a looser extension of crit activity – I don’t actually discuss or dissect most of the books I read, I just read and absorb them on my own. But things sometimes coagulate in my head over time, you know? And my hope is that all those coagulated thoughts get internalized over time.

  5. Oh, I agree! When I love a book, I really love it. Even though I know it has faults. No book does every single thing well, but when the heart is right, I can be forgiving on other things (well, actually, I tend not to notice them).

    1. Sometimes I notice them and sometimes I don’t, Rose, usually depending on how much I love the good stuff. And I like your description – when the heart of the book is right! That’s perfect. 🙂

  6. I’m really enjoying this thread, Mike. I sometimes wish I could be two people — the one who reads for pleasure and adores every book she reads, and the one who reads more critically, AS A WRITER.

    Can I be both at once? I’m actually one of those people who’ve always been blessed (cursed?) with the ability to catch other people’s mistakes. And that includes not just typos, but noticing when an established author uses too many adverbs or too many speaker attributes (“she demanded” or “she begged” instead of “she said,” or instead of simply using gestures or actions to imply who’s speaking). Both flaws are rampant in CLOCKWORK ANGEL, but the story is so exciting and so full of action, and the worldbuilding is so impressive, I could forgive the flaws.

    Another case in point: I adored AS SIMPLE AS IT SEEMS and lent it to a friend, who read it and said “eh.” She started pointing out all the flaws in it and I almost felt we read different books. I found the writing beautiful and the story touching. It’s exactly the kind of book I wish I could write.

    Not every book is going to appeal to every person. Maybe if it doesn’t touch your heart you’re going to look for reasons not to like it and you’ll find the flaws which are present in every book. Because every writer is human.

    I suspect there are no books without flaws. Except, um, possibly CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

    You’re always going to find someone who hates the very book you love.

    1. Yup. It’s sooo subjective. I’m curious to see what it’s going to be like when I have a book of my own out there, and I find out for the first time that someone doesn’t like it. I hope I can be generous and non-entitled and acknowledge as well as I can that they have every right to love or hate my book as much as they do. Tough to do, but I want no less for myself when I’m the reader…

  7. Either any existing flaws are forgivable or the book never gets off the ground at all. I take this to the point of pathology, myself. For this reason, reviewing books is nearly impossible for me–and I don’t belong to a crit group either.

    1. I can do it with crits, Blythe, but it’s somehow become harder with published books. Weirdly, I used to do it more. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because reading now feels important to me in a different way – the pleasures of reading are actually more complex than they used to be, because my involvement as a writer has given my perspective all these dimensions it didn’t used to have. But you’d think that would make it HARDER to be swept away, right? I dunno…

  8. I think we’re less critical than other readers, rather than more so, precisely BECAUSE we are writers. For myself, I love the sheer words on the page and how they shape themselves and sound in my head, and the people in the story–and the story itself of course. I can forgive the so-so parts because I know how much work and magic went into the good parts. When a book is wonderful, I get too sucked into living it than to have the distance needed to see what’s wrong. I get that only on a second reading. And, unfortunately, who has time for second readings? There are so many new books to be read for the first time, and of course our own work to be written. There’s another question behind this: Why should it even matter? We overthink too much as it is. Just read a book and if you love it, that’s enough.

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