At last month’s AWP conference, Robert Olen Butler had an interesting note on reading a story or book for review or critique. He complained about the glut of bad criticism in the arts, prompted by a need to find something to say before the reader is finished listening.

“The problem while reading is that you go into your head,” he said, “and you think, ‘What am I going to say about this?’ Meanwhile, you don’t see the work at all. That’s why there’s so much bad book criticism.”

Like many good teachers of writing, Butler insists that his students approach a work for the first time “without a pencil in hand.”

Listen to what a writer is trying to say, be patient for their voice, before you start suggesting what might be improved.

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