Reading Like a Writer…English Major…Critic

The blog Mark Athitakis' American Fiction Notes (which I recommend) has a recent post that reminds me of a formula I've been using lately to talk to my fiction-writing students when advising them on how to learn from the fiction they are reading. I'm not the first to recommend "reading like a writer," of course. (Francine Prose has an interesting book by that title.) But I did get to the idea more or less on my own by applying what I learned over the years teaching freshman composition courses, usually staying one chapter ahead of my students in the textbook.

Books in that discipline often encourage "reading rhetorically"—that is, reading for the rhetorical techniques a writer of expository prose uses to be persuasive. As I worked over the years on my own fiction, I became more and more conscious of how I use that same analytical skill in reading fiction. For example, when I am struggling with a problem of point of view, I tend to pay attention to how the novel I am reading at the moment uses POV, and I even gravitate toward novels that have the same POV. This started out more or less unconsciously, but now I pretty much am always working through a specific home-made course of study to help me with the writing project of the moment.

I now structure the fiction writing classes that I teach around similar courses of study. I tell my students that reading like a writer is based largely on the old saw that good writers imitate while great writers steal. I want them to be skilled thieves. I want them to case the joint properly.

Still, in their analysis of published fiction, my students struggle to talk about technique and tend to focus on matters that I'd sum up as "the search for the hidden meaning." They are "reading like English majors," I then complain, half in jest. God bless us for being English majors to begin with, but when they sign up for the creative writing elective, that might be more handicap than help. Literary analysis, as I learned it and, as I believe, my students have been learning it, has almost nothing to do with analyzing literary technique. (Think of it as collateral damage to Barthes' "death of the author" and related debates over the intentional fallacy.) I don't at all remember learning how to break down an author's use of pastiche, repetition, contrast or similar devices, an approach that now seems to me at least as important to deeply understanding a work of fiction as listening for the radar pings returning from the book's social contexts. To become better at "reading like a writer," we have to suspend our tendency to read like an English major. Or give it up like a bad habit, I've been tempted to say aloud. But even at this late date I still believe there are worse habits my student could have.

Until recently I sometimes put this argument to my students this way: We ask different kinds of questions when we read with different goals. Most people read like readers and will ask: "Is it enjoyable?" English departments train us to ask different questions: "What does it mean?" Reading like a writer means asking about how the literary effects—especially pleasure and a sense of meaningfulness—are achieved. In other words: "How does it work?"

Mark Athitakis' note suggests to me an extension of the formula—reading like a book critic and/or reading like a book reviewer. I know important distinctions are made between the roles of critics and reviewers, but I won't wade into those here. I like to think of them like those cousins in narratives of the English aristocracy who are related by marriage, and possibly by blood, if anyone dare investigate. (Yes, yes, I've been watching Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater in great gulps of late.)

Athitakis, and the two other bloggers he is commenting on, are teasing out the kinds of questions that critics and reviewers should ask. The way I see it, reading like a book critic/reviewer, depending on personal inclination or prejudice and the forum in which you are publishing, involves some combination of all three of the questions I outline above. Will anyone like it? What does it mean? And how did the author do that? The reviewer/critic brings together in one place answers to whether or not a book offers pleasure, its social function of meaning something, and the significance of its form in realizing those two other elements. Most reviews and criticism touch on—or even frog-march through—all three concerns. Too many reviewers use a weighted scale, defending a book that offers no pleasure on the grounds it is richly meaningful or giving a pass to a book that offers no weight because of its craft.

It's easy to get snarky with reviewers and critics, but I know from my own few attempts at that kind of writing that it's not an easy job covering the entire waterfront, and rare is the book that succeeds in delivering in all three categories. I only wish reviewers and critics more often operated from a critical perspective that they could articulate to their readers, even if it isn't as rigid a system as the one Athitakis comments on.

Well, I don't only wish that. I suppose I also wish that the balance was weighted more to a discussion of pleasure and how it is achieved in literature. I wish they (myself included) would forget sometimes how to read like old English majors.

Robert McGuire is a freelance writer, writing teacher and aspiring novelist from New Haven. He blogs about his writing at