On page seven of the book A Little Literature, by Sylvan Barnet, William Burton, and William E. Cain, it states “when you write about a work, you will want to do much more than say, I really like this story,” or “This poem bored me.” It is true that such an approach is too simple, lacking in depth, and will not really benefit anybody very much. There is, instead, a proper way to go about critiquing literature that involves the use of established methods. The result of using these methods will be a proper literary review of the work that will enable anybody that has not read the work to get a sense of its substance, style, overall quality, the person of the author, and its importance both as a singular work of literature, and also as compared to other writings.
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Whenever you set out to critique literature, it is important to do more than merely state your final opinion of the work. Instead one should analyze and interpret the writing, and make assessments about such things as the meaning, impact, and effectiveness of the parts, themes, characters, scenes, imagery, content flow, and conflict resolutions. The main elements and ideas of the work should be identified, and particular lines and phrases of the text should be cited as examples to be examined. You don't want to give more that the shortest summary of the plot, but the focus should be rather on specific scenes, characters, and themes. These should each be identified with an adequate but brief description. Their relative importance should be recognized. The interpretations and assessments of these specific elements should be clear and pointed. When it is necessary to make personal expressions of taste, or to describe the impact that some element in the writing had on one personally, these comments should also include as much supporting information as possible. These methods will make it easier to remain objective or, in a way, “factual” in your analysis of the writing, and to avoid generalities and the kinds of subjective opinions that the authors Barnet, Burton, and Cain counsel against.
It is proper also to follow established forms when writing such a critique. It is customary to use the present tense when discussing a story or its contents. One should make mention of the author by his or her last name in a review essay, and care should be taken as always to use correct spelling and punctuation, to reference all quotes and citations properly, and to format the critique as would any standard essay, with an introduction, a body of discussion, and a suitable summary and concluding statement. A good review does not need to be lengthy; a few pages should be sufficient for most works under consideration.
It is appropriate to speculate about the thoughts, the background, and the motivations of the author. In literature there are frequently hidden themes and underlying lessons that the author is trying to convey. These are often the result of deeply-held views or biases, perhaps religious or political in nature. Other convictions or passions may be born of dramatic life experiences, of an unusual upbringing, education, or from personal challenges and tragedies. These dynamics, personal to the author, often infuse literary works with ideas in ways that are important, and so an understanding of these issues can help one to better understand the works of a particular writer. For this reason a discussion of these qualities in the review can be useful in helping others to understand the work better.
Another way to understand a work of literature is to compare and contrast the work with other literary writings. This is done by drawing from the elements of the two works some ideas, themes, scenes, plots, characters, descriptions, usages of imagery, etc., that are either similar or different in their natures. These similarities and differences should be clearly shown, and the various results can be compiled in a way that demonstrates the overall relationship between the two works. If a particular work is thought to have influenced the other in some way, this should be discussed, or if two or more works are important representations of a certain genre of literature, their elements can be considered together in this respect. And it is not at all improper to compare them qualitatively, and to judge the better of the two works and to state in summary why the one work is thought to be more effectively written, more entertaining, thought-provoking etc.
When writing about literature, simple statements of opinion are often the least helpful. Literature is rich and varied in its nature and character, and any critique or review of literature should be undertaken in a way that reflects this. Any work of literature contains key ideas, concepts, main characters or events, something of a plot, and a relative ability to influence the reader. The writing might also compare and contrast usefully to other works, and might somehow also give us a view of the soul of the writer. A consideration of all these elements, organized properly, is the substance and structure of a good review.
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