There is some argument, so I’ve heard, about what bases literature should be judged on, with critics often using (God forbid!) whatever thought happen to come into their head at the time, so I’ve come up with a list of things with which I’m going to judge the books I’ll be reading in my survey:
- Basic Style. Can the writer write adequate/good sentences? Does the novel flow? Or does it fail on this most basic of levels? Would an editor have helped?
- Micro-structure. Does the author seem to have trouble constructing scenes, forcing information in where it doesn’t belong, or are they seamless? (Can be either scene by scene, or sentence by sentence). (If I’m only reading 50 pages, I’ll leave out macro-structure, which would be something more or less about being a coherent whole).
- Paragraph Length. How long are the paragraphs on average? Is there any mitigating reason for their being so goddamn short?
- Narrative Voice. Whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd person, does the narrative voice engage the reader? Is the reader drawn in?
- Degree of Obliqueness. How disengaged is the narrative from the actual story it’s telling? Is there anything positive gained from such distancing?
- Dialogue. If there is any, does it reflect how human-beings communicate with one another? How does it fit in with the surrounding prose?
- Depth / Understanding of Humanity. Are any of the things the author has to say – even if they’re only off-the-cuff remarks – interesting; do they engage my brain, as it were, outside of the text? (Obooki notes: literature need not be philosophy).
- Abstraction. Are there many abstruse pages in the work where I have no idea what the hell the writer is on about? (A counter-point, perhaps, to the above).
- Referentiality. Does the book make constant reference to other works, whether they might be other novelists, philosophers or “Maurice Blanchot”? Or does it rather have the courage of its own convictions?
- Delight in language. Does the author appear to take any pleasure in the simple joy of using language? (An extension, perhaps, of style).
- Symbolism. If symbolism is used, does it exist naturally in the text, or has it been forced in arbitrarily by the author? (Obooki notes: he only ever notices symbolism when it annoys him. Subtle symbols pass him by).
- Authorial Vision. Does the author seem to have any sort of vision of life/the world? If yes, is that vision in any way interesting/compelling? Does the work constitute a coherent “world in itself”?
- Inoffensiveness. Would the term “a light comedy” sum up the novel?
- Fundamental Interest. (Perhaps we might call this plot, if that word didn’t seem to limit us). As I’m reading along, am I finding any of what’s going on interesting? Or has the author rather gone out of their way to write boringly about the most boring thing they could think of? Has the novel actually got anywhere in the first fifty pages, in terms of action, thought, development?
- Irritating Factors. Is there anything about the work which irritates the hell out of me? (Usually, it’s using nouns as verbs – a common “poetic” effect, usually much applauded; but could include having a writer as your central character, or at any point mentioning 9/11). This factor is acknowledged as highly subjective.
- Hope for Wholesale Massacre. (I guess this might usually fall under the name of “characterisation”). At the end of 50 pages, do I feel the novel would be improved if the entire cast were violently massacred? (Or, if you must, have I come to care for the characters?) One is minded of Hancock’s The Bowmans (@4:12, though probably doesn’t make much sense without the rest of the episode).
I think I shall actually use this structure for reviews. This may also be a useful way of distinguishing types of books from one another, for I notice I have some quite different books in this survey. Not all contemporary literature is the same, it appears: it can fail in many different ways.