Critical Analysis

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It sometimes seems as if everyone else in the world is better at critical analysis than I am. I’m in the midst of reading William L. Shirer’s 3-volume memoir Twentieth Century Journey, and even there, in a paragraph, Shirer comes up with what sounds to me like well-thought out analysis of the works of several people he knew.

I often contend that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think critically about what I was reading, and college taught me how to learn. Indeed, I went to a high school program that focused on critical analysis. It replaced the standard high school English and History classes with a core of four classes that we rotated through two at a time in philosophy, literature, social institutions, and art history. Every exam in those classes were critical essays. You’d think I’d’ve gotten the hang of it by now. And yet, I just don’t seem to think of works at the same level as others when I read their critical analysis. Indeed, I find my own analysis frequently several levels below.

Generally speaking, we here in America don’t get off to a very good start when it comes to critical analysis. I grew up having to write countless “book reports.” These were exercising in proving that you read a given work and did not require much analysis. Indeed, analysis was frequently discouraged. Until high school, I found myself the object of a teacher’s careful attention if I had some sort of objection to a “classical” work as anything other than brilliant. (In high school, I decided that honesty was more important than pandering and would frequently find fault with the books we read.)

Much later, when I was paid to write a book review column for a science fiction magazine, my observations about the books I read always seemed amateurish compared to what I was reading in other magazines. Considering this, I think there are several reasons why this is so.

First, critical analysis frequently tries to determine what the author (or artists) intentions were. I rarely try to do this. As a writer, I’ve found that my intentions matter only to me. Once a work is out in the world, intentions don’t matter so much. People will think of it what they will. The rare exception for me is when someone explicitly states their intentions, at which point I, as a critic, have measuring stick to compare against.

Second, I tend to focus on the interconnectedness of things–a likely result of being in those core classes in high school. One work, or passage, or style, reminds me of another and I consider the relationship between to the two. For instance, recently, while reading Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I noted in the margins early in the book that I liked Shirer’s style, that it reminded me of another writer I enjoy, also from that same era, Will Durant. Was there something about the way people were taught to write back then, I wondered, that led to such similar styles?

Third, I also focus on my reaction to the work, how it made me feel, the questions it made me ask, the things it made me think about. This is not very critical. There are times, when writing about a book or essays I’ve read, that I’ve gone far afield because of feelings or reactions the piece stirred in me.

The result is that my critical pieces don’t often seem as smart as the ones I read in other places. You can see for yourself, if you are curious. My book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show, “The Science of Wonder” is archived online for anyone to read.

I’ve come to accept this as my style. It is what differntiates my thoughts about a work from others. But every now and then, I’ll read a great piece of critical analysis from someone like Shirer, thrown off as a paragraph in a 1,000+ page memoir, and be in awe of how easy he makes it look so easy.

Written on March 28, 2022.

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