Friday, September 7, 2012

How to Literature: The $@#$ does 'Critical Reading' Mean Anyways?

Another week, another late post. Unexpected workloads and more impromptu computer repairs delayed the week's post by a day or two again and also stopped any attempt at writing the Saturday Bonus post dead in its tracks. The good news is that any computer problems are now completely solved for the foreseeable future; I gave CLIO a full cleanout and reassembly and that seemed to perk her right up. Now she's as good as she's ever been, though admittedly down one hard drive.

Yes, CLIO is my computer, Yes, I gave my comptuer a name; I built her from discounted parts off of Newegg and love. Yes, I refer to my computer as if it were a woman. DON'T JUDGE.

Just me and my lady chilling at homeohgodimsolonely.
Thankfully though, here I am now, posting the promised words on the internet. I was able to get about a third through the Bonus Post for this weekend before I had to start going into emergency computer repair mode so that'll be posted this week as well. However two late weeks in a row tell me that maybe I ought to take a break to catch up and take stock of where I'm headed and at what speed so I'm sorry folks, you'll still be getting a bonus post this weekend but I'm taking next Wednesday off to really get a feel for what my school load's going to be like. Don't worry though, Under Review will be back in some form or another the week after just fine.

Thereabouts on the internet, MovieBob started a two-part series about why you're wrong about that one movie Sucker Punch that I find pretty interesting. It was a movie I really liked that a lot of other people also kind of hated so I'm looking forward to a closer examination of it. Also the guys at Extra Credits did a video about Game Schools and how not to get screwed by them which, all in all, is pretty handy information if you're looking to do anything game-related for a living.

How to Literature:
What the %#@$ is Critical Reading, Anyways?

Critical reading is a skill which I think really gets a bad rap. I mean just the name by itself has a somewhat negative connotation; 'critical' as if the entire purpose of it is to be rude and nitpicky. I'm also aware that there's a little mysticism around what it actually entails and what the end result ideally is. For a lot of people, I think any enthusiasm for it was killed in middle or high school; I know that was nearly the case for me. I can pretty clearly remember wondering what the point was while listening to teachers tell me how to do it but not really stopping to illustrate why I should want to, what use I could get from it, or that it could even be *gasp!* fun. 

So the fuck is it? Critical reading is, to put it a bit technically, analyzing details for deeper meaning. It sounds kind of hoity toity but all it really is is reading into things. A basic rule of storytelling is that in any medium, but especially novels, every detail means something. There's a common argument against this that says not everything has to mean something or as one of my high school English classes vocalized it; "What if the curtains are just fucking blue?" A deeper form of that argument is that you shouldn't read into stories in a way the author didn't intend, finding meaning where no one meant there to be any.

Do not listen to these. These are lies people tell to get out of reading and thinking, respectively. 

And while you're listening to me; give Tom some candy.
Effective storytelling lies in creative and effective manipulation of details to give off a certain vibe to whatever scenario you've put your audience in and to this end, every detail really does matter. This is never more true than in novels and other written work where you are literally being exposed to one detail at a time as it's being explained to you. So what if some of the details actually don't matter? What if the curtains really are just blue? Then why are we being told about it in the first place? If that's the case then that's bad writing; a waste of paper at best, misleading at worst.

Where a lot of the confusion and dissent comes from is that just because every detail means something does not always mean that it's necessarily all-important; just because the curtains are blue doesn't mean that the entire story hinges on the hue. Sometimes it's setting the mood or establishing patterns or even just reinforcing what you already knew. Stuff like that's still important but it doesn't always mean that your enjoyment will be stunted because you didn't get it or got it in a different way. While we're talking about getting things a different way, there is a similar argument to be made against 'finding meaning where there is none' but that'll come a bit further down the page when we get into the how portion of the post.

In its most basic form, critical reading is nerding out. It's absorbing as many details as possible as deeply as possible and trying to work out any implications, connections, or hidden messages, intended or unintended. Anyone, literally anyone, can do it so long as they pay close enough attention and, ideally, enjoy the story enough (because even I'll admit that it gets a bit tiring for stories you have no interest in). The question remains though; why would you even want to do it in the first place? What's the point?

The short answer: it actually makes stories better. It also helps you understand why crap stories suck so much.

Roll back a bit to one of my earliest posts, my very first SSSBP about The Iron Giant and how much more I loved it now that I was grown up and knew about how stories were constructed. Remember how much I picked over little details about color palette and character design to hew forth all of these now clearly intentional decisions which reinforced a concurrent but underlying message about how war is bad and stuff? Remember how awesome that was? Here's a preview in which I discuss the fact that all the male figures in the main character's life have dark circles around their eyes except that one asshole no one liked.

Also it gives me an excuse to use this picture again. I smile a little bit every time I see this picture.
Oh man, I need to watch The Iron Giant again...

Anyways, that entire post was based on critical reading's younger, more attractive brother, critical viewing. There's also critical playing for games but for future reference we'll just refer to them all as 'critical consumption.' What matters though is that it was taking all that useless crap your teachers made you do in high school and using it to make the movie even better. Nifty!

Thing is, all story tellers, be they authors, film makers, or game developers, are still artists who want to sneak some deeper meaning into their stories. They do this for a few reasons but primarily because it just makes stories more rewarding to write and enjoy. It means there's an extra layer of meaning and therefore stories are, ideally, more meaningful. Give it a try and you may be surprised how much some stories become more moving or exciting when you realize a quiet subtext or appreciate how much work went into inserting visual cues you almost didn't notice the first time but still somehow affected you. There's a strange sort of satisfaction in realizing that your reaction to something was carefully constructed and likewise carefully deconstructing how they managed that.

Likewise, once you start to wrap your head around the fact that a lot of forethought goes into storytelling, you'll also notice when there...isn't. I won't say there's a wrong way to tell a story but I will say there's a lazy way. A story doesn't need a hidden message or subtext to be good, Boondock Saints is a good example of that and really, a lot of games simply aren't that sophisticated yet, even of the good ones, but critical reading/viewing/playing is as much about appreciating the mechanics of the story as it is about trying to uncover hidden meaning and if the mechanics don't actually work very well, people notice. It doesn't even take someone with a literature degree to see a lot of it; it's why Uwe Boll and Michael Bay are so openly reviled

And if you don't know who Uwe Boll is...well...Gamers don't like him very much. I'll leave it at that.
So we've talked about the what and the why, let's dig a little bit into the how. It's actually kind of a difficult question to cover because there's a lot of different methods and really almost everyone has their own spin on how to do it. One of the most powerful techniques is annotation; just writing down notes in the margins or a spiral or something every time something strikes you. Just, as you're reading, watching, or playing, be on the lookout for important details, patterns in the text, or just things the story seems to linger over a little longer than absolutely necessary. Do this long enough and you'll eventually start making connections between things; you've literally just drawn yourself a roadmap of the story.

 Now, I can already mentally see a lot of you preemptively rolling your eyes; annotation was another one of those things you did in high school that you probably also hated. I feel for you, actually; I'm still not a big fan of it. It breaks my flow and makes it harder for me to enjoy the story for just the story which is why if I do annotate, I try not to do it on my first runthrough (which works great until I have to read an 800-page epic).

That being said, even I can't deny how just incredibly helpful it is; you're writing things down which already helps you remember what the hell the story was even about (particularly helpful if it started out written in a different language) but for all the frontloading your workload it does, it makes getting to your end result a relative walk in the park. So maybe you don't like stopping every ten minutes to make a note, still; try it out. You may be surprised how far it goes towards helping your understanding of a piece.

But let's say that, for whatever reason, you're totally against it. Or you have tried it and haven't found it to your liking, what else can you do? The obvious answer is just try to remember everything which can actually work fine so long as you know what you're looking for but it tends to break down over longer stories, like novels or some games.

One of my favorite solutions is to bring a friend in to bounce ideas off of. Time and time again, my interpretation of something has been expanded by someone else either reaffirming my experience of something or completely reversing it with their own. This strategy is especially powerful for film and video games where you can share the experience with anyone in the room at the same time, allowing you to make commentary on the fly, as your reactions come to you. Plus it often results in the best jokes. Just ask my sister, with whom I do this constantly. It usually results in us telling the characters they're stupid in the most absurd voices we can manage.

My sister didn't want me to post the picture of her making a funny face during one of these sessions so here's a kitten instead. Picture his kitten about five feet taller and speaking like Ray Charles and you're about 3/4 of the way there.

That's one thing about doing that sort of thing with friends though; it's entirely possible to come up with two interpretations of the same story. Something to note is that it's entirely possible for both of these interpretations to be completely valid, even if they're mutually exclusive because it's just that; your own interpretation. Someone having a different interpretation of events doesn't invalidate your own, in fact it may even strengthen it. If anything's going to invalidate an interpretation, it'll be lack of grounds for that interpretation in the first place or as a professor of mine once put it "Hamlet can be about a lot of things ranging from politics to feminism to just plain old murder porn but we're all pretty sure it's not about the space shuttle." At some point you're going to cross the line of "I'm not sure the author intended this"  but hold up poncho because so long as it makes sense and you've got evidence to back it up, that's totally valid as well. literature's funny like that; at some point the story stops being the author's and becomes everyone's.

One thing you must remember is that critical consumption isn't just something you can start doing and be good at all the time. Some people are just good at it all the time but shut up, we're not talking to you. Go read Chaucer or something. Prick. For most people however, it's a skill that needs honing like any other skill.  Part of it is building up your knowlege of whatever medium you're doing it in; how books are structured, films are made, and games are designed, respectively. Chances are though that you know at least a little about this already if you like it enough to want to read more into it and if you don't, that knowledge is just a few wiki searches away.

What you really need to bone up on is culture. Not pop culture mind you; that's generally a waste of time, both in the sense that it's usually so much meaningless noise and also that by the time you've learned it, it's already changed shape. No, when I say culture I mean culture culture; social stances past and present, artistic conventions (i.e. how do colors affect us?), a broad understanding of world history as well as the meaning and importance of symbols throughout time, and pretty much anything having to do with what makes people quite the people they are. The most important thing to understand though is your own culture, why you are the way you are and not just because it'll help you better understand and relate to material from your primary source, your own culture. It'll also go a long way towards helping you understand your own biases which is crucial in trying to read critically because your life experiences and personal prejudices (and don't kid yourself, you do have them) can drastically color an experience, sometimes to the point where the same work is unrecognizably different between two people. A great example of this being Starship Troopers which was panned both as a gross endorsement of fascism and an appalling crucifixion of patriotism, depending on who you asked.
Erm...yeah, something like that.

More than anything, remember this; beyond all the wrote learning and high theory and whatnot, critical consumption comes down to just one thing; finding as many reasons as possible to ask the question 'Why?' If that's all you do, then even if you're not annotating or don't know how filmmakers use their medium to convey subtle meaning you're still on the right track. Critical consumption is active consumption, never just sit back and take the story at face value; always, always ask that one, pervading question: Why?

Thank you, goodnight.


  1. Topic proposal, what are upcoming games on Steam Greenlight or Kickstarter that you are interestedin and what about them makes them so great?

  2. Thank you for solving The question of what I am going to write tomorrow!


    Which is good; I've been getting far too high-falutin' recently.