What are some basic guidelines for approaching literature critically?
Use the Correct Vocabulary
When writing about a novel, write "novel," not "book" or "story." Use "protagonist" instead of "main character" or "hero," and "antagonist" instead of "bad guy." A precise vocabulary shows your knowledge of the subject matter and lends your writing more credibility.
When making an assertion about a work of literature, use specific evidence from the text.
When quoting from a literary text, make sure to incorporate the quotation into your sentence. For example:
- Correct: The writer shares a connection with the axolotls through their eyes: "the axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing (398).
- Incorrect: "The axolotls spoke to me of the presence of a different life, of another way of seeing." The writer shares a connection with the axolotls through their eyes.
In the first example, the quotation supports the author's supposition with a gracefully integrated quotation. The second example presents a quotation out-of-context, supporting nothing. Quotations cannot stand on their own.
Also, when the quotation exceeds four lines on your paper, you must present it as a block quotation by indenting it an inch and using no quotation marks.
Make generous use of the author's own words. Make ample use of striking, revealing, memorable quotations, but always be analytical and interpretive.
Focus on Subjectivity
Explain and defend your personal likes and dislikes, but base subjective judgment on objective fact.
Do not quote from an imaginative creation as if it were a documentary report or a sociological study. Art is not a photographic reflection of historical reality. Before you cite a novel or a play as evidence of actual historical conditions, remember that an author may idealize or satirize, glorify or belittle.
Consider Style and Rhetoric
Make an effort to get into the spirit of the work, to respond to its characteristic method. Pay attention not merely to what is said, but also to how it is said. Consider how the style contributes to communicating the theme.
Don't Ape Critics
Repeat critical opinions only if you have questioned them or made them truly your own. Do not simply substitute a critic's ready-made opinion for your own honest interpretation and reaction. If you cite a critic approvingly, show why you think he or she is right.