How to Write a Constructive Book Review: The Art of Positive Literary Criticism Part 1: The Use and Abuse of Ambiguity

Anybody can say nasty things about anything. It takes no talent or knowledge to rip people or their writing apart. That’s easier than cold-cocking someone in the chops.

I don’t like critics who criticize out of some deluded sense of superiority or delusions of their own grandeur. Sure, some people know more than others about various subjects. That’s a given.

However, what’s harder to do, and infinitely more humble and kind, is to note both a book’s strengths and weaknesses, praising the former and proposing various solutions to the latter—assuming the author may consider a revised 2nd edition. That’s rare, of course, but maybe authors can learn something from your reviews to help them with future books. There’s a novel thought!

The Ambiguity of Art

Ambiguity means having multiple interpretations and invoking multiple reactions and opinions in the reader. It’s the foundational premise upon which we should evaluate and judge art. If we all read the same book, you’re reading it one way and I’m reading it another.

That’s one of the reasons why Seth Godin encourages companies and groups to buy his books in bulk, have everyone read them, and then enjoy a company-wide discussion of its contents. In fact, General Electric just bought [as of June 4, 2011] 5000 copies of Poke the Box to have such a corporate conversation.

Why do we all read the same book a bit differently? Lots of reasons: definitions and connotations of words, our own educational level and worldview, our aesthetic values, preconceptions, misconceptions, and ignorance.

Strong word, “ignorance.” But it informs or misinforms everyone’s lives. The key is to be aware of your ignorance, though many people are too ignorant to even recognize their ignorance. And ignorance leads to nasty, mean-spirited criticism. So if you’re ignorant about something, try to realize that fact and keep your mouth shut until you remedy your ignorance.

Good vs. Bad Ambiguity

The fact is that art is inherently ambiguous. If it’s art, that is. In the world of non-fiction discourse and writing, ambiguity is usually a vice. We have a need to know exactly what each of us is thinking and saying. Ambiguous business transactions, contracts, and negotiations are a vice.

There’s an exception here, however. Sometimes in non-fiction writing, authors make statements or ask questions that may be ambiguous. They do so—that is if they know they’re doing so—to involve the readers, to make the readers examine their own lives and positions by considering multiple angles.

Knowing what you’re doing is a key. If you intentionally mess around with ambiguity, that’s artistic—provided it’s well-executed. But if what you say or write is unintentionally ambiguous, you’re just flat out mixed up and/or a bad communicator.

Ambiguity in a non-fiction work should be used sparingly, for that effect, otherwise we don’t know what to think. And that’s not good.

In art, however, ambiguity is a virtue. Making the reader not know what to think is an element of the greatest fiction. Novelists should absolutely play with readers’ heads, actually. Shake them up. Spark strong emotional responses that confuse them and force them to examine their own feelings and opinions about the subject matter and the dialogue.

When Mrs. Hawthorne read her husband’s new novel entitled The Scarlet Letter, she said it gave her a terrible headache and sent her to bed for a few days. Nathaniel was delighted. He knew then that he’d written a masterpiece.

In most cases, the more ambiguous a work of art, the better it is. Think of Picasso’s paintings. Or Dali’s. Or Beethoven’s symphonies or Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. There are as many possible reactions to them as there are people experiencing them.

Ambiguity is Your Friend

In the analysis of art, in this case novels, plays and poetry, you can interpret them differently and not necessarily be wrong. So, be comfortable with ambiguity. Ambiguity is your friend. Since art allows for multiple interpretations, the chances are increased that your interpretation is valid and defensible. The problem is when people get frustrated and see one definite interpretation, or need closure to a story, wanting to know what the ending “means.”

Negative Capability

The great Romantic poet John Keats had some good advice. He had a theory called “negative capability,” which he described as the necessity of “being able to live with doubts and uncertainties without any irritable reaching out after facts.” In the analysis of literature—and life—you will find many uncertainties and have many doubts about what it all “means.” Don’t get irritable and stressed looking for definite answers. There often aren’t any.


There are many different critical theories, or approaches to analyzing literature, but the one most accessible and natural to most of us is Reader-Response. As I’ve suggested,  since art is ambiguous and consumed by an audience, its ambiguous character invites and empowers the reader to go with her gut response to the work.

The Reader Response approach, thus, encourages and allows your intellectual and intuitive reactions to the stories. You may bring your own life experiences, your knowledge base, generously to bear upon the material. It’s a very self-aware, self-reflexive approach, allowing you to draw analogies to, insights from, and suppositions about the stories from the stored wisdom of your own life.


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