Delicate art of judging a book by its cover and all in between


I have come across many assertions regarding who should be a literary critic. As a teacher of literary studies, I have decided to present my arguments in order to provoke a discussion on the possible qualifications of a critic.

While taking a course in literary theory and criticism in the early 1990s at Moi University, Eldoret, under the tutelage of Prof Chris Joseph Odhiambo, students in our class reached a consensus that “literary criticism is a research-based discipline”.


This implies that critics are those who go beyond labelling a piece of work as either good or bad. Criticism transcends the exercise of condemning the perceived weaknesses in a novel, short story or drama. Also, to critique may not be the art of praising the strength of a product of creativity.

Those hoping to make an impact in the world of literary criticism should be able to understand, analyse and interpret literary phenomena in a piece of work. This is the only way one can arrive at a balanced judgement. It is not the business of comparing the work of amateurs with those of established artistes like Ngugi wa Thiong’o .

It is unscholarly to condemn people’s literary production in the same manner one would do to dishes, which can easily be dismissed as either raw or burnt. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” a proverb goes. Literally, a book must never be judged by its cover, but instead it should be read and re-read with the intention of discovering and understanding the author’s superficial and hidden concerns.

Some people say literary criticism should be the trade of a selected few who can cope with its demands. Kazungu and Chacha note: “Fasihi ni taaluma na si kila mtu anayeweza kusoma, kuelewa na kuihakiki kazi ya Fasihi”. What the two imply is that literary criticism is not for all who are literate. It is for those who can understand and interpret texts.

Primary school children who listen to oral narratives and then describe them as either interesting or boring cannot qualify to be literary critics.


E.M. Foster stresses that “Books have to be read it is the only way of discovering what they contain” Reading, in this context, is a metaphor comparable to “knowing” a woman in Biblical parlance.

Rene Wellek and Austin Warren note that literary texts are valued “only as they are contemplated by readers who meet the requisite conditions”. In essence, not everybody can be a literary critic or scholar.

A critic, therefore, should be a competent reader able to evaluate how texts function on their own and what their diachronic and synchronic placements are.

This makes literary criticism a unique area of study since it demands that the practitioner not only looks at the text per se but also questions the influence and impact of certain values and situations on authors as recipients of contexts and experiences.

Sensitivity, exposure, wide reading and post-secondary education are qualities that may produce a more reliable critic. The stress is more on wide reading than classroom education because one cannot be a competent reader after handling a countable number of texts.

This means that adequate schooling and quality socialisation cannot be ignored if one expects to be competent and earn respect in this academic enterprise. It is only with such qualities that one can comment on creative works without being a fault finder. A critic is not a book reviewer; one who writes summarised retelling of novels, plays and short stories. And why do they rarely review poetry?


What appears in book review columns are not critiques, because many lack proper analysis of the relationship between form and content. In addition, the majority of writers of such reviews avoid to mention how new texts contribute towards ruffling the existing literary milieu.

Should this be the case, those intending to engage in literary criticism should not only be well-versed in literary discourse but in all concerns of human life – sociology, psychology, geopolitics, religion, history, science and technology.

In conclusion, let us keep this debate alive so that one day we may reach a consensus over the qualities of literary criticism that can nurture across creativity.