Yeah, this I can completely agree with.
We tend to skim over how to do research when we’re making recommendations, but, some basic things to keep in mind.
First: always research the author before you start reading. This is for all kinds of reasons. You can usually start with their wiki bio, if they have one, or sometimes the bio in their book. Depending on who it is, that might be enough. In other cases, as with someone like Diamond, you’re going to have to go further afield and look at what people are saying about them.
You don’t need to know everything about the author, but you do need a baseline of who the are. This applies to both fiction and non-fiction.
Second: take everything anyone says with a grain of salt. Everyone, and I mean everyone, including both you and me, has an agenda. When you’re reading someone’s work ask yourself why they wrote this. Why are the making the argument? Or, sometimes, in the case of fiction, what argument are they making?
This is why I told you to research the author before you started reading. It will help gauge their motives.
For example: how does your understanding of Jurassic Park change, when you know that Michael Crichton was an MD?
One of my first classes, the professor started by saying, “everything is political.” What she meant was your personal philosophy influences everything you do. The same is true for everyone else. Why did they write this story? Why did they write it this way? What are they trying to say to you?
In a similar note: be immediately suspicious of anyone who tells you, “no really, this very complex system is really quite simple.” If it was, it wouldn’t really be complex. The cause (or causes) may be, but the resulting social fractal is anything but.
Third: Look at what the critics said. This goes for both fiction and non-fiction. Though, for non-fiction you’ll often have to dig through trade journals for the book reviews. Look for what they noticed that you didn’t.
Seriously, you can learn a lot about how to put a story together from reading through the reviews Roger Ebert wrote. There are literally thousands of pages of him telling you what did or didn’t work in a story. Some of that strictly pertains to film, but go ahead and take a look, you will learn something.
Finally: What did other people in the field say in response. When I say, “this is a place to start,” I don’t mean this is all you need to look at. Look at the sources they’re using. Look at what other people say on the subject. Look for names that keep popping up in a field, and find out what they’re saying.
A quick aside, if you’re coming into a field from the outside, go through 10-15 articles on the subject, and look at the names the authors keep mentioning, then go find what those people wrote.
But, this also happens in fiction, and it leads to a really degenerate criticism. “It’s just a ripoff of my favorite thing.” That’s almost never true.
No, someone didn’t go out there and write a ripoff of Constantine with a teenage lovechild. They were responding to Hellblazer, or Supernatural, or The X-Files, or Watchmen, or Twilight, or Anne Rice, or whatever, and said, “no, what this really needs is X.”
Because everything is better with Steven Williams.
I don’t think what Twilight needed was
hardcore S&M torture porn, though, obviously, someone disagreed.
I don’t mean the author was automatically right. They might not have actually said anything interesting. But, ultimately, that’s a personal judgement you need to make on a case by case basis.
Very few creative people will be truly satisfied by just playing in someone else’s sandbox forever. When they go there, there’s usually a reason that has nothing to do with, “I just wanted to copy their success.” Try to find out what it is. When you start seeing similarities, immediately start looking the differences as well, and ask yourself, “what does this mean?” “What are they trying to say?”
Sometimes they’re just learning. But, other times, you’ll see things you never thought of.
Hopefully this will help some of you, when we’re tossing out recommendations in the future.