Close Reading I: Beginning with a crisis

I am currently in the throes of writing up my article focused on guilt and masculinity in the fiction of George Saunders. This week has been the final step of the first draft: close reading the appearances of the various apparitions in Saunders’ early short stories.

And I am suffering a crisis of close reading.

Close reading is often thought of as the primary practice of literary studies. Put simply, close reading involves the careful critical analysis of the workings of a text.

Cards on the table – it took me 10 minutes to write the “put simply…” statement above. And I think it is still problematic. And maybe that points to the issues that I have been having this week that have lead me to two questions: 1. what is close reading?; and 2. is close reading still relevant?

This crisis started with the close reading of Saunders’ texts. While I engaged in the performance, I started questioning myself in terms of the virtue of the activity. In other words, while using close reading to shape my argument, in a very meta-way I began to see the very particular decisions I was making in my interpretative analysis and I started questioning their validity and their ethics. I am offering new knowledge on Saunders’ texts, I am certain of that. So it is ethical in that sense. But I am also using particular moves that I know (from experience) are on a good day persuasive and on a bad day slippery. I was ignoring certain readings. I was by-passing certain characters. I was exercising that power.

Two further thoughts then came to mind. The first is to do with pedagogy. I teach literature in Norway to students with less experience of texts and literature. And we push hard the importance of close reading as part of the critical skills that the students need to develop. It clearly influences our pedagogical approaches at undergrad and postgrad levels. But I began questioning that approach. Do students need close reading?

The second thought is more positive. And that concerns the championing the practice of close reading, but this time in the context of my field of research: the role of literature in the critical study of men and masculinities. I think there could be something in establishing the act of close reading as a form of self-reflection when reading texts that either are explicitly exploring representations of masculinities; or, indeed, if we follow the thought of certain close reading scholars and look to the personal element that the reader brings to close reading, then the simple act of close reading should be considered an act of self-reflection, self-examination, and self-actualisation.

Am I not sure of my sudden questioning of close reading. I suppose John Guillory’s recent Professing Criticism (2023), Merve Emre’s essay on Guillory’s book, and the article “The End of the English Major” by Nathan Heller last month in the New Yorker are all still on my mind. 

Further things have happened since thinking about these questions so I feel a part two of this post coming. I am particularly interested in exploring what is contemporary about close reading. Stay tuned. And keep close reading!

Recommended further reading: A few ideas have come from Barbara Smith’s “What Was “Close Reading”?: A Century of Method in Literary Studies” (2016). A useful way in to the history of the practice of close reading during the 20th century and beyond.

Rejections and failures

I don’t think we talk about two things that are a constant in academia regardless of career stage: rejection and failure.

If you go to my CV page, you can see my list of publications. I have two monographs, a list of articles, and various funding successes. You can also see the positions that I have had.

What you don’t see are all the rejections. Rejections for jobs, rejections for funding, rejections for articles. I see them. In the white spaces.

For every job on my CV, I see the rejection letters, some mercifully quick, some hanging around until the last moment. Some that didn’t even come at all. I also see the jobs I started applying for but didn’t have the time or the energy to complete. Or the jobs I psyched myself out of.

For every funding application, I see the failure of trying to get people together to start a research group. I see the weeks spent trying to make sense of guidelines to make sure it’s what the readers will want. I see the rejection emails. I see the impact my disappointment had on those around me. Again, I see the funding ideas I psyched myself out of.

For every article published I see the rejections. Some by editors. Some by reviewers. Most by reviewer 2(!) I see articles that I re-worked and re-submitted. I also see articles that I just binned forever (looking at you Franzen!)

And rejections hurt. Here is a nice quote from a recent The Atlantic article by Rhaina Cohen:

Rhaina Cohen, “A Toast to all the Rejects,” The Atlantic

This post is inspired by a rejection email I received yesterday from a well known Irish poetry journal. I didn’t expect my work to be accepted, primarily as all my poetry submissions up to now have been rejected. But the rejection email itself spooked me. I couldn’t and still can’t make out if it is automated or authentic. The email was complimentary, as rejection correspondence sometimes can be, but it seemed more personal. I’m just not sure. I suppose this is all coming from the fact that they told me that my poem was nearly selected for publication and they referred to me as “a superb poet”. I’m not sure that’s true at all(!) So perhaps it is a template rejection email. But then would it not be somewhat irresponsible to be telling all rejectees how wonderful they are?

I think the key takeaway from dealing with rejection and failure is exactly that: how you deal with the rejection or failure. I have gone down both roads – self-doubt and self-criticism to the point of feeling unable to do anything for weeks or months; or, the opposite, feeling driven to prove that I can do this and I will do it (and sometimes I do succeed and sometimes I don’t). Neither path is right or wrong as they are both natural reactions. But the key is to recognise them as a natural reaction and to work with them accordingly. And then to move past them and beyond them.

If you are interested in reading more, this post makes me think of JOHANNES HAUSHOFER who posted his CV of failures back in 2016. You can see it here. He gives credit to Melanie I. Stefan and there are also other examples out there.

A more recent article in The Atlantic by Rhaina Cohen titled “A Toast to all the Rejects” is also worth a look. (If it is behind a paywall just disable javascript, reload the page, and it will appear in full. Remember to enable javascript after you are finished!)

A new project? – Masculinity in George Saunders’ fiction

(If you are a new to my page – Welcome! – please check out my About, CV, and Publications pages)

One of the most enjoyed writers on the MA courses that I teach is George Saunders. And that is no surprise. As complex and clever (see: literary) that Saunders’ satirical stories might appear, I would argue that first and foremost to the reader they are accessible and, most importantly, affecting. This, of course, is part of Saunders’ “narrative empathy” that many scholars put forward as the defining feature of Saunders’ stylistics (see Kelly, Basseler, et al.)

Put simply, Saunders’ stories change you when you read them. You come to them as an interested reader, they take you in over the course of twenty or so pages, and they leave you a different person by the end.

And his stories are incredibly “contemporary” – in a number of ways – but certainly in terms of how they deal with a range of different contemporary issues: neoliberalism, technological advancement, healthcare, consumerism, obesity, the workplace, and many others.

There is one issue that is repeatedly overlooked however: masculinity.

And this is particularly striking when we take a moment to consider the extent to which Saunders employs first person male narrators, or how often his protagonists are men. And this is not intended as a criticism of Saunders; rather, very much in light of the project of the Critical Study of Men and Masculinities as a field of research, the aim is to argue that what I call as this “middle category” of masculinity – middle age, middle-class, middle-of-the-road men – should be identified and investigated in order to understand their place in the workings of society and the organisation of gender and masculinity.

And that’s what I am striving to resolve with this current project: masculinity in the fiction of George Saunders.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be dedicating the majority of my research time to Saunders. This includes two closely connected articles that I am working on at the moment and a conference speaking engagement at ALA 2023 in Boston. I will speak more about these in due course here on these pages.

This week in particular will be spent close reading key stories from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Saunders first collection of short stories. I’m struck by the fact that all but one of these stories is narrated by a male character, a trend that continues throughout Saunders’ fiction. Again, this is not a criticism; rather it should be regarded as an indicator of the necessity to finally approach Saunders’ superb stories as fields for further masculinity-aware investigation.

(If you are interested in reading more, then I recommend Hollie Adams’ article on masculinity and the American Dream in Saunders’ short fiction here.)

To finish, I’ll just say that for my own readings I am particularly interested in guilt and masculinity in Saunders’ works. And I think there is something there with how his male narrators reflect upon their guilt with the ghosts that appear before them. I think there is something in that.

I’m excited to spend time with Saunders this week and report back on these ghosts in upcoming posts.