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!)