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.