Just what is that infamous thing, a close reading?
I have recently been seething with irritation at a certain scholarly book. Tempting as it would be to use the internet for its natural purpose and gripe about that book in detail, I am instead going to channel my energies into something with a little more intellectual value. The source of my irritation, you see, is that this book exaggerates to a fault—an incredibly irritating fault—all the virtues of “good” close reading. But what do I mean by that, my rational self asks my (normally dominant) griping self? Hmm. Fair question, rational self.
Close reading, ostensibly widely taught and widely practiced in literature programs, remains a bit of an enigma. It is learned mostly by imitation, and like pornography, it is most often distinguished by an “I know it when I see it” test. Now this just means that professional literary scholars, and our apter students, internalize the rules for doing close reading without ever needing to make them fully explicit. And what I’d like to do with this post is make a first stab at enumerating some of those rules—and try to provoke you, dear readers close, distant, suspicious, generous, and otherwise, to help me expand and refine the list. With list in hand, maybe I’ll be able to calm that griping self down before he wears away my molars with grinding.
Before I sketch out my list, a few preliminaries. It seems to me that close reading is not a reading practice at all but a genre of commentary—pace John Guillory, who says that it is a practice of re-reading in his stimulating analysis of the practice in Close Reading: Prologue and Epilogue (ADE Bulletin 149 ). I’ll grant that, but I take it as an essential feature that close reading is a re-reading aimed towards producing commentary in either spoken or written form. You “do a close reading”; an article is praised for its “smart close readings”; one characterizes a certain kind of scholar by saying that they are a “good close reader.”
This implies that a close reading is not identical with the results of anything you might call “close analysis” or even “interpretation making use of details.” I have heard several people make the apt distinction between “close reading” and “reading closely.” My question is: what generic features distinguish the thing scholars so readily identify as a close reading? As John Frow argues in his excellent short book on Genre, “genres are always complex structures which must be defined in terms of all three of these dimensions: the formal, the rhetorical, and the thematic” (76). So if you are willing to grant my description of close reading as a genre of commentary, then the features we must enumerate will lie in all three dimensions.
Here goes. I’ll arrange my list in what I think is an increasingly tendentious order, by the end of which my own parti pris will probably have become clear. Nonetheless, I want this to be a descriptive list, not an attack on or a vindication of the practice; those can come later.
Generic Features of Close Reading: Beginnings of a List
1. In prose, mostly impersonal. The first person singular may be used but can only rarely be invoked for authority. “We” is more common but must be used impersonally.
2. Isolation of one or at most a small number of “texts” for extensive discussion. “Text” is, naturally, not limited to a literary work, but any “text” must be amenable to the generic procedures. The poem or short prose passage excerpted from a novel is the prototypical “text” of close reading.
3. Extensive use of quotation, including in-text citation and block quotation. If the text under focus is short it may be quoted in its entirety, all at once or by parts. If it is long, it will be represented by significant quotation (summary or paraphrase may be present as well).
4. In-text citations may be used to present segments of the text; but they are also often used by incorporating the language of a text into the language of the commentary.
5. Pragmatic feature: may appear in either of two academic contexts: classroom work and academic work. May be presented orally, in seminar or conference presentation, but is prototypically written.
6. [Question: is “in English” also a generic requisite? Or even “in American”? Has this practice really translated, or would “prat crit” or explication de texte be mistranslations of “close reading”?]
7. Strong emphasis on multiple meanings of words, puns, double entendres.
8. Frequent recourse to etymology and argument from etymology.
9. Intense attention to metaphor and simile, typically probing for multiple significances.
10. Use of classical rhetorical terminology (associated with prestige; it strikes me that the once distinctive subgenre of “rhetorical” deconstructive close reading may have mostly diffused itself into “ordinary” close reading).
11. Use of literary allusion, especially glancing literary allusion, oriented to a fairly conservative canon. (Question: is the scholarly version of the canon nothing other than the set of literary allusions available in a critical or scholarly context?)
12. An occasional but notable strategy: analogies to other cultural products and practices (especially literary texts in similar forms but often also quite disparate realms of culture—e.g. music).
13. High prominence and value accorded to the discovery of repetitions, internal analogies, and other patternings.
14. Arguments biased towards complexity, irresolution—naturally. By the bye, I do not think the rise and fall of the keywords “unity,” “harmony,” “wholeness” mark a real shift in the generic protocols of close reading, only a change of rhetorical colouring.
15. The fetish of “form”—both the word itself and the gesture of discussing some feature or another of the text as formal. Corresponding devaluation of mere “content” or “theme.” I say “fetish” because “form” is in the typical close reading a very loosely defined term, including almost anything that interests the close reader, including thematic or conceptual material as long as it can be talked about with a loosely formalist vocabulary of pattern, technique, style, opposition, balance, etc.
16. Occasional, usually fairly modest, gestures of appreciation and positive valuation: the object of appreciation is usually craft, aptness, complexity, perhaps beauty. “Remarkable” is perhaps the typical adjective. Non-positive valuation is much rarer (my impression is that this is one of the biggest historical shifts in the practice of close reading between the 1930s and the present).
17. Interpretive argument oriented towards a “whole.” The reading can go from whole back to part afterwards, but this is optional. Key gestures: the assertion that a text “is about” something; the claim on behalf of a total “structure” or an all-pervading “tension” (or ambiguity).
18. Indeed, perhaps the central, most frequent, argumentative content of a close reading is that the “text” is about itself in one way or another. Displacements are also possible from type to token: the text is about poetry, literature, art, textuality, representation, etc. Individual details are recruited as guides to the “meaning” or “significance” of the whole.
19. Relatedly, the genre is distinguished by frequent claims of analogies between “form” and “content.” Alternative version of this topos: the argument that a text “performs” what it “describes.”
20. …And what else?
Well, I feel rather calmer now. More additions or modifications to this list warmly welcomed in the comments!