The Hegemony of Close Reading

Jonathan Kramnick’s recent essay “The Interdisciplinary Fallacy” makes a strong case for disciplinarity—specifically, that English Departments have a unique perspective to offer, different from the perspectives offered by other academic departments. Worrying that the radical edge of interdisciplinarity is a kind of scientific reductionism (a single scientific worldview, fundamentally physical, unifying the university—i.e. Edward O. Wilson’s “consilience”), Kramnick sees long trends in English Departments to promote Cultural Studies and New Historicism as threats to disciplinary coherence.

Kramnick fights back against these historicist tendencies by championing “close reading,” which is “the skill that establishes the baseline of competence for work in literary studies.” Close reading, he says, is “our grounding practice,” the analytical form that structures the discipline. And it must be defended against those (he cites Mary Poovey and Clifford Siskin) who are bent on “getting rid of close reading.” (One could also imagine Franco Moretti’s “distant reading” and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s “surface reading” as paradigmatic threats.)

Kramnick isn’t alone in his insistence that close reading is what makes English English. Jane Gallop has also suggested that the precarious “fate of close reading” is also the “fate of literary studies.” “We became a discipline,” Gallop notes (gesturing to the replacement of the Old Historicism by the New Criticism), “when we stopped being amateur historians and became instead painstaking close readers.”

I too like close reading, but I resist its fetishization. I worry that privileging close reading as the ur-skill to be acquired by every ideal English major risks the kind of reductionism that worries Kramnick in the first place. Why should English Departments (literary critics and scholars) be committed to one single professional technique? I prefer to think of English Departments as fostering a literary criticism that features three tools working in tandem (including close reading).

I tell my own students that when I grade their papers I look for the 3 C’s: Curating, Connecting, and Close Reading.

Curating chiefly regards quotations and citations. What are the most significant moments in a long text? An essay implicitly answers this question with the specific passages to which it gestures. The best literary critics tend to have a keen curatorial eye—able to pick out the choicest phrases, the deepest sentences, the strangest scenes. They seem to find gems wherever they scan.

Connecting involves linking separate passages, either in a single or in multiple texts. (“Only connect!” cries Forster.) Erudite critics see parallels: sometimes cause-and-effect relationships due to one author’s influence over another, sometimes shared themes among authors responding to similar cultural cues. Attentive readers can write not just of unique moments but of common ones—repeated phrases, stylistic tics, formulaic tendencies. And such readers can track developments in character, plot, and theme across various places in a text.

Close Reading, finally, is a third tool for criticism. In its “classic” form, dating back to the midcentury New Critics such as Cleanth Brooks, close reading takes an apparently simple expression and reveals it to be irreducibly complex—an intricately ambiguous or ironic superposition that resists hermeneutic collapse (not unlike the wave function of quantum mechanics). This is a valuable task (so the thinking goes) because real life is irreducibly complex; as Lionel Trilling reflected in 1949 (writing in the aftermath of the Second World War), “The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks.” Close reading allows us to appreciate how the most talented authors can pack multi-layered meanings into the briefest spaces. The most valuable passages cannot be simplified or summarized or paraphrased; rather, they mean in abundance.

I’m happy to celebrate close reading as an excellent technique, but I’m wary of claiming that the entire discipline of literary study rests on it. Close reading in a vacuum merely insists that a thing is never what it at first seems, a curious tenet by which to live. Curating and connecting strike me as equally important—and necessarily related—skills. They can be grasped by novices, but they can also be honed to a professional expertise. Curating key passages makes possible connecting and close reading; connecting lends coherence to literary texts (otherwise liable to dissolve into scattered fragments); close reading allows one to discern value in literary style. They work best when they work together.

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