Thursday, July 28, 2011

Close Reading is Toast

Two days ago, or was it three? Andrew Goldstone made a somewhat bemused post about close reading at Arcade. Others made comments, myself included, and at some point I said to myself: close reading is toast. No one said as much in the discussion, nor did I, but the fact of that discussion, at that place, at this time, that taken together with my sense of the ‘vibe’ in literary studies tells me that close reading is toast. It has lost its mythos.

Goldstone’s post is entitled Close Reading as Genre. That says it right there; it’s a genre, a form. It’s not an induction into the mysteries. He opens:
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.
What follows is not a denunciation of close reading. It’s an attempt to make sense of what it is, with a list of some 19 features ending with an invitation for more.

The mystery is no longer the text, that thing that will unfold before close reading. The mystery is close reading itself. And that mystery has become a mere puzzle: What? Why?

To my mind it is Lee Konstantinou who delivers the coup de grâce: “What has characterized close reading — as opposed to what we might call careful or attentive reading — is the endless production or proliferation of readings.” The endless production, everyone gets one. And this is opposed to mere ‘careful’ or ‘attentive’ reading. That’s it, right there. For close reading had claimed for itself closeness: there is no closeness but that of the close reader. That it could be put in opposition to mere attentiveness to the text betokens its doom.

Much more was said, about evaluation, about ways of reading close, and everyone expressed proper appreciation for “good close readings.” But it’s clear that that appreciation is directed toward the past. These young critics are on the hunt for something new, ways of looking carefully at texts, but that do not invite the indulgence of endless production. Whatever the object of close reading is, that object is no longer compelling, alluring, or even credible.

That’s the key, the object is gone. And so the practice that sustained it must go as well.


I hope.

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