Pro Close Reading

The blogosphere is fun for lots and lots of reasons. But one of the best is that occasionally, by virtue of some monkey-pounding-typewriter law of probability, you will encounter two posts on the same day that are almost perfect complements.

Thus, Wyatt Mason opines (quite correctly):

Criticism that doesn’t read closely isn’t literary criticism. If it’s
anything, it’s personal essay—a perfectly admirable category of thing,
and a perfectly reasonable form in which a writer can write about
reading as an experience—but not literary criticism.

And the the Literary Saloon rages (equally correctly):

We like our reviews to be … well, reviews of the books ostensibly under review. Too often, however, in certain periodicals, they tend not to be, especially when they are 'reviews' of non-fiction titles. In fact, it's pretty common practise, so perhaps it's unfair to pick on a specific example (pretty much any edition of The New York Review of Books would yield several …), but Anthony Gottlieb's … review of The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh (see our review-overview) in The New Yorker really annoyed us. Gottlieb offers his take on the subject matter, rather than on how Waugh deals with it and presents it, leaving the reader none the wiser whether or not Waugh's book has anything to it to recommend it. . . .

Rather than Gottlieb's alternate/condensed version of Wittgenstein-history we would have preferred a review of the book.

To all this I can only add my affirmation and my great hopes that reviewers, no matter if they're writing for the local paper or The New Yorker, actually practice the art of reviewing in their reviews.

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For what it’s worth, two of my very recent posts have also addressed the issue of close reading.
Anyway, if close reading means ignoring the arc of a novel and thereby setting aside the experience of reading, then close reading is not literary criticism either.
I agree with Guy Davenport against Mason. Literary criticism is about attending to the work in itself (the work’s sensibility, not the author’s) and to literature, not festishising the range of possible interpretations.

I can’t speak for Mason, but my read of his remarks, and of his literary criticism in general, suggests that you and he are for the same things.
As to the reading experience, I think it can be embodied both in very tightly focused readings and in ones that pull back to consider a novel’s arc.

I know it wasn’t recent, but doesn’t it sound like Mason is referring to the NBCC panel on long-form book reviewing that took place in the fall — at which, according to the NBCC blog (and as quoted here at Conversational Reading), panelists “warned against abusing the opportunity [of a long review] for extensive textual analysis”?
Funny thing is, one of the panelists was Jennifer Szalai, book review editor of… Harper’s Magazine. Of course, maybe the recap quoted above was hasty or misconstrued things — and maybe Mason is talking about another panel altogether anyway.

I’m pretty sure readers of the NYRB or LRB know what they’re getting into, especially with regards to the non-fiction. If they wanted a book report, they’d go elsewhere.

My concern with reviews like this one in the NYRB is that they often function not just as a review that avoids reviewing, as The Literary Saloon points out, but as direct competition for the book they claim to be reviewing. After reading a long-form essay on the subject of the book (which is the NYRB specialty,) why would you bother reading the book? I get concerned when many NYRB reviews essentially steal the concept of a book and turn it into a published essay in a prestigious publication. It would be nice if this created a buzz that led readers of the NYRB to seek out more books on the subject. I’m sure the authors see a bump in sales just because of the exposure, but I suspect many NYRB readers read that paper and feel satisfied to leave it at that.

I’m with you, but for one exception. We’re in an age of the proliferation of book-length expositions of various ideas that only really require a long essay. Various reasons for this, but I think they mostly boil down to vanity (books are more prestigious than essays) and an interest in cashing in on a hot topic.
Insofar as some of these books do have merit, but aren’t worth reading in their entirety since they’re just padded out essays, I’m happy to skim their essence in something like the NYRB.

You may have a point there.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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