Have you ever asked yourself what is distinctive about literary studies? It's not primarily what we study: literature is absolutely essential for other disciplines, and no one who wants to understand history, culture, society, or politics could possibly ignore literature, right? But as literary scholars, we do something with literature that experts in other disciplines don't -- or if they do, they learned it from us!
Here's what we do that is distinctive: we analyze the language of the literature we read in order to understand how it creates that complex and varied thing that we call meaning. Another word for this kind of analysis is interpretation.
So that is your main goal in every English paper: to analyze or interpret literature.
But how do we interpret literature? There are several answers to this question, but in most undergraduate courses, the main answer is "through close reading."
The heart of every paper you write for this course should consist of careful, detailed, and nuanced close reading.
Close reading, simply put, means asking the following question of everything you read: how does it mean what I think it means?
It's easy to summarize what you read, right? In order to become a good writer of literary criticism, you will have to make the important distinction between summary, on the one hand, and analysis or interpretation, on the other. When you summarize, you more or less repeat what the text actually says, or you explain points that astute readers would reach on their own. (You never want your reader to say, "I know, I read it too.") Summarizing is not a worthwhile endeavor because it doesn't tell your readers anything they don't already know.
By contrast, when you analyze or interpret literature, you produce and communicate your own ideas about how the text works. And in order to produce these ideas, you will need to perform close reading, to look closely at the language of the text in order to demonstrate not just what you think the text means, but more importantly how it means what you think it does.
See the difference? It's an important one.
Ok, here is how to perform close reading!
Quote the text and discuss in concrete and specific terms the language of the passage you've quoted.
Sounds straightforward, right? In some ways, it is! In order to do it, you'll want to ask various questions, including but not limited to the following:
- Are there particular words in the passage that seem to be asking you to think hard about them and/or are making you feel strongly about them? If so, how can you explain that phenomenon? (Don't leave yourself out of the equation! What is it about you that is making particular words speak to and/or affect you? That kind of thinking can be really energizing.)
- Why does that one particular word and not another appear in the text at that point? (You'd be thinking about "diction," here.)
- Did that particular word have a specific meaning at the time when the text was written? (To answer that question, you'll want to go to the Oxford English Dictionary!)
- In the passage, does a particular word have multiple meanings you need to consider? If so, how do those meanings work together? Are they in some kind of productive tension? (You'd be thinking about "ambiguity," here.)
- What is the etymology of the word you're discussing?
- Is there anything unusual or intriguing about the syntax or grammar of the passage you've quoted?
- Does the passage rely on imagery or specific literary figures, like metaphor or metonymy? (Whenever you're in the presence of a metaphor, start "unpacking" it! Think about which words are "literal" and which ones are "figurative": how do these two different kinds of words help you understand how the metaphor means what you think it means?)
- Is there anything in the passage you've quoted that is part of a larger pattern in the work as a whole? If you see something repeated, is it repeated but with a difference, and if so, what is that difference, and is there anything compelling about it?
- Is anything exciting happening in the passage with respect to the form of the work as a whole? If you are writing about a poem, for example, does your passage tell you anything about how the poem moves from one stanza to the next? Does the verse form or the meter change?
- If you're discussing a narrative (in poetry or prose), who is talking, and how does the perspective or point of view work? (Especially in poetry, think about the "speaker," and forget about the "poet" or "author"!)
- In the passage, are there tensions internal to it, or between it and other parts of the work, or between it and the work as a whole? Does the passage contradict or undermine itself or other passages?
We could keep going, but you get the idea! Once you start quoting and then discussing the actual language of the passages you quote, you'll naturally make the leap from "what it means" to "how it means."
Here's one hint: in order to ask and answer these kinds of questions -- in other words, in order to do close reading -- you will need to mark up your texts and have really good notes. I know how fuddy-duddy this sounds, but good close readers tend to read with a pencil and write all over the texts they read: circle things, draw arrows, write in the margins, direct yourself to other pages where related stuff happens! A text that you've marked up is a text you're ready to write about.
Here's one other hint, which is as simple as it is helpful: always interpret literature in the present tense. Because you are discussing a given piece of writing in the present rather than summarizing what "happened" in it, you should always stick to the present tense when you are interpreting. Literature, indeed, although written in the past, is still happening as you read and discuss it, right? Things outside of the text, like historical background and biographical information, should be discussed in the past tense, but when you are writing about the literary text itself, stick to the present, which will almost force you to interpret rather than summarize.
Lastly, don't forget, the purpose of your close reading in each paragraph is to support the point of that paragraph, which should be clearly articulated in the topic sentence.
In carrying out your close readings, then, your goal is always to do two things:
- by paying close attention to the language of the text, to explain how the passage you've quoted means what you say it means;
- to show how your reading supports the larger point of the paragraph.
So as you reread your paper during revision, when you come to each quotation, ask yourself: "Do I interpret the language of my quotations in detailed and specific terms?" and "Is it clear how my close readings support the topic sentence of the paragraph, and thus the thesis of the paper?"
If the answers are yes, then great! If one or both of the answers is no, have at it.
Please remember, because interpretation is what makes our discipline unique and uniquely valuable, the heart of every paper you write for this course should consist of careful, detailed, and nuanced close reading.
For more advice on close reading, please see Jack Lynch's Getting an A on an English Paper.