WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLOSE READING?: A CALL TO BRING BACK TEXTUAL ANALYSIS INTO LITERARY CRITICISM

My latest misadventure in peer reviewing has possibly marked a turning point in my career. I had written with much effort and in all loving detail and care an analysis of robot Daneel Olivaw’s masculinity in four novels by Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1982) and Robots and Empire (1985). I am aware that the novels are well known in SF circles but I wanted to examine a series of points that would highlight Asimov’s clever handling of gender issues. I also wanted, indeed, to show where he had lost control of these issues though in ways that, paradoxically, turn out to be productive. For that I found it necessary to make comments on plot turns that connect the four novels and which, I argued, had been missed by previous scholarship.

To my complete mortification my article was rejected outright, with no chance of peer reviewing, by a journal editor who had published my work before, on the grounds that it had too much plot summary. My defence, arguing that this was close reading and not mere plot summary, was dismissed and I was (very kindly) told that perhaps my article should be placed elsewhere. It is not the first time I am accused of the same heinous crime, and of others even worse, though usually by the peer reviewers and not by an editor. Needless to say, I spent a couple of days smarting under the effect of the rejection (much more so because it came from someone I deeply respect and admire), but after 25 years in the publishing circuit my skin is thick enough. Or just thickish, otherwise I would not be writing this post. I have found another home for the article and have proceeded to write something quite different for the same journal, with less plot summary and more theory. But even so…

This was a few months ago. A little bit later, I was asked to peer-review an article on a science-fiction novel in Spanish, which I will not name to protect my secret identity as academic informer. Very cloak-and-dagger, like my last post. My co-reviewers and I agreed that the article was well written and well researched but needed serious revision. Why? Because the novel analysed was buried under a mass of theorisation which, besides, was only tangentially related to it. If, suppose, you come across an article on Hamlet, you have more room for theory since you can safely assume that all readers know the text as a matter of general culture. If, however, you read an article on a relatively unknown text –old, new, minor, foreign– then I should say that an introduction to the author and their work is mandatory. At least, I teach my tutorees that their dissertations should include that type of material. I must add that the comments on the novel analysed in the peer-reviewed article were so oblique that I had to check a few reviews to understand what was going on. I was amazed to discover that this is a technically dashing novel, of a post-post-modern kind, an aspect on which the article author did not comment at all!

Pure close reading with no use of a theoretical framework is no use, for it assumes a total consensus on the nature and values of the text analysed which can only lead to a rather bland reading. On the other hand, excessive theorisation suggests that the author is actually uncomfortable with literary criticism and would like to be writing something else. The author I peer-reviewed was very clearly far more interested in climate change than in the novel they was analysing but, for some strange reason, had decided to publish their work in a journal about Literature and not about, say, Environmental Sciences. As a peer reviewer, then, I had to highlight this discrepancy between interest and aim, hence the request for revisions. When I told a colleague about this, he told me that it was about time we returned to a more traditional style of doing literary criticism but I’m not sure that I am defending any traditionalism. I believe that I am asking for a new balance.

When my article on Asimov was rejected, I was told that I should consider rewriting it from a perspective that emphasized the main cultural issue raised in it (sex between humans and robots, or robosexuality). I had tons of bibliography dealing with robosexuality but all this refers to events that have been happening after Asimov’s death in 1992 and that he could not have been aware of. I could have written an article about how these recent developments colour our reading of Asimov today but I very much wanted to deal with how he built his four novels, and why he had to stop between 1957 and 1982 (the time was not ripe until the 1980s for a story about a woman who falls in love with a humanoid male robot). I wanted, in short, to explain to my potential readers how Asimov had worked as a writer, not as a cultural prophet, for (believe me!) nobody has used that angle before in relation to his novels. I honestly believed that any SF reader would enjoy the exposure of the electric homoerotic current accumulating around Daneel Olivaw’s beautiful non-human male body but this was not wanted. Too old-fashioned, perhaps, too fannish, maybe. I don’t know. I can only say that as a literary critic I care very much for how authors put stories together, although as a cultural critic I also enjoy writing about the context from which they spring–as I build my own theorization.

When the discussion about how much theorisation literary criticism should absorb started, some time in the mid-1980s I think, most sided with theory but also with a style of writing I have never been comfortable with. Just then I was being trained as a second-language undergraduate student in the techniques of close reading, which were necessary for a person learning at the same time a non-native language and the texts written in it. As an undergrad I was woefully lacking a training in theory, which I only got, in fits and starts, as a doctoral student and, later, through my own reading. I have never, however, got rid of the instinct to dissect and explain the text, which I need, anyway for my teaching. I can hardly teach my own second-language students any Literature if I don’t teach them how to read first. This entails plenty of close reading and, yes, even plot summary.

Anyway, whenever I allow myself to go into the texts I am analysing in depth, as I like doing, my academic work is rejected –usually by Anglo-American native speakers who were trained in a completely different tradition and circumstances, which allowed for theory to have a much bigger impact and presence in their academic work. I have never heard anyone voice the same concern I am expressing here but I frequently hear among my Spanish peers the same complaint: ‘I don’t get it, I’m offering theorisation built on my own close reading but I’m told that this is not theoretical enough and has too much plot summary’. Beyond my own faulty scholarship, could it be that there is some kind of cultural clash at work that remains unexamined?

Just consider this anecdote. Since I am a serial committer of the same crime, I had been already told about one of my articles that it had too much plot summary. In that case, my focus was Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, which I ‘retold’ following the thesis that it is actually articulated by the love story between Arthur Huntingdon and his mistress Anabella, and not just by his marriage to Helen. For that retelling to be convincing, I had to provide a detailed alternative reading of the novel, which my American peer reviewers rejected as unnecessary. So, I uploaded the rejected article onto my university’s repository and just the following day I got an e-mail message from a Spanish academic congratulating me on it. I have now submitted the article to a new (Spanish) editor, who has welcome it. Is this beginning to look like a pattern?

Let me insist on plot summary from another angle. When my PhD supervisor asked me to include in my dissertation an appendix with brief summaries of the 75 novels and the 125 films it covered he did so on two grounds: a) my examiners would need a quick guide for reference, b) summarising each text would help me to focus on what I wanted to say about them. He was 100% right. I later used the same technique for the 200 episodes of The X-Files which I explored in my book Expediente X: En honor a la verdad: I first wrote the summaries, then I wrote the book (still out there, see https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437).

Re-reading these days Brian Attebery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, I came across yet another argument in defence of plot summary (he alludes here to “Rapaccini’s Daughter”): “Having now summarized the same story four times, with four radically different results, I can conclude that there is no such thing as a simple plot summary. The very thing literature teachers tell students to avoid, as distraction from real critical work and a waste of the reader’s time, may actually be at the heart of critical interpretation” (2002: 26, my italics). The question is that I have never heard any teachers in all my years as a student or an academic in Spain to dismiss plot summary–look at what my (English) supervisor taught me! That Attebery felt the need to defend the link between plot summary and literary criticism in the early 21st century is an indication that something precious was lost in the 1990s.

Actually, I’ll stake the claim that two things were lost at the same time: not just the ability to produce and enjoy engaging close reading, but also the ability to generate new theorisation. The sequence ‘close reading of beloved literary text > critical insight > new theorisation’ was replaced by the sequence ‘choice of theory by big name > application to random text which is not really appreciated as writing > production of by-the-numbers paper with no new critical insights’. This is a model that, if you ask me, seems designed to do two things: 1. curb down any spark of critical originality, 2. offer the mass production academic model required by the hyper-productive but empty Humanities of the 21st century. I’ll add something else: when I started working on popular fiction in 1994 one of the arguments I insisted on is that plenty of Gothic, fantasy and science fiction is presented in very solid prose, and in elaborately complex narrative structures. What I meant is that the writing in those genres deserves the same attention to detail as the writing in literary fiction –I never meant that they could only be studied from a Cultural Studies perspective because they lacked literary quality. It seems to me, though, that many of my colleagues show a certain failure of nerve in their defence while, simultaneously, shying away from making negative judgements whenever they are required. Hence, the overwhelming use of theory.

I’ll stop my ranting here, or I will end up hurting myself…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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