Wednesday, September 27, 2006

What I've Been Reading: Lists and Pissing Contests

  • Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I'm a little behind in documenting my reading. The Little Lady hurt her back rather badly last week, could hardly walk, forget toting the now-twenty-four pound Thing 2. I missed almost the entire week of work taking care of the family. I still got some reading done, but not much logging on the web.

One book I read in the last couple of weeks was Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, her paean to close reading. For those of you who were not English majors, close reading is a method of literary criticism most closely associated with a mid-twentieth century school of criticism called--wait for it--the New Criticism. In close reading, as practiced by the New Critics, the critic interpreted a text (usually a poem) by, well, reading closely, paying attention to the relationship between the meanings of words, the connotations as well as the denotations. What the New Critics did not usually do was look outside the text for information to help with the exegesis. They didn't look for parallels between the writer's life and his or her art or, typically, contextualize a work historically. They weren't especially interested in how Freud or Marx or whoever could shed light on this or that aspect of a text. Since these are precisely the things that critics (barring the structuralists and post-structuralists -- look, let's just not go there, okay?) since the sixties have been most interested in, New Criticism, and, largely, but not completely, close reading, have fallen by the wayside.

Here's the thing, while close reading may not have been the end-all be-all of literary criticism--I mean, it's common sense, sometimes you need some context, right?--for the purposes of literary practice, that is, making poems or stories or plays or essays, close reading remains the most useful technique you can borrow from the practice of literary criticism. It brings your attention to the text, asks you to look carefully at form and construction. The interpretation part is of only limited use (making meaning is only a small part of literary practice), but that attention to form and construction is essential. So Prose hopes to bring close reading to younger writers who may have missed it in their English classes.

(I was lucky in my studies, by the way. While I was at Duke in the heyday of zany litcrit, I took two semesters of Chaucer with Lee Patterson. He's a Marxist critic (I'm guessing, retrospectively), and we got plenty of class and gender readings of Chaucer. But he also made a point of demonstrating close readings and asking us to make close readings in our term papers. This is where I learned the technique, though I got some of it osmotically elsewhere, including in high school. He was also one of the few teachers I had in many years of English classes to actually stop and ask us to appreciate how beautiful, fun, and wonderful was the poetry we were reading. This is something that should, always, always be done for undergraduates. I mean, I'm not against a Marxist reading of Chaucer, but at least acknowledge that, to use one of Patterson's examples, the reason we're still reading Chaucer has more to do with how kick-ass cool that iambic pentameter list of alchemical equipment is in the Canon Yeoman's Tale than what Chaucer, maybe, implies about an emergent quasi-middle-class group of merchants. Now, where was I. For that matter, where am I? Who are all you people . . . ?)

So Prose's introduction and explanation of close reading is super. The chapters that follow concentrate on words, sentences, paragraphs, and on up. I was less than blown-away by the readings themselves. Maybe I'm jaded. Probably I'm jaded. Look, let's just assume, I'm jaded. But still, most of the close readings just aren't that great. You get a long quote from some eminence, followed by a summary of the quote, and a vague gesticulation in the direction of, these are some great sentences or whatever. I thought most of it was too vague, though she's always right about the quality of writing she showcases (that's something).

The best chapter is one that doesn't really fit with the scheme, one on Chekhov and how, somehow, in the 13 volumes of his short stories, he breaks all of the supposed rules of fiction writing and still succeeds. It's a very personal chapter, memoirish, and the insights about writing are excellent. How am I doing on vague? I returned the book to the library, so don't have it to refer to.

Maybe the best part of the book, however, is the list that appears at the end: "Books to Be Read Immediately" or somesuch. Just a list of books Prose thinks you should read. (She's out of her freakin'' gourd re: Dombey and Son, but anyway.) I love lists! I know, I'm not supposed to. Everyone seems so squeamish re: lists of the best books, etc. But I don't care. Is Harold Bloom a little pompous? Sure. I still photocopied his version of the "Western Canon" from the book of the same name. I wasn't even a little offended by the Modern Library list of the best works of the twentieth century. I liked that Radcliffe counter-volley also. I just like lists of books. Sue me. Seems to me, the complaint that lists and rankings of books are phallogocentric pissing contests is the whingeing of people who don't have anything to bring to a pissing contest, if you see what I mean.

Anyway, jokes aside, I like the list. I like the idea of the book and enjoyed portions of it, especially the bit on Chekhov. If this book sounds like something you might like, you probably will.

6 comments:

  1. Imported on behalf of: McEye
    So's I can put off that "dissolution of the western Roman Empire" lecture I haveta right, a little longer, though I really shouldn't...

    I do believe it was from my bookstore that you borrowed the Bloom book to photocopy it. Speaking of IMPORTANT lists, what the fuck is gonna happen to Pazz n Jop (or more accurately, Hock and Rip Rop) now that XGau is gone?

    That nascent bourgeoisie (or what have ye) is what I'm always trying to get my students to find in their Chaucers (who I was too lazy to put on my reading list because it would've required narrowing down and lotso reading by me), their Pericleses, or their Augustines. But they never find it, most of them. (I do give them the funny stuff, too: Ancient Egyptian medical texts with greyhound vulva rubbings as a cure for baldness (if I remember correctly) or beer as a cure for bladder problems; legal systems that require death for screwing an ox, but only exile from the king's presence for screwing a pig.)

    Two semesters of Chaucer! And I'm supposed to do the entire world (Geography) or 5000 years of the "West" (Civ I) in one semester!? (Is there an interrobang code?!) I suppose I should really get through that Bloom canon if I get routed into teaching this Western Civ thing forever. But I'll never be able to make it through *The Republic*. And I have to read them in order...

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  2. Imported on behalf of: McIcantspell
    Jesus, no editing function? Er...substitute the "right" with a "write." Yeah, I teach at an institution of higher learning, what's it to ya?

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  3. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    Yeah, sorry McSkinny. No editing yet. I haven't had time to work on that feature. It is planned, however.

    *The Republic* was okay, but the dialogues are the best.

    It's been a while, but I think the Franklin's Tale is the place to go for that squint-and-you-can-see-it middle class.

    I'm still in a bit of shock about Xgau. Hadn't thought about Pazz n Jop. No reason to read it now, if you ask me. Well, it's always good to look for Grilled Cheese's ballot.

    Greyhound vulva you say . . . ?

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  4. Imported on behalf of: McI
    Whaddayaknow, the wife has checked out the Francine Prose (ha!) book from the lie-berry. I of course immediately flipped to the read immediately list, so I could find out how culturally ignorant I am *and* to find bones to pick. (I got somethin' for your pissin' contest right here...)

    Cultural ignorance (from F. Prose's standards): astronomical

    Bones: *Song of Roland*
    *Song of Roland*!? She lists a different translation than the two I'm familiar with, so maybe I'm off base here, but *Song of Roland*?! The only reason it's considered lichechuh is that it survived when little else did, and is a dandy historical resource. In terms of plot (not close reading, I know) it's the eleventh-century equivalent of an action movie. Stanza after stanza of helmets, skulls, teeth, hauberks, guts, and horses being cleft in twain and bodies flung to the ground (whereupon demons or angels might carry off the soul of the dead man, depending on his religious affiliation). Lots of sobbing for lost comrades and heavy-handed dream sequences. It carries the weaknesses of repetition that most oral-to-written stories have. The Song existed to flatter the military classes of the "high" middle ages. (Okay, okay, much great writing does the same for dominant classes...)

    I did read a few of Prose's chapters while the toddler bathed, and I haven't been compelled to finish it. (There's an Uzbekistan travel "memoir" I'm reading that blows it away as far as interesting words, sentences, &c.)

    THING TWO IS 24 POUNDS!? HAVE YOU BEEN FEEDING IT PURE LARD?!

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  5. Imported on behalf of: McI
    Whaddayaknow, the wife has checked out the Francine Prose (ha!) book from the lie-berry. I of course immediately flipped to the read immediately list, so I could find out how culturally ignorant I am *and* to find bones to pick. (I got somethin' for your pissin' contest right here...)

    Cultural ignorance (from F. Prose's standards): astronomical

    Bones: *Song of Roland*
    *Song of Roland*!? She lists a different translation than the two I'm familiar with, so maybe I'm off base here, but *Song of Roland*?! The only reason it's considered lichechuh is that it survived when little else did, and is a dandy historical resource. In terms of plot (not close reading, I know) it's the eleventh-century equivalent of an action movie. Stanza after stanza of helmets, skulls, teeth, hauberks, guts, and horses being cleft in twain and bodies flung to the ground (whereupon demons or angels might carry off the soul of the dead man, depending on his religious affiliation). Lots of sobbing for lost comrades and heavy-handed dream sequences. It carries the weaknesses of repetition that most oral-to-written stories have. The Song existed to flatter the military classes of the "high" middle ages. (Okay, okay, much great writing does the same for dominant classes...)

    I did read a few of Prose's chapters while the toddler bathed, and I haven't been compelled to finish it. (There's an Uzbekistan travel "memoir" I'm reading that blows it away as far as interesting words, sentences, &c.)

    THING TWO IS 24 POUNDS!? HAVE YOU BEEN FEEDING IT PURE LARD?!

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  6. Imported on behalf of: Lee
    You might take a look at the chapter on Chekhov. It's really worth the price of admission (esp. if it's from the library).

    I'm sorry to say I haven't yet read the Song of Roland, but you make it sounds pretty good to me!

    We don't feed Thing Two pure lard, though perhaps Lipil brand formula contains lard, along with the iron. Certainly he is *very efficient* at converting Lipil with Iron to lard.

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