The Art of Close Reading (Reading Like a Writer) and the Importance of Small Details

A talk by Mark Spencer
Dean, School of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Creative Writing, MFA program, University of Arkansas at Monticello and Writer's Digest

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The Art of Close Reading (Reading Like a Writer) and the Importance of Small Details

Speed:

Reading well has very little to do with speed. So forget about how fast you can read. What’s far more important is comprehension, and for the writer-reader, that means discerning nuances and subtexts, understanding the unstated, the merely implied, and being able to infer the significance of each detail—how it is part of an integral whole.

Everything matters—or should:

Nothing is gratuitous. If you find yourself saying about a novel you just read, “Oh, I just skipped those parts,” then either you’re missing the significance of “those parts,” or the novel isn’t as good as it should be. Therefore, assume that everything in a story has a valuable purpose until you can confidently make the judgment that the element is gratuitous and therefore a flaw. With persistence, a writer should be giving the reader something new, something that drives the story forward. Ideally, every sentence enhances plot, character, setting, and/or theme.

Everything is context:

In life, whether an action is appropriate or inappropriate, lawful or unlawful, moral or immoral depends on time and place. We’ve all done things in our lives that would have gotten us in big trouble in another culture or in another historical period, but because we conducted ourselves in a particular place and time, our actions were deemed acceptable, maybe even admirable. For example, forty years ago, no one questioned a university professor’s practice of posting class grades by student name on his office door for all the world to see. If a professor did that nowadays, he would likely get sued by his students for violating their privacy.

In one story, a mountain might represent a character’s lofty goals. In another story, a mountain might represent the obstacles standing in the way of a character finding happiness. In yet another story, a mountain might simply represent home for a clan of dwarves or might provide logistical challenges for men and women engaged in guerrilla warfare. Or the mountains may simply be an aspect of a charmingly beautiful landscape. A good reader will be able to figure out from textural clues what the accurate interpretation is. A good writer will describe the mountain in such a way that the reader can make an appropriate inference.

Juxtaposition:

The setting of two or more objects, situations, or actions side by side is “juxtaposition.” The device connects the two things. In “The Story of an Hour,” Louise Mallard’s grieving over the sudden death of her husband is juxtaposed with a lovely spring day outside her open window. Birds are singing. The sun is shining. Peddlers are advertising their wares. The juxtaposition of this setting with her grief over her husband’s death reveals what Mrs. Mallard will soon realize: her husband’s death is not entirely a bad thing. Not at all. She will now be free to live a full life out from under the oppression of marriage. Spring time suggests rebirth. Birds suggest freedom. The open window itself suggests escape. She can now accept what life offers, just as she might purchase the wares of the peddlers. (Remember that everything is context. Marriage is not necessarily oppressive, but it clearly is in Chopin’s story.)

Emphasis:

We’ve already noted how much attention Kate Chopin gives to describing the day outside Louise Mallard’s window. Chopin doesn’t merely write, “It was a nice day outside.” The emphasis—the accumulation of details—indicates that the weather and activities outside Louise’s window are of some weighty significance.

Repetition:

When something is repeated—an image, an action, a spoken phrase—it becomes a motif. Rich, complex works of literature consist of several and often intertwining motifs, something like a Persian rug. In Gone With the Wind, for example, Scarlett O’Hara’s saying time and again, “I can’t think about that now. I’ll think about it tomorrow,” is a motif and underscores a critical aspect of her personality and ability to deal with adversity.

The kind of repetition we’re talking about deepens character, adds texture to setting, conveys theme, and/or propels a plotline. It is not mere redundancy. It is planned and purposeful.

A story cannot mean whatever you want it to mean:

Sometimes students in an English class will argue that readers are free to make a work of literature mean whatever they want it to mean and evaluate its worth in any way they wish. In a way that’s true, but it’s also true that there are good interpretations and evaluations of a work of literature and there are bad, even nonsensical interpretations and evaluations, ones snatched out of thin air and completely unsupported by textural evidence.

A good interpretation or evaluation is always supported by evidence from the text. You should be able to show how juxtaposition, emphasis, and repetition, as well as diction, syntax, and imagery, lend themselves to the meaning you infer.

Read slowly:

Ask yourself questions and look for connections—those intertwining threads. Why does Kate Chopin have Louise Mallard go upstairs at the beginning of the story and have her descending at the end? Why does Kate Chopin use the word “creature” to refer to human beings? Is there a link between that word choice and Mrs. Mallard’s name? What is a mallard? Why is the main character referred to as “Mrs. Mallard” at the beginning of the story but only as “Louise” later?

                         The Story of an Hour (1894) by Kate Chopin

Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband's death. It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing. Her husband's friend Richards was there, too, near her. It was he who had been in the newspaper office when intelligence of the railroad disaster was received, with Brently Mallard's name leading the list of "killed." He had only taken the time to assure himself of its truth by a second telegram, and had hastened to forestall any less careful, less tender friend in bearing the sad message. She did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance. She wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister's arms. When the storm of grief had spent itself she went away to her room alone. She would have no one follow her. There stood, facing the open window, a comfortable, roomy armchair. Into this she sank, pressed down by a physical exhaustion that haunted her body and seemed to reach into her soul. She could see in the open square before her house the tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life. The delicious breath of rain was in the air. In the street below a peddler was crying his wares. The notes of a distant song which someone was singing reached her faintly, and countless sparrows were twittering in the eaves. There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds that had met and piled one above the other in the west facing her window. She sat with her head thrown back upon the cushion of the chair, quite motionless, except when a sob came up into her throat and shook her, as a child who has cried itself to sleep continues to sob in its dreams. She was young, with a fair, calm face, whose lines bespoke repression and even a certain strength. But now there was a dull stare in her eyes, whose gaze was fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky. It was not a glance of reflection, but rather indicated a suspension of intelligent thought. There was something coming to her and she was waiting for it, fearfully. What was it? She did not know; it was too subtle and elusive to name. But she felt it, creeping out of the sky, reaching toward her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air. Now her bosom rose and fell tumultuously. She was beginning to recognize this thing that was approaching to possess her, and she was striving to beat it back with her will--as powerless as her two white slender hands would have been. When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under the breath: "free, free, free!" The vacant stare and the look of terror that had followed it went from her eyes. They stayed keen and bright. Her pulses beat fast, and the coursing blood warmed and relaxed every inch of her body. She did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enabled her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial. She knew that she would weep again when she saw the kind, tender hands folded in death; the face that had never looked save with love upon her, fixed and gray and dead. But she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome. There would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination. And yet she had loved him--sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in the face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being! "Free! Body and soul free!" she kept whispering. Josephine was kneeling before the closed door with her lips to the keyhole, imploring for admission. "Louise, open the door! I beg; open the door--you will make yourself ill. What are you doing, Louise? For heaven's sake open the door." "Go away. I am not making myself ill." No; she was drinking in a very elixir of life through that open window. Her fancy was running riot along those days ahead of her. Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own. She breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long. She arose at length and opened the door to her sister's importunities. There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory. She clasped her sister's waist, and together they descended the stairs. Richards stood waiting for them at the bottom. Someone was opening the front door with a latchkey. It was Brently Mallard who entered, a little travel-stained, composedly carrying his grip-sack and umbrella. He had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one. He stood amazed at Josephine's piercing cry; at Richards' quick motion to screen him from the view of his wife. When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease--of the joy that kills.

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Mark Spencer

MFA, Creative Writing