The Joys of Reading Critically
Reading novels and short stories critically has always been difficult for me because I have always read primarily for pleasure. When I was in law school, and later, when I was a practicing lawyer, I read novels to escape the monotony of case law and briefs. I read because it was fun: I wanted to know what was going to happen next (reading for plot!), to experience the events along with the narrator, and to feel the emotional impact of the storyline on the characters. I did not think at all about technique and craft; such thoughts had never occurred to me, and if they had, I would have pushed them away, because I did not want to see the seams that held these imagined worlds together. In short, I did not want to spoil the fun.
But when I began my MFA program, and began to write in earnest, I realized that if I wanted to understand how the stories that I loved worked, I would have to step back and pick apart the tapestry of narrative. I would have to ask questions like, what point of view am I in? What impact does this perspective have on the story? What specific details drew me in? What conflicts did the author set up? Most importantly, how can I use the techniques I observe in my own writing?
Take Abigail Thomas’ novella An Actual Life. It starts with dialogue and very quickly situates us in an unhappy marriage and in the mind of an absurd, childish, and sardonic narrator:
“Would you have married me if I were a dwarf?” I asked Buddy to test his love.
“What?” He didn’t look up from his book.
“Would you have married me if I were a dwarf?”
“I doubt it.”
“You wouldn’t have looked the same.”
This means he never loved me.
Instantly, I am hooked by the voice—I love the narrator, Virginia’s, perverse desire to test her husband and I love the absurdity of the question she asks. Thomas has set up the expectation that we will encounter more of Virginia's idiosyncratic probing, and we are not disappointed. On the first page, we are introduced to Virginia and Buddy with a few more choice details and given a healthy dose of the narrator’s interiority: when Buddy protests that he is studying, Virginia thinks, “Studying, I’m sure. He was probably writing Irene’s name down fifty times in a row. It’s something about her he just loves. I know this for a fact.” Even as I enjoy Virginia’s sarcastic posturing, already, I feel a pang, because I sense Virginia's hurt and bewilderment at the world around her (“It’s something about her he just loves.”)
Now, when I read critically, I ask myself what conflicts the author sets up in the first few pages of a book. If I look carefully, I can even find conflict and questions—however small—in the first few lines or paragraphs. Here, there are a multitude: Who is Irene? How does Virginia know Buddy loves her? How does she know this “for a fact”? When will the consequences of Buddy’s love for Irene come to a head? Implicity, why is their marriage fractured?
On the second page, we move into backstory: “We are going back to Hadley for the summer. We have to, it’s Buddy’s hometown. We were there last summer, too, before the baby came when we first got married. I hate Hadley, I can’t help it.” Again, the questions and potential conflicts are numerous: Why do they have to return to Buddy’s hometown every summer? Why does Virginia hate the hometown? Why did they have a child so quickly? As a critical reader, I find myself asking: how is Thomas able to introduce backstory so quickly and have the narrative remain engaging? Because she has started us off with a compelling narrator (see Emily’s post on the importance of voice in narrative propulsion), who is a potent mixture of funny and sad, and now we want to know how the narrator has gotten into the position she is in, and what will happen going forward.
Asking these questions is, essentially, close reading. Francine Prose endorses this technique in her excellent craft book, Reading Like a Writer, noting that she teaches by “lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhances and contributes to the story as a whole.” The technique discussed above, of finding conflict in the opening of a story, can be reverse engineered to introduce conflict early, in however subtle a manner, in one’s own work. So now, I try to read twice: once for the sheer pleasure, in order to be swept away on the rip-current of narrative joy, and again, slowly and closely, in order to take the story apart, to examine and disassemble it, so that I can put it back together in my own work.
How can you use close reading? The next time you read something you admire, re-read it with an eye toward identifying and articulating how the author approaches certain elements of craft and think about how you can incorporate these methods into your own writing. Happy reading!