On the Value of Close Reading for Writers

The practice of close reading a text is an interesting one. It implies that normal reading is less close. So what is the point of reading a text more closely than normal? Does it yield a better reading experience? Does it provide a window into the soul, or at least the technique of a writer? And did the writer actually compose with as close an attention to detail as the reader brings to the text when they do a close reading? Was every scintilla of meaning and technique that the close reading uncovers placed there by the writer with deliberate and conscious intent, or does the close reading uncover the tacit process of composition? Or is it in fact an imposition on the text, an invention rather than a discovery?

All these questions arise because of an exercise in close reading that forms part of the Historical Novel Society Master Class that I am currently enrolled in. The assigned passage is the first paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. (Not historical fiction, but an excellent subject nonetheless.) I’m going to present my close reading exercise here, and then use it to try to tackle some of the questions raised above. I present it here not with any pretense at (or knowledge of) O’Connor scholarship. I didn’t choose the subject matter. I present it merely as an object of reflection on the value of close reading.

This is the opening paragraph of A Good Man is Hard to Find.

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of The Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just your read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.”

This is my close reading:

“The Grandmother.” Why is the main character introduced this way? Why not give her a name? Every character, like every person, has not only their personal identity, but their office. In life, it is usually more than one office: husband, father, sister, grandmother, doctor, patient, CEO. In fiction, though, it is often only one, or only one that matters to the story. Here O’Connor decides to present her character as the holder of an office. She is never named, though she is referred to as “the old lady” outside the context of her family.

Why focus on the office?  The office a person holds comes with expectations, responsibilities, and relationships. By naming the office “The Grandmother”, O’Connor tells us the office that the character holds in the family. If the line read “Mavis did not want to go to Florida,” the line would be almost entirely vacuous. What else did she not want to do? But the line “The Grandmother did not want to go to Florida” sets up an immediate opposition. The grandmother in the household is a dependent. It does not belong to her office to determine where the family will go on vacation. By naming the office that the character holds, rather than giving the character a name, O’Connor immediately introduces tension into the story.

But there is more to it than that, and the rest of the paragraph builds on this violation of office. “She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee…” Here we are shown that her first loyalties lie outside the family. She wants to visit some of her “connections” in east Tennessee. Not family, just “connections”. Her loyalties are external. And yet she wants the family to devote their vacation time to taking her to visit her connections. Again, she is not conforming to her office as grandmother.

The rest of the paragraph builds on this alienation. “Bailey was the son she lived with.” It’s a domestic arrangement. There is no affection suggested here, only a domicile. “He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of The Journal.” This is the most prominent visual detail in the entire paragraph, and it is of a chair, a table, and a newspaper. Bailey himself stays out of frame. It is the newspaper that the eye is directed to, its orange color, its name, the particular section he is reading. It is the most visually precise description in the entire paragraph and it obscures Bailey himself. Bailey is effectively hidden behind his newspaper – not by O’Connor saying as much, but by her decision to describe the newspaper and not the man reading it. As much as we ever see of Bailey is his bald head when the grandmother rattles the paper at him. As much as we see of her is her thin hip. The newspaper, the barricade between them, the weapon she wields against him, is the most prominent physical feature in the entire paragraph. We see a hip, a bald head, a newspaper. We never see a face.

Then we have the introduction of the Misfit. What is striking here is that all that has come before it establishes the grandmother as a misfit herself. She is not performing the duties of her office as grandmother, but pursuing her own ends. She is cut off from her son by his newspaper. She would rather spend time with her connections in East Tennessee than with her family. She is a misfit.

The fact that The Misfit calls himself that name is significant. It is not the name others have given him. He has given it to himself. He is more self aware than the grandmother, who shows no awareness of being a misfit herself. In this sense, he rebukes her (as he will do in person at the end of the story).

The grandmother’s speech to Bailey is manipulative. She is trying to shame him into doing what she wants. But the appeal to her conscience is the significant element here. It is entirely self serving. It is not her conscience, but her will, that prompts everything she says. And here again we see that she is a misfit. She is deaf to her conscience and willing to appeal to it for entirely self-serving reasons. Normal human beings are restrained by their conscience, but she, like The Misfit, is not.

O’Connor’s language is spare here. There is little in the way of physical detail, and what there is is in service of the portrait of disjuncture within the family that she is painting. The grandmother is a misfit, and, most importantly, a moral misfit. The emphasis is on the grandmother’s moral state, and no words are spent on anything that does not speak to that theme.

So that is my close reading of this paragraph. What do I think about it? I notice first of all that I have focused on one thing: the grandmother’s status as a misfit. Is this a central theme here? I think so, though possibly someone else might notice something very different. But is it all that we could say about this paragraph? Almost certainly not. All sort of techniques are at work here. That would be true of any paragraph of good fiction. If fiction is stories all the way down, then we might go on unpacking those stories indefinitely. Close reading can perhaps never be complete. We could always get closer and closer, saying more and more about less and less.

The second thing that I notice is that my analysis is heavily influenced by the fact that I am familiar with the story. If I were not, would I have come up with the same analysis? From the first paragraph alone, we cannot tell if the Misfit is ever going to be mentioned again. Knowing the story before I did the analysis, however, I knew that he is central, as is his relationship with the grandmother. That knowledge certainly colored my reading of the first paragraph in a way that it would not have been colored if I were looking at that paragraph in isolation and without prior knowledge.

Should close reading of a paragraph be done with prior knowledge of the work as a whole? I think so. A large part of the author’s art is to set up, to suggest, to foreshadow themes and events that are to occur later in the story, thus preparing the reader’s mind to react as intended when those events occur. So much of how we understand and react to a situation depends on our prior experience, knowledge, emotions, and expectations. To produce the reactions they want, an author has to condition the reader in all these ways before they get to the central events of the story. The art and technique of the opening paragraph cannot be fully analysed or appreciated without knowing what eventuality it begins to prepare the reader for.  A close reading can’t just look at the paragraph in isolation. It has to consider what is being established for later and how the reader’s mind is being conditioned for what is to come.

Which leads me to the point that close reading is not the kind of reading that we should expect the ordinary reader to do. In fact, even with my prior knowledge of the story, I would not have noticed this stuff on second reading if I had not been instructed to do a close reading. Close reading, therefore, is a critical exercise. It is an unpacking of technique, not a form of ordinary appreciation.

Which leads to the next question. What is the point of all this art of O’Connor’s if the ordinary reader is not supposed to notice it? The point is that a story is an experience. Experiences are not comprehended, they are lived. We may not say to ourselves as we read, ah, by focusing on the newspaper rather than the man reading it, O’Connor is indicating that the Grandmother is cut off from her family. If fact, we should not say that to ourselves, because it is not really true. What O’Connor is actually doing is creating an experience in which we see a newspaper rather than the man behind it.

We can analyse the technique that O’Connor uses to create this experience, and the purpose behind it. If you are a writer, it is instructive to do so. But if you are a reader, you are not suppose to analyse the techniques used to create the experience. You are supposed to have the experience. Close reading is, in many ways, like trying to work out the recipe by tasting a dish. It may be a useful exercise for a cook, but it is no part of the ordinary diner’s appreciation of the meal. (This, by the way, is why some writers find that writing ruins reading for them. They end up retraining their reading brain from experience-having to technique-analyzing, and getting back into the mode of experience-having can be difficult.)

Close reading, therefore, is not something I would ever recommend to a reader. It is not something that should be taught as part of literary appreciation. It has the potential to ruin the reading experience. (How many people complain that their childhood joy in reading was ruined by their high school English teacher?)

But as a writer, I am led to wonder how conscious O’Connor was of all these effects as she was creating them. (I am assuming here that she would agree with me that these are the techniques used and that their effects are as she intended. She might of course, deplore the pedestrian naivete of my analysis.) Writing is such a complex exercise that I am convinced that much of it has to come from tacit knowledge of the craft. An experienced and gifted writer might not pause for a moment to think, if I call her “The grandmother” rather than giving her a name, it will emphasize her office and thus help paint her as a misfit. They might not consciously decide to show us the newspaper rather than the man as a means to express family dysfunction. They may just imagine the scene, see the newspaper, and write what they see. Perhaps it is all tacit. Perhaps it is how the story came to O’Connor unbidden as part of her artistic vision.

To set against that, I notice that she maintains this throughout. While all the other characters other than “the children’s mother” are given names, the grandmother, the central character, never is. That can hardly be anything other than a conscious artistic choice can it? (But then, why is the children’s mother never named when several much more minor characters are? I haven’t figured that one out yet.)

Why does this matter? Well, if close reading is a technique to be recommended to writers (as opposed to being left to academic literary critics alone) it is important to ask if we are expecting them to consciously copy the techniques they discover by close reading other writers. If we believe that O’Connor did these things out of conscious craft, then we may conclude that we can improve as writers by developing the same conscious craft in ourselves. If we believe that O’Connor did these things tacitly, as a product of her inborn and nurtured talent and vision, then we should be nurturing our own talent and vision by less analytical means. For instance, by reading more Flannery O’Connor.

If you were hoping for a definitive, well reasoned conclusion to this question, I’m afraid I don’t have one. All I know is, it is too late for me. This is how I read now. It is, at least part of the time, how I think as I write (though certainly not all the time). But if this is the first time such questions have ever occurred to you, you might be better off just getting on with the work and not thinking any more about it.


Scroll to Top