The English Interview: Close Reading

Interviews for English Literature often ask for the ‘close reading’ of a passage or text. I share some thoughts on how to do this well, and how to move beyond the methods learnt at school.

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Interviews for English Literature often ask for the ‘close reading’ of a passage or text. I share some thoughts on how to do this well, and how to move beyond the methods learnt at school.

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English at university involves zooming in and zooming out. In one essay, your arguments encompass a handful of novels and thirty years of literature; in the next, you’re forensically discussing the difference between two editions of the same poem, identical but for one word, as if your life depended on it.

No-one expects, when you apply, that you’ll be brilliant at the macroscopic stuff: that’s what your degree is for. However, the microscopic skill of close textual analysis is something you’ll be familiar with from school, and for that reason exercises in this ‘close reading’, also known as ‘practical criticism’, is a favourite tactic of interviewers. Some strategies for practising this skill follow:

Evidence!

All good close reading is rooted in the text. So for every claim you make about the poem or passage you’ve been given, ground it in linguistic evidence. (Interviewers will often withhold the date and the author’s name, so the text is all you’ve got.) One pioneer of systematic close reading, the critic I.A. Richards, noticed that his students often responded to unfamiliar poems with pre-loaded formulas, which he called ‘stock responses’. Good close reading is the opposite of a stock response: it emerges from careful attention to the text, and builds its conclusions about what the text means as a whole from the reading of its parts. In the best analyses, words don’t just confirm or deny ideas, but resonate and echo with many layers of meaning. A love poem, for example, might praise its subject in language that also appears in the world of finance – ‘value’, ‘credit’, ‘growth’ – the close reader who notices those echoes can then decide what they mean.

Know the Form

Literary texts aren’t just statements of concepts or ideas, just as a painting isn’t just the depiction of something, but the colours and shapes that are used. It’s a good idea to be reasonably fluent in literary ‘form’, the loose term for the equivalent of the colours and shapes. For poetry, this means rhythm, rhyme, verse form, layout… but passages of prose have formal features too. One of the key questions in close reading is how the form of a text relates to its content. Reading a poem about a battle, you might conclude that its tripping rhythm cleverly matches the fast-paced action it describes. Or you might decide that the simplicity of short sentences (form) contrasts with the complexity of the scene they describe (content). There is a good deal of technical language flung about in the discussion of form, especially in the study of poetry, and if you feel in need of some orientation a good place to start is John Lennard’s The Poetry Handbook.

Don’t Flatter Automatically

The close reading of GCSEs and A-Level exams often requires you to show why a poem is ‘effective’ or ‘striking’. The texts which do achieve such effects are arguably the most enjoyable and the ones most worth reading, but the idea that in every piece of writing all the elements add up to a harmonious – and therefore successful – whole, is a trap to avoid. Your observations about the text you read closely shouldn’t all end in expressions of how perfect it is.  Just as a text’s form can be at odds with its content, its overall meaning may be full of unresolved tensions: a speech from a play, for example, that can’t quite decide whether it’s addressed to the audience or to the other characters. It’s a good idea – and a liberating experience – to wonder whether the text is still ‘effective’ and ‘striking’ despite not being completely harmonious.

Many Meanings

It’s often said of English that ‘there’s no right or wrong’. This is a little misleading, because it implies that logical reasoning plays no part in the subject – a testing interview can banish that idea forever. The point is that literary texts, unlike mathematical equations, can be logically and carefully analysed, and end up meaning different things to different people. Some people think Hamlet really is a little mad, while others think it’s a total pretence; there’s evidence in the text for both conclusions. English at university is about comparing your responses to texts with those of others – your critics, your lecturers, your friends. Those responses develop and change, but are very rarely totally wrong. So don’t panic in the interview when your reading is challenged. It doesn’t mean that your interviewer thinks your wrong, just that they are interested to see how you accommodate a different perspective. And the best way of doing that is to look at the text again.

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