Close reading, queer feelings

eve kosofsky sedgwick by david shankbone


I, DavidShankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking to the realm of queer theory, this article by DPhil candidate Rowena Gutsell explores how close reading might be used to approach questions of identity, relationality and feeling—three domains traditionally excluded from ‘formalist’ approaches to literary criticism. Drawing insight from ‘ardent readers’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Marcos Gonsalez, this short essay gestures towards what could even be called an ‘erotics’ of close reading.

Close reading, queer feelings

What’s queer about close reading? Given the method’s rather staid institutional history—from the turrets of Cambridge, to the lecture halls of Yale—we might be forgiven for thinking of formalism as a textual approach which has little to teach us about queerness. Given, too, that close reading is often heralded as the closest thing Literary Studies possesses to a scientific method, it seems fair to presume, at first touch, that its attunement to questions of identity, intimacy and feeling might be somewhat limited. Indeed, any student who, flicking through The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001), lands on the famous twin essays by New Critics W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley—‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (1946) and ‘The Affective Fallacy’ (1949)—will no doubt find some rather dogmatic backing any such hunch. In these, “two of the most important position papers in the history of twentieth-century criticism,” the authors make a case for expunging all subjective judgement from the scene of critical reading (to judge a text using emotive, evaluative language is to commit the ‘Affective Fallacy’), and urge readers, too, to excise from their analysis any speculation as to what the author really meant (to do so would be to fall prey to the ‘Intentional Fallacy’). These two essays routinely make it on to undergraduate reading lists, and though most teachers encourage students to take Wimsatt and Beardsley’s mandates with a pinch of salt, their fundamental insights are still recommended as good rules of thumb when doing that thing we call ‘criticism.’

Even though the New Criticism is long behind us, its legacy informs Literary Studies still. Good close readers, it warns us, don’t do feeling. Good close readers, it insists, do not seek to get close to the figure of the author.

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