Close Literary Reading 101: Stories and Style

I thought it might be fun (at least for me) to lay out, in a series of short blog posts, some of the basic terms and ideas that I present to my students when talking about the “close reading” of literary texts. Maybe there will be others who also find these brief outlines valuable. Anyway, below are some basic literary terms that I share with my students, and that are associated with style in relation to stories. . . .  

A writer offers the reader content (or matter), and does so in a particular style (or manner). The style concerns of writers typically include such things as these:

  • Figurative language. Creative writers frequently make use of tropes, metaphors, similes, synechdoche, metonymy, analogy, parable, allegory, and symbol. Here’s an example of the use of simile in a short story (from Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”): “The man emerged from sleep one day as if from a vicious desert . . .”  
  • Syntax. Syntax is the word order of sentences. Again from Borges’s story: “He perceived it, lived it, from many distances and many angles.” Using the exact same words, Borges (or rather his translator from Spanish) might have written this sentence in other ways, such as this one: “From many angles and many distances, he lived it, perceived it.” 
  • Diction. Diction is one’s choice of words. For example, in Herman Melville’s famous short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853), Bartleby is asked to perform a task for his employer and replies with polite but firm diction: “I would prefer not to.” This diction is rather formal and “high,” but Melville might also have chosen, for his character’s response, a less formal or “low” diction (such as the street slang used in New York at Melville’s time). 
  • Le mot juste. Literary writers are concerned—even obsessed—not just with their general choices of words, but with finding exactly the right word ( le mot juste ) or words for conveying their meanings. Mark Twain, in an 1888 letter to George Bainton, famously said: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
  • Fancy prose v. concision. Langorous and ornate language, characteristic of 19th century writers, is sometimes called “fancy prose.” By contrast, subsequent generations of writers have often been concerned with concision, the stripped down and concentrated force of precise and uncluttered language. Writing with concision might mean that you try to take the reader’s imaginitive “head off” (Emily Dickinson) with just the right words, and with as few of them as necessary. The stories of Hemingway are an example. Ezra Pound’s concept of “vorticism” comes from poetry, but it’s akin to concision, and it can be thought about in terms of the ideals of some story writers as well. Pound defined the vortex as “the point of maximum energy” around which a work of great art swirls, and to which, in the literary arts, no unnecessary words attach themselves.
  • Defamiliarization. This is the art of making—by vivid, charged, and unique redescription—the familiar unfamiliar. Ideas that approximate the concept of defamiliarization might include “exoticism,” “the odd,” or even “the grotesque.” Though not an example from a story, here’s Henry David Thoreau’s description (from the sixth chapter of Walden ) of a curious man who was in the habit of perceiving the world in unfamiliar and surprising ways: “. . . hearing Plato’s definition of a man,—a biped without feathers,—and that one exhibited a cock plucked and called it Plato’s man, he thought it an important difference that the knees  bent the wrong way.” 
  • Dominant impression. A writer’s work communicates (by subject, tone, and stylistic and word choices) a “dominant impression” (Poe), or sense of life. You might ask yourself, when exiting the reading of a paragraph, or of a whole story, “What’s the dominant impression that this piece of writing has left me with?”

In short, when we are engaged in close reading of a literary text, it’s not just what  a writer says, but how  s(he) says it. We want to pay close attention to such things as the writer’s denotations, connotations, allusions, echoes, and typologies (wherever present). Unlike nature, little or nothing in a great story happens by accident. Behind each and every word is a conscious author with artistic, rhetorical, and stylistic purposes.

For a “Close Literary Reading 101” discussion of the role of narration in the writing of stories click here.

Oh, and for a cherry on top of this post, here’s an illustration of language connotation from Monty Python:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Close Literary Reading 101: Stories and Style

  1. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Noticing Narration « Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Characters « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Some Terms and Ideas for Thinking about Dramatic Structure « Prometheus Unbound

  4. Pingback: Close Literary Reading 101: Thinking about How Stories End | Prometheus Unbound

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