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The Sacredness of Close Reading:
An Interview with Visiting Writer Pearl Abraham

by Tyler Christensen

Pearl Abraham is a novelist, essayist and short story writer. She graduated from Hunter College and received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from New York University. Abraham is the author of four novels: The Romance Reader, Giving Up America, The Seventh Beggar and her latest novel, American Taliban.She has taught in the MFA Writing Programs at Sarah Lawrence College and The University of Houston, and is currently assistant professor of Literature and Creative Writing at Western New England College, in Western Massachusetts.

CA: In “The Death of the Reader” you said, “The forecast for print media has been bad and growing worse, and though agents and editors have always been bearers of bad news they practically deliver it as dogma as if this is what they’re paid to do. The danger to literature—it should be clear by now—is not the literal death of the author, but rather the death of close reading—which is to say of readers who understand metaphor and can discern meaning.” Why is close reading important for the writer?

PA: Close reading may be the only remaining act in my secular life to which I still attach any kind of sacredness. Close reading allows me to follow the mind of another, which is to say to know the other, and it is entirely relevant that this kind of knowing is only possible in fiction. In real life, you never truly know even your nearest and dearest because you cannot crack open their heads to expose and explore them the way a fiction writer can and does. This is what makes fiction so important: it provides us with an opportunity to understand and empathize with the other. D.H.  Lawrence called fiction "the whole hog" because fiction writers must bring all the sciences and histories and medicine etc to the work. Fiction writers must be philosophers, psychotherapists, doctors, historians, and sociologists. For a writer, close reading serves as training in this kind of knowing which prepares you to represent all of life. Close reading is one way we can become that Jamesian heroine on whom "nothing is lost."

CA: You go on, “Novelists must become public personas—accept the changing topography.” The modern language seems to be rooted in technology and even so the mode for literature has changed drastically—how then does the classroom for the modern writer have to change? What advice are you giving to the writers in your classroom as it pertains to accepting this new topography?

PA: Our brains are adapting to the ever shorter forms of the new media, or so we're told, and this should make the need for clearer and more precise sentences ever more urgent. This isn't a new project but rather a continuation of the early modernist one that called for prose that has the precision of poetry. My students find this challenging; they're in the habit of using five words where one or two would do, so we do lots of sentence exercises. I don't know where we will end as far as print goes and especially the novel as we've known it. The literary novel has been THE form for undercutting authority, providing a multiplicity of points of view, but just as this country has moved away from the freedom of a true democracy to the limitations of corporate money-driven life, the novel too has moved toward commercialism with agents and editors always keeping an eye on how to better attract sales. As a result we have failed to teach readers what the novel can do, why it is a significant form, how it can stretch or shrink and continue as the form Northrop Frye called the Menippean satire.

CA: Hegel says, “give ear to the urgency of spirit." How did Hegel’s philosophies influence the creation/spirit of your character John who is embodied in this quote: “Live as if you’re already dead, unafraid. That’s freedom, according to the Tao. Also Hegel."

PA: It's of interest to me that contemporary philosophers, such as Slavoj Zizek, are turning back to Hegel to understand 21st century life. My novelistic subject or project, taking all four books into consideration, has been about individuals in confrontation with the institution, community, church or family, individuals in the process of becoming, and Hegel is of course brilliant on the idea of becoming as a process that must always remain in process. Hegel, it seems to me, can be of use to us in this country in our present day predicament: we have matured into materialism and now all that's left us is to maintain our achieved levels. If we live in fear of losing what we have achieved and accumulated, we are no longer becoming. The problem: life isn't static. If you're not moving upward, not becoming, then you're falling. Hegel advises fearlessness because fear limits you, curtails your freedom, preventing full life. But it is a fact that we move toward death from the moment we are born, and yet we must live without fear of death if we want to be truly or fully free.

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