One of the most tenacious of all academic myths is that literary theorists don't go in for close reading. Whereas non-theoretical critics are faithful to the words on the page, theorists see only what their pet doctrines allow them to see. Like the belief that Edmund Burke was a reactionary or that an extraordinary number of male Australians are called Bruce, this is now such a received idea that it seems almost indelicate to point out that it is completely false. In fact, almost all of the best-known literary theorists engage in close reading: witness Roman Jakobson on Baudelaire, Roland Barthes on Balzac, Fredric Jameson on Conrad, Julia Kristeva on Mallarmé, Edward Said on Jane Austen, Paul de Man on Proust, Gilles Deleuze on Kafka, Gérard Genette on Flaubert, Hélène Cixous on Joyce, Harold Bloom on Wallace Stevens, J. Hillis Miller on Henry James. Some theorists are slapdash readers, but so are some non-theoretical critics. Derrida is so perversely myopic a reader, doggedly pursuing the finest flickers of meaning across a page, that he exasperates some of his opponents with his supersubtlety, not his airy generality.
LRB 5 February 2004 | PDF Download