An exercise for close reading

I’ve written before about these two articles by Tim Parks on reading, but as I’m preparing to teach them again this week, I’ve added an exercise where we’re applying his questions to a story we’re reading. The story is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks about a beautiful man who dates an ugly woman. (You can buy the issue of The Missouri Review in which it originally appeared here.)

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My guess is students are going to have some negative reactions to this in that the main character is so fixated on his own beauty and her ugliness to the point it’s of the utmost importance, but the question then is, is Banks endorsing this viewpoint or is this just the qualities/concepts he’s working in? Whenever I teach something I want to remind students that exploring one side of an issue doesn’t mean you endorse it. This can apply to so many things–racism, sexism, feminism, and so on.

So in relation to this story, I’m asking students to discuss these questions from Parks in relation to the Banks opening:

  • What are the qualities/concepts that matter most to the author in the opening of this story?
  • How are the characters positioned in relation to these qualities or concepts?
  • What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? What is the consequent debate arising from this atmosphere?
  • How is the writer trying to draw you into the mental world of his characters through his writing? Through his conversation with you?
  • Is the world authentic? How so?

After this, we’ll do a writing exercise where students write an opening that considers these questions from the reader and how they want them answered. We’ll see how it goes!


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