"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, July 10, 2008

An Experiment in Criticism

The title may not sound very interesting, but C. S. Lewis’s Experiment in Criticism is more engaging than the title suggests. The experiment is to alter the traditional practice of pronouncing a book “good” or “bad” and instead examine if the reader is a “good” or “bad” reader. Basically Lewis contends that nearly all books have some value, it is the two ways different people respond to books that is most telling. He labels people in two categories: the literary and the unliterary.

By unliterary Lewis does not mean those who do not read books at all, although he says:

the most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news.’ He reads daily with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never quite become clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, rapped, or murdered someone else he doesn’t know (28).
Lewis clarifies by saying that only reading newspapers and so on “makes no essential difference between him and the class next above—those who read the lowest kinds of fiction” (29). He gives five points that identify the unliterary. They, among other things, are “unconscious of style,” “Demand swift moving narrative,” prefer description and dialogue cut to a minimum, and
they read exclusively by eye. The most horrible cacophonies and the most perfect specimens of rhythm and vocalic melody are to them exactly equal. It is by this that we discover some highly educated people to be unliterary (29).
For me, this last characteristic raises an almost unthought of element in good reading and writing. To the slight wounding of my pride I realize I am not as cognizant as I imagined.

But Lewis is quick to preface his work by saying that knowledge alone is not enough to make someone literary. For some professors and reviewers “reading often becomes mere work” (7). Appreciation is killed. The literary, however, “will read the same work 10, 20, or 30 times during the course of their life” (2). They are always looking for a quiet corner to read in. Afterward “what they have read is constantly and prominently present to [their] mind” (3).

Lewis was writing against a very elitist literary establishment that had “debunked” many, if not most, of the great classics of the previous centuries. It seems that his purpose was to save books from being condemned at the ever changing whim of the elites by saying something like: look, here are literary or “good” readers (not part of the establishment) who still think that (for instance) Elizabethan poetry or science-fiction is good. Are we to ignore them and believe it all bad without even listening to the reasons why they think it has merit?

Lewis is not against objectively valuing literature; in fact, his whole goal is to find a solid foundation by which to judge books.

For the accepted valuation of literary works varies with every change of fashion, but the distinction between attentive and inattentive, obedient and willful, disinterested and egotistic, modes of reading is permanent (106).
In a nutshell, to find a good book, first find a good reader and watch to see which books he or she reads over and over again, all the while relishing each sentence and word. According to Lewis: “Whatever has been found good by those who really and truly read probably is good” (112).

It is good to keep in mind that books alone are useless. Any value they have exists only if someone reads them. Lewis asserts that,

whatever the value of literature may be, it is actual only when and where good readers read. Books on a shelf are only potential literature. Literary taste is only a potentiality when we are not reading (104).

Lewis, C.S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge U.K. Cambridge University Press, eleventh Canto edition. 2006

1 comment:

David said...

This propaedeutic to literary criticism is thought provoking indeed. I have just finished my critique of Rowling's Potter series and when I reflect on the approach I was forced to take by the editorial demands of space, I see that my strategy was to compare Rowling's works to those of Lewis and Tolkein. By this standard, her books were found wanting. And Lewis and Tolkein's books have been found worthy of rereading by generations of readers.