An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis24 October 2007
Dipping into the ‘wide high-table λόγος of St. C.S. Lewis’s Church’, as Betjeman so sardonically put it once upon a time. I’ve a few reviews of his other works that will have to go up here at some point, but this book really needs to stand by itself.
An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
It’s common enough to talk about ‘good books’ and ‘bad books’, and yet the definition of what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in a book has as many variations as there are readers. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a runaway bestseller, but bring it up in conversation and you might well be scoffed at for even mentioning that kind of paperback junk food. Harold Bloom has made a name for himself declaring that Stephen King’s books (and most any other work of so-called popular fiction) are beneath contempt and beyond the pale for those who consider themselves to be ‘serious’ readers. And the ‘adult’ UK editions of Harry Potter, intended for those who are shy about being seen on Tube or train with the brightly-coloured covers of the regular books, would seem to indicate that the sense of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ extends into children’s literature as well. It is the question of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ books that C.S. Lewis addresses in his short work An Experiment in Criticism: he looks at how people judge the literary value of a given book, examining in particular how (in his opinion) most judgements focus too much on the book itself and not on the way in which the book is read.
An Experiment in Criticism, at first, seems designed to make the curious reader wince within the first five pages. From the start, Lewis draws a very sharp line between the ‘literary’ and the ‘unliterary’ reader, and deliberately places the literary reader in a kind of close-knit elite. He soon identifies the kind of books that the unliterary reader is likely to read, if indeed that reader even picks up a book at all: romance-laden short stories in women’s magazines or sensationalist adventure novels, for instance. Unliterary readers will almost never read a book again if they’ve read it once before. They turn to reading as a last resort — to help them sleep at night, or to pass time on a long journey, or simply to kill time before something else happens. Most of all, the unliterary reader almost never talks about the book afterwards, except to pass some sort of superficial judgement on it: ‘I liked it’ or ‘It was boring’. But Lewis does not suggest that unliterary readers are unliterary because they look at books from this perspective — rather, he believes that unliterary readers do not look at books from any other perspective. His interest lies more in how literary readers look at books, and how their particular prejudices influence how books are appraised and either praised or condemned.
For instance, science fiction and fantasy are two genres that tend to be dismissed by literary readers as poorly written escapist tripe, or in general as stories meant only for children (and therefore ‘childish’ or otherwise unsuitable for a serious reader). Lewis suggests that the literary reader should only use ‘childish’ in this derogatory sense to mean behaviours and attitudes that are or should be left behind in childhood. In this sense, throwing a temper tantrum when frustrated or angry is childish; enjoying engaging, powerful, and well-written fantasy stories, regardless of their popularity or trendiness, is not. An Experiment in Criticism, in this regard, takes a step back from specific criticism and looks at the critics themselves, picking apart how and why people judge books and looking more closely at the superficial judgements that literary readers are themselves capable of making about certain books and those who read them.
Fans of C.S. Lewis’s writings will quite possibly get a good deal of enjoyment out of An Experiment in Criticism, I think, if they are willing to overlook some of his more prickly (and, I will admit, condescending) moments. But the point of the book is not so much to pass a lasting and final judgement on how books ought to be criticised. It is an experiment in literary criticism — and in that sense, it throws out a number of intriguing ideas and serves as a starting point to open the subject to a much wider debate.