An Experiment in Criticism
By Gabriel Blanchard
Though much lauded for his fantasy fiction and accessible theology, C. S. Lewis is less well-known for his professional writings on language and literature.
Today, most people think of C. S. Lewis as the figurehead of the Inklings and author of The Chronicles of Narnia, or of introductions to theology and apologetics like Mere Christianity and Miracles. His straightforward style, wit, and lively imagination have won him a lasting audience and considerable admiration, and not only among his fellow Christians: even the notorious atheist Philip Pulman considered the Chronicles superior to (of all things) The Lord of the Rings. What is less widely known is that most of his writing fell far afield of his professional work. Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, incidentally at both universities’ Magdalen Colleges (named for St. Mary Magdalen, but pronounced like “maudlin”). Alongside his more famous output, he wrote several works either directly concerning his academic field or related to it, such as Studies in Words, Arthurian Torso, and The Discarded Image. One of these books—drawing both on his experiences as a reviewer and as a man who received reviews—was a slender volume titled An Experiment in Criticism.
Its thesis runs along these lines. Most people will turn to books occasionally for idle entertainment (which was perhaps truer in an age before the internet, though radio and television were rivals to reading even back then); but most people are not “bookworms,” and many people will not reread books. By contrast, there is a fraction of the populace who actively prefer reading and frequently reread favorites. Lewis calls these two groups the Many and the Few. These two groups of people have two distinct ways of reading; the latter get something more out of reading than a mere pleasant pastime, while the former neither receive this “something more” nor go to books looking for it. Armed with these definitions, he proposes a radical reassessment of what constitutes bad versus good literature: namely, a good book is one which attracts at least some readers from among the Few, while a bad book is one that can only be read in the manner of the Many.
Lewis hastens to add that this particular distinction between Few and Many does not correspond to any other distinctions among people. Not only is there no moral superiority in being one of the Few here, it need not even involve any appreciation of arts other than literature. Nor do the Few necessarily show a preference for “the Great Books”; he intelligently points out that there are families and social circles (those of us who love classic learning may start feeling a bit self-conscious over this passage!) where quoting and name-dropping great works and authors is a constant element of conversation, but anyone actually reading them hardly occurs. “Yet, while all this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bed-clothes by the light of an electric torch.” Lewis is often accused of being a snob—and for all I know, he was—but we must at least concede to him that he saw the foolishness of being a snob.
But back to the text! After articulating what he means by the Many and the Few, he goes on to explore further dimensions of literature, with some parallels from other arts. The Many, he argues, when they do on occasion read literature, are reading it for casual entertainment and nothing more; if more is present, if a work’s subject is too profound or its style too distinctive, a reader from the Many will very likely put it down. This is also why the Many rarely or never reread books if they can help it—they have already “used” the story, and it is now finished for them as a meal is finished. And, as Lewis says, this is really quite reasonable on their part. The book is “trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price which he does not wish to pay.” (This may sound shallow, but in truth it isn’t. Most of us have some pastime we turn to purely to relax, and for which a really burning interest would upset our enjoyment by raising its “stakes” too high.)
Two of Lewis’s major subordinate points deserve attention as well. One is his excellent explanation of myth. He gives the story of Orpheus and the plot of the Odyssey as contrasting examples: the latter is a good adventure story, but merely reading a plot summary of it is not entertaining or evocative; its power depends on what the author does with it. But even a bad telling of Orpheus losing Eurydice would make a deep impression on its hearers. “The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. … Sometimes, even from the first, there is hardly any narrative element. The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow of Ragnarok is hardly a story.” A myth is a mental picture (narrative or not) that feels numinous to us; and while some are shared in common, it is also true that some stories may be myths to one reader and not to another. The Many do not generally like myths, since they are moving rather than amusing—but we must remember that what appears to us as nothing more than a story may, to another reader, be a myth.
The other major subordinate point comes in chapter eight, which bears the intimidating title “On Misreading by the Literary.” Here Lewis dismantles what he says pupils often consider “the tragic view of life”: that, not just in literature but in life, great suffering is caused by the sufferer’s tragic flaw and furthermore reveals a certain grandeur in man. Of course this does happen sometimes. But as he points out, in life, this is the exception rather than the rule, and tragedians write about the exceptions not because they mistake them for the norm but because they are interesting and attractive. “All … forms of art make the abstractions proper to them. Tragedies omit the clumsy and apparently meaningless bludgeoning of much real misfortune … Farce excludes pity for its butts in situations where, if they were real, they would deserve it. … They are … constructions: things made out of the stuff of real life; additions to life rather than comments on it.”
This phrase, “additions to life,” gets to the heart of An Experiment in Criticism. Insofar as it is a guide to evaluating books, Lewis says frankly that his new standard—judging books by their readers rather than the reverse—makes it harder to say a book is bad, and that he meant it to do so, as he felt that literary critics in his day condemned too many books too easily, carried more by fashion than analysis. The idea of this standard is to drive us back to the books themselves. If a book has any value, it can only be got at by “getting ourselves out of the way” and listening. Even if we find nothing in it, if anybody delights in a given book (and, he says, especially if they reread it by preference), we should remain permanently open to the possibility that there is something in it after all. Because, according to Lewis, the benefit of reading great literature—or any literature—is to enter the perspective and personality of a fellow human being, to think and feel and see as they think and feel and see. And the good of this is not that it gives us information; rather, it satisfies the human longing for fellowship, as food satisfies hunger. Whether we meet this appetite through literature or not, we must meet it in order to grow into and live out our full humanity.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like these author profiles of Willa Cather and George Orwell, or these essays on the history of ideas like labor and quantity. And be sure to check out CLT’s official podcast, Anchored.
Published on 5th July, 2022.