Monday, January 11, 2021

Well, That Stung

Looking over CS Lewis's An Experiment in Criticism, I find that he defines me as an "unliterary reader," mostly. Worse, he seems to be right. His experiment is to judge books from the bottom up, by the type of reader they attract, rather than assigning worth to them on the basis of imposed categories.  He is opposed in particular to judging books by the criteria laid out by the many professionals who consider literature an end in itself, a subject to be studied, rather than people who just like to read. I couldn't agree more, and am pleased to hear him say so. Long before even I went to college, the sort of books that won awards every year always seemed artificial to me, books that were "significant" rather than interesting. What the Best Readers preferred was of little interest to me. It is as if they are trying to perpetuate a secret society, a sort of cult of literariness which had its own vocabulary and secret handshakes.

Lewis does further differentiate between books that are good to read, and books that are merely popular.  There are works of genre fiction that are predictable, easily digestible, and almost interchangeable. Lewis offers no particular objection to them other than that they cannot be read as literature, only as entertainment.  There is nothing more to them, nothing further to be gotten out of them.  Again, I agree.  Such things are fine, but I am on board with not calling them literature. 

Lewis then defends books that we do not often regard as literature on the basis of some interesting criteria.  The readers go back to them and read them again, sometimes twenty or thirty times in a lifetime, and get more out of them on rereading. He does not mind if they are flawed, so long as they have this quality of having to be received, of entering into the author's world to appreciate greater depth, rather than merely being used, as much genre fiction is. I thought I was with him thus far and agreeing,as there are works of fiction that I do reread.  In fact, I read very little new fiction at this point, and am almost entirely on rereadings. 

Yet when he went on to identify the things that are appreciated by good readers upon rereading, I found that some of them are not what I read for at all.  He identifies 1) "They never, uncompelled, read anything that is not narrative."  I may be guilty here, depending on meaning. 2) "They have no ears. They read exclusively by the eye. The most horrible cacophonies and the most perfect specimens if rhythm and vocalic melody are to them exactly equal." I am quite sure I understand little of what he is talking about.  I do not "hear" words, phrases, or structures for their musical or artistic qualities while reading. 3) "Not only as regards the ear, but also in every other way they are quite unconscious of style or even prefer books we should think badly written." Same as 2). Insofar as I understand this, I pay little attention to style. 4.) "They enjoy narratives in which the verbal element is reduced to the minimum." If he means doesn't like description, that would be me, yes. I end up skimming a good deal of some novels, and always find it irritating when someone says that such-and-such a book should be read slowly and savored.  Rubbish, I think. The only reason to read slowly is to stop altogether at points because the ideas are coming to quickly and need to be sorted out. 5. "They demand swift-moving narrative. Something must always be 'happening.'" Pretty much me, yeah. He adds just further on that they do not like poetry, and do not like Myth (in a broad sense that includes Kafka and Stevenson).  Guilty again.  I like them a bit.  But even in Tolkien, which I loved, I skimmed the poetry and found it tedious when reading it aloud to my children, though I tried my best. And while I liked the amount of myth that bled through into Lord of the Rings, I never got far with The Silmarrillion, precisely because I have little taste for myth.

So I am apparently missing a lot when I read, or only catching the edges of it. "...unliterary, not because the enjoy stories for the reasons mentioned, but because they enjoy them for no other." "Not what they have but what they lack cuts them off from the fulness of literary experience." I do have some idea what he means, though I never saw before how deep in the valley I am in literary sensibility.  So be it.  I am an unliterary reader except by accident.

As he waxes poetic at the end of the book he describes the literary experience.  I partly get it. I like looking at the experiences of a thousand men and trying to learn something from that, but I do not particularly get into their experience and see through their eyes.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog…

In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.


james said...

Is that the essay in which he describes a Kafka myth and notes that he absorbed the myth through the conversation, and reading the book later didn't add much?

Perhaps a different way of looking at the point 3) is that the reader is able to appreciate the author's style, or at least forgive it. I know several people who have had speech impediments to one degree or another, but their listeners are willing to overlook that because their points were usually very valuable.

Texan99 said...

Style means a great deal to me, but perhaps my taste in style is low. Heinlein is no stylist by any traditional standards I'm aware of, but I can re-read him endlessly with pleasure. I savor every word of Jane Austen or Patrick O'Brian or William Faulkner. Before I buy a book I generally take advantage of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature, because the first 2-3 paragraphs generally predict the value of the book. What a pleasure when you realize you're in the hands of a narrative voice you're eager to absorb. Is this someone you want to snuggle down with at a party, or someone you'll flee as soon as you can decently empty your glass and head over for a refill at the opposite end of the room?

The very idea of reading only a narrative, though--I don't get that. Give me a brilliantly organized and expressed piece of non-fiction any day. There again, you can get quite a good idea of what you're in for by the style of the first page or two: a first-rate mind, or a muddled bore who got hold of an interesting topic he doesn't know what to do with? Some writers creep over a series of events like a beetle; others fly overhead and see a surprising picture whole.

Sam L. said...

Fortunately, I have never had to throw a book I was reading at a wall. I suppose I am not easily offended.

GraniteDad said...

It's interesting in that I rarely read to gain thoughts or learn new things. I read to be drawn into worlds I love, imagine characters having adventures, and see how different universes might be designed. It's why non-fiction is such a slog for me- it rarely hits any of those 3 items. And it's why I feel science fiction is much better than it's often assumed- world-building is crucial to a good sci-fi novel/series.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Lewis would call you and T99 literary readers then, regardless of whether you read "elevated" literature or not. You are exactly what he is talking about as a counterpoint to a whole school of thought in literature that he thinks invalid.

This may result from your childhood experiences of literature being very different from mine.