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An Experiment in Criticism

C. S. Lewis


  The apparatus which my experiment required has now been assembled and we can get to work. Normally we judge men's literary taste by the things they read.

  The question was whether there might be some advantage in reversing the process and judging literature by the way men read it. If all went ideally well we should end by defining good literature as that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading; and bad, as that which does the same for bad reading. This is an ideal simplification, and we shall have to be content with something less neat. For the moment, however, I want to submit the possible utility of this reversal. First, it fixes our attention on the act of reading. 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. Neither potentiality is called into act except in this transient experience. If literary scholarship and criticism are regarded as activities ancillary to literature, then their sole function is to multiply, prolong, and safeguard experiences of good reading. A system which heads us off from abstraction by being centred on literature in operation is what we need.

  Secondly, the proposed system puts our feet on solid ground, whereas the usual one puts them on a quicksand. You discover that I like Lamb. Being sure that Lamb is bad, you say my taste is bad. But your view of Lamb is either an isolated personal reaction, just like my view of him, or else based on the prevalent view of the literary world. If the former, your condemnation of my taste is insolent; only manners deter me from a tu quoque. But if you take your stand on the 'prevalent' view, how long do you suppose it will prevail? You know that Lamb would not have been a black mark against me fifty years ago. You know that Tennyson would have been a far blacker mark in the thirties than he is now: that dethronements and restorations are almost monthly events. You can trust none of them to be permanent. Pope came in, went out, came back. Milton, hanged, drawn and quartered by two or three influential critics-and their disciples all said Amen-seems to have revived. Kipling's stock, once very high, fell to the bottom of the market, and now there are signs of a faint rise. 'Taste' in this sense is mainly a chronological phenomenon. Tell me the date of your birth and I can make a shrewd guess whether you prefer Hopkins or Housman, Hardy or Lawrence. Tell me that a man despised Pope and admired Ossian, and I shall make a good shot at his floruit. All you can really say about my taste is that it is old fashioned; yours will soon be the same.

  But suppose you had gone quite a different way to work. Suppose you had given me enough rope and let me hang myself. You might have encouraged me to talk about Lamb, discovered that I was ignoring some things he really has and reading into him a good many that aren't there, that I seldom in fact read what I so praised, and that the very terms in which I praised it revealed how completely it was for me a mere stimulant to wistful-whimsical reveries of my own. And suppose that you then went round applying the same methods of detection to other admirers of Lamb, and each time got the same result. If you had done this, then, though you would never reach a mathematical certainty, you would have solid ground for a steadily growing conviction that Lamb is bad. You would argue 'Since all who enjoy Lamb do so by applying to him the worst kind of reading, Lamb is probably a bad author'. Observation of how men read is a strong basis for judgements on what they read; but judgements on what they read is a flimsy, even a momentary, basis for judgements on their way of reading. For the accepted valuation of literary works varies with every change of fashion, but the distinction between attentive and inattentive, obedient and wilful, disinterested and egoistic, modes of reading is permanent; if ever valid, valid everywhere and always.

  Thirdly, it would make critical condemnation a laborious task, and this I reckon an advantage. It is now too easy.Whichever method we use, whether we judge books by their readers or vice versa, we always make a double distinction. We first separate the sheep from the goats and then the better sheep from the worse.

  We put some readers or books beyond the pale, and then distribute praise and blame on those within it. Thus, if we start with books, we draw a line between mere 'commercial trash', thrillers, pornography, short stories in the women's magazines, etc., and what may be called 'polite' or 'adult' or 'real' or 'serious'

  literature. But then we call some of the latter good and some bad. The most approved modern criticism, for example, would call Morris and Housman bad, Hopkins and Rilke good. If we are judging readers we do the same. We make a broad, and hardly disputable, division between those who read seldom, hastily, hazily, forgetfully, only to kill time, and those to whom reading is an arduous and important activity. But then, within the latter class, we distinguish 'good'

  from 'bad' taste.

  In making the first distinction, drawing the pale, a critic who works by the present system must claim that he is judging books. But in fact the books he puts beyond the pale are mostly books he has never read. How many 'westerns'

  have you read? How much science-fiction ? If such a critic is guided simply by the low prices of these books and the lurid pictures on their jackets, he is on very insecure ground. He may chance to cut a poor figure in the eyes of posterity, for a work which was mere commercial trash to the cognoscenti of one generation might possibly become a classic to those of another. If, on the other hand, he is guided by a contempt for the readers of such books, then he is making a crude and unacknowledged use of my system. It would be safer to admit what he was doing and do it better; make sure that his contempt had in it no admixture of merely social snobbery or intellectual priggery. My proposed system works in the open. If we cannot observe the reading habits of those who buy the Westerns, or don't think it worth while to try, we say nothing about the books. If we can, there is usually not much difficulty in assigning those habits either to the unliterary or the literary class. If we find that a book is usually read in one way, still more if we never find that it is read in the other, we have a prima facie case for thinking it bad. If on the other hand we found even one reader to whom the cheap little book with its double columns and the lurid daub on its cover had been a lifelong delight, who had read and reread it, who would notice, and object, if a single word were changed, then, however little we could see in it ourselves and however it was despised by our friends and colleagues, we should not dare to put it beyond the pale.

  How risky the current method can be, I have some reason to know. Science-fiction is a literary province I used to visit fairly often; if I now visit it seldom, that is not because my taste has improved but because the province has changed, being now covered with new building estates, in a style I don't care for. But in the good old days I noticed that whenever critics said anything about it, they betrayed great ignorance. They talked as if it were a homogeneous genre.

  But it is not, in the literary sense, a genre at all. There is nothing common to all who write it except the use of a particular 'machine'. Some of the writers are of the family of Jules Verne and are primarily interested in technology.

  Some use the machine simply for literary fantasy and produce what is essentially Marchen or myth. A great many use it for satire; nearly all the most pungent American criticism of the American way of life takes this form, and would at once be denounced as un-American if it ventured into any other. And finally, there is the great mass of hacks who merely 'cashed in' on the boom in science-fiction and used remote planets or even galaxies as the backcloth for spy-stories or love-stories which might as well or better have been located in Whitechapel or the Bronx. And as the stories differ in kind, so of course do their readers.

  You can, if you wish, class all science-fiction together; but it is about as perceptive as c
lassing the works of Ballantyne, Conrad and W. W. Jacobs together as 'the sea-story' and then criticising that.

  But it is when we come to the second distinction, that made among the sheep or within the pale, that my system would differ most sharply from the established one. For the established system, the difference between distinctions within the pale and that primary distinction which draws the pale itself, can only be one of degree. Milton is bad and Patience Strong is worse; Dickens (most of him) is bad and Edgar Wallace is worse. My taste is bad because I like Scott and Stevenson; the taste of those who like E. R. Burroughs is worse. But the system I propose would draw a distinction not of degree but of kind between readings. All the words -'taste', 'liking', 'enjoyment'-bear different meanings as applied to the unliterary and to me. There is no evidence that anyone has ever reacted to Edgar Wallace as I react to Stevenson. In that way, the judgement that someone is unliterary is like the judgement 'This man is not in love', whereas the judgement that my taste is bad is more like 'This man is in love, but with a frightful woman'. And just as the mere fact that a man of sense and breeding loves a woman we dislike properly and inevitably makes us consider her again and look for, and sometimes find, something in her we had not noticed before, so, in my system, the very fact that people, or even any one person, can well and truly read, and love for a lifetime, a book we had thought bad, will raise the suspicion that it cannot really be as bad as we thought. Sometimes, to be sure, our friend's mistress remains in our eyes so plain, stupid and disagreeable that we can attribute his love only to the irrational and mysterious behaviour of hormones; similarly, the book he likes may continue to seem so bad that we have to attribute his liking to some early association or other psychological accident. But we must, and should, remain uncertain. Always, there may be something in it that we can't see. The prima facie probability that anything which has ever been truly read and obstinately loved by any reader has some virtue in it is overwhelming. To condemn such a book is therefore, on my system, a very serious matter. Our condemnation is never quite final. The question could always without absurdity be re-opened.

  And here, I suggest, the proposed system is the more realistic. For, whatever we say, we are all aware in a cool hour that the distinctions within the pale are far more precarious than the location of the pale itself, and that nothing whatever is gained by disguising the fact. When whistling to keep our spirits up, we may say that we are as certain of Tennyson's inferiority to Wordsworth as of Edgar Wallace's to Balzac. When heated with controversy you may say that my taste in liking Milton is merely a milder instance of the same sort of badness we attribute to the taste that likes the comics. We can say these things but no sane man quite fully believes them. The distinctions we draw between better and worse within the pale are not at all like that between 'trash' and 'real'

  literature. They all depend on precarious and reversible judgements. The proposed system frankly acknowledges this. It admits from the outset that there can be no question of totally and finally 'debunking' or 'exposing' any author who has for some time been well inside the pale. We start from the assumption that whatever has been found good by those who really and truly read probably is good. All probability is against those who attack. And all they can hope to do is to persuade people that it is less good than they think; freely confessing that even this assessment may presently be set aside.

  Thus one result of my system would be to silence the type of critic for whom all the great names in English literature-except for the half dozen protected by the momentary critical 'establishment'- are as so many lamp-posts for a dog.

  And this I consider a good thing. These dethronements are a great waste of energy.

  Their acrimony produces heat at the expense of light. They do not improve anyone's capacity for good reading. The real way of mending a man's taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.

  Such are the advantages I think we might hope from basing our criticism of books on our criticism of reading. But we have so far pictured the system working ideally and ignored the snags. In practice we shall have to be content with something less.

  The most obvious objection to judging books by the way they are read is the fact that the same book may be read in different ways. We all know that certain passages in good fiction and good poetry are used by some readers, chiefly schoolboys, as pornography; and now that Lawrence is coming out in paperbacks, the pictures on their covers and the company they keep on the station bookstalls show very clearly what sort of sales, and therefore what sort of reading, the booksellers anticipate. We must, therefore, say that what damns a book is not the existence of bad readings but the absence of good ones. Ideally, we should like to define a good book as one which 'permits, invites, or compels' good reading. But we shall have to make do with' permits and invites'. There may indeed be books which compel a good reading in the sense that no one who reads in the wrong way would be likely to get through more than a few of their pages. If you took up Samson Agonistes, Rasselas, or Urn Burial to pass the time, or for excitement, or as an aid to egoistic castle-building you would soon put it down. But books which thus resist bad reading are not necessarily better than books which do not. It is, logically, an accident that some beauties can, and others cannot, be abused. As for 'invites', invitation admits of degrees. 'Permits' is therefore our sheet-anchor. The ideally bad book is the one of which a good reading is impossible. The words in which it exists will not bear close attention, and what they communicate offers you nothing unless you are prepared either for mere thrills or for flattering daydreams. But 'invitation' comes into our conception of a good book. It is not enough that attentive and obedient reading should be barely possible if we try hard enough. The author must not leave us to do all the work. He must show, and pretty quickly, that his writing deserves, because it rewards, alert and disciplined reading.

  It will also be objected that to take our stand upon readings rather than books is to turn from the known to the unknowable. The books, after all, are obtainable and we can inspect them for ourselves; what can we really know about other people's ways of reading? But this objection is not so formidable as it sounds.

  The judgement of readings, as I have already said, is twofold. First, we put some readers outside the pale as unliterary; then we distinguish better and worse tastes within the pale. When we are doing the first, the readers themselves will give us no conscious assistance. They do not talk about reading and would be inarticulate if they tried to. But in their case external observation is perfectly easy. Where reading plays a very small part in the total life and every book is tossed aside like an old newspaper the moment it has been used, unliterary reading can be diagnosed with certainty. Where there is passionate and constant love of a book and rereading, then, however bad we think the book and however immature or uneducated we think the reader, it cannot. (By rereading I mean, of course, rereading for choice. A lonely child in a house where there are few books or a ship's officer on a long voyage may be driven to reread anything faute de mieux.)

  When we are making the second distinction-approving or censuring the tastes of those who are obviously literary-the test by external observation fails us.

  But to compensate for that, we are now dealing with articulate people. They will talk, and even write, about their favourite books. They will sometimes explicitly tell us, and more often unintentionally reveal, the sort of pleasure they take in them and the sort of reading it implies. We can thus often judge, not with certainty but with great probability, who has received Lawrence on his literary merits and who is primarily attracted by the imago of Rebel or Poor Boy Makes Good; who loves Dante as a poet and who loves him as a Thomist; who seeks in an author the enlargement of his mental being and who seeks only the enlargement of his self-esteem. When all, or most, of a writer's eulogists betray unliterary, or anti-literary, or extra-literary motives for their penchant, we shall have just suspicions of the book.

  Of course we
shall not abstain from the experiment of reading it ourselves.

  But we shall do this in a particular way. Nothing is less illuminating than to read some author who is at present under a cloud (Shelley, say, or Chesterton) for the purpose of confirming the bad opinion we already had of him. The result is a foregone conclusion. If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions. We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can't be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.

  You may ask whether we should take so much trouble with a work which is almost certainly bad on the bare hundredth chance that it may have some goodness in it. But there is no reason at all why we should, unless of course we are going to pass judgement on it. No one asks you to hear the evidence in every case that goes through the courts. But if you are on the bench, still more if you have volunteered for that position, I think you should. No one obliges me to assess Martin Tupper or Amanda Ross; but if I am going to, I must read them fairly.

  Inevitably all this will seem to some an elaborate device for protecting bad books from the castiga-tion they richly deserve. It may even be thought I have an eye to my own darlings or those of my friends. I can't help that. I want to convince people that adverse judgements are always the most hazardous, because I believe this is the truth. And it ought to be obvious why adverse judgements are so hazardous. A negative proposition is harder to establish than a positive.

  One glance may enable us to say there is a spider in the room; we should need a spring-cleaning (at least) before we could say with certainty that there wasn't.

  When we pronounce a book good we have a positive experience of our own to go upon. We have found ourselves enabled, and invited, and perhaps compelled to what we think thoroughly good reading; at any rate, to the best reading we are capable of. Though a modest doubt as to the quality even of our best may, and should, remain we can hardly be mistaken as to which of our readings are better and which worse. But in order to pronounce a book bad it is not enough to discover that it elicits no good response from ourselves, for that might be our fault.