“False Characterizations”: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

False Characterizations

Having used the terms “the many” and “the few” to refer to the two broad groups of readers – those who use books for some purpose and those who receive each book for what it is – Lewis immediately points out the many false connotations the terms may have. We must not think of “the many” as the uneducated common man, the “rabble” whose perceived illiteracy some critics think “must make them clumsy and insensitive in all the relations of life and render them a permanent danger to civilization” (5). Rather, these people may have in other aspects of their life – moral, psychological, or pertaining to knowledge, adaptability, great skill, or wisdom – an excellence and care that they simply do not extend to literature. And the literary (Lewis begins to use the term again), “include no small percentage of the ignorant, the caddish, the stunted, the warped, and the truculent” (6). To assume that any person who does not read a book in the best way is somehow inferior in other areas of their life is wholly wrong, and Lewis is right to condemn this prejudice.

In fact, many of the people we most expect to be authorities on literature may not be true bibliophiles – that is, lovers of books. Lewis expresses sympathy for professors who, to keep their jobs, must continually publish articles “which must say, or seem to say, something new about some literary work; or of overworked reviewers, getting through novel after novel as quickly as they can, like a schoolboy doing his ‘prep’. For such people reading often becomes mere work” (7). He tells an anecdote about a fellow colleague, a professor of literature, who, just after having given a tiring exam to his students, was annoyed that Lewis wanted to discuss one of the great poets who was a subject of the exam.

I must pause here to reflect on myself. Many of my classmates would be so sick of a certain book or author whom we’d had to study that they expressed shock or annoyance if I wanted to keep talking about it. It’s completely understandable, because literature courses tend to make reading books a chore and an obligation rather than a joy.

And to Lewis’ point about reviewers I can most certainly relate! It was amusing to read his remark, as I have had to take certain steps to guard myself against falling into this trap; that is, the trap of reading books primarily because I feel an obligation to review them for my blog. My goal with this blog is not to review every fantasy or sci-fi book I read or movie I watch. Sometimes I purposely don’t review a story, and for a variety of reasons: maybe I can’t think of anything worthwhile to say about it, maybe it’s too exhausting to think about, or, often, I’m happier just absorbing the experience of it without having to analyze it. About a week ago I watched (again) one of my favorite movies, The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Each viewing is as wonderful as the last, excepting the peculiar magic that first viewings and first readings have. Yet I chose to savor the experience, let it work its own way with me, rather than immediately set down to dissect it. I love it so much that I’m sure I will review it eventually, but out of an overwhelming desire to share it, not out of obligation.

Lewis notes other reasons people read a lot yet are not literary in his sense of the word.

  1. There are, as above, those who are professional readers. Reading and analyzing books is their job, and they are in danger of viewing books merely as fodder for their essays and theories than as worthy objects in their own right.
  2. There are status seekers, who read only what is fashionable with a certain group in order to be accepted by them.
  3. There are the devotees of culture, who read in order to improve themselves. This is an interesting group, because such a person is, in a sense, trying to discover what treasures the books hold. However, he is still using the books for a purpose other than themselves. He is likely to stick only to the authors that he has been told are great, and “makes few experiments and has few favorites” (8). This man is not a fool, and he can get much good from reading the right books. But Lewis likens him to a man who plays sports only for the health benefits and not for any joy inherent in the act of playing.

There is nothing wrong with discussing books for one’s job, or with reading a book that is popular, or with seeking out books you think will do you good. Many of us do the latter all the time, and that can be fine and good. But if these are your main reasons for reading, if when you read a book you will only see these things you look for and nothing else, then you are missing something. In all these examples the reader is focused on himself rather than on the book.

One sad result of making English Literature a ‘subject’ at schools and universities is that the reading of great authors is, from early years, stamped upon the minds of conscientious and submissive young people as something meritorious.

For these reasons Lewis does not use the word serious to describe literary people. I’ve been tempted to use the word myself when describing An Experiment in Criticism to other people, but stopped myself for the same reasons Lewis has: the word has two meanings, and the one most commonly assumed is the last one we want.

It may mean, on the one hand, something like ‘grave’ or ‘solemn’; on the other, something more like ‘thoroughgoing, whole-hearted, energetic’…The serious man, far from being a serious student, may be a dabbler and a dilettante. The serious student may be as playful as Mercutio. A thing may be done seriously in the one sense and yet not in the other (11).

It is a terrible thing to approach all literature gravely and solemnly, yet any of us who remember English literature classes in school can relate to the examples he gives. Lewis remembers student essays which gave no indication of the comedy and joy in Jane Austen’s novels, or in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This is one reason I majored in history instead of literature, even though stories have always been my chief love. I love reading and discussing the books assigned, but rarely did I enjoy writing essays where I was expected to analyze some theme or literary device. By studying history, I was able to read the literature and put it in the context of its time and culture, and to love it more for its own merits rather than for what it supposedly says about “the human condition.”

When I write my reviews, I do not ignore the themes and literary devices of the stories. But my goal is primarily to find out what the writer is saying, and to receive that as best I can. Some stories offer up their key themes as a gift to the reader and viewer. Other stories don’t, and for those I try not to force upon them themes that are not there.

I’m grateful for Lewis’ book. Though I have thought many of the same things many times before, it is helpful to have him clarify, offer examples, and occasionally challenge me. I fear that many of my past readings were unfair to the books, especially to those I read for school. How many authors have been wronged by my unreadiness to hear what they had to say? This is not to imply that every book I have disliked in the past was worthy of my attention. But, looking back, I think there were many that had much good that I did not see, because I was too wrapped up in my own preferences to listen to another mind, another heart, expressing itself.


Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

8 thoughts on ““False Characterizations”: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 2”

  1. You need to keep blogging this book because it’s a lovely refresher when I don’t have the time to read the whole book. One of my favorite things about the book is that Lewis does his best to keep from literary snobbery, both regarding books and their readers. I like his proposal that even a poor book, if read well by one person, shouldn’t be relegated to the rubbish heap.

    I think I understand what you mean when you talk about why you didn’t major in English. I remember being rather frustrated and disillusioned for a while Freshman year of college, by what I thought of as vivisecting a text. Which is not actually a reflection on my English prof at the time, but maybe on my attitude (and also my stress level!). But it is hard to preserve the joy of reading when you *have* to read something for a class or whatever. Not to say it can’t be done, but it takes effort.

    Personally, I rather enjoy writing papers. (Hehe, remind me I said that tomorrow when I’m working myself up to Milton.) But I have a very analytical mind, and I tend to analyze even when I read for myself. And I discover things in the text that I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to do a close reading. So for me, it’s not papers so much that squelch the joy of a good story. I have more trouble with schools of criticism and theory that try to force isms and nonsense into books. Which is why I picked the grad school I did; I knew they had a conservative approach to reading and literature, and thus far, I have not been disappointed.

    Speaking of the joy of Jane Austen…Hint hint. After reading her all semester, I am more and more convinced that she is a brilliant writer, and one I hope I can learn from.

    1. Hint taken, yes yes. I’ve still got Blake’s copy of Emma that I borrowed, I dunno, three years ago, I think. I’ve got a busy reading list at the moment, but I am firmly resolved to encounter Austen fully on her terms before I grow much older. At least before I’m thirty, we’ll say. Maybe before. Perhaps if I ever hope to win a literary girl’s heart, I should aim for sooner rather than later on reading her, eh? ‘-) (Lewis: “But David, that would be attempting to use her books for the silly purpose of getting girls to swoon by your knowledge of them!” Me: “Sooooo? A guy can hope!”)

      Yeah, his focus on the reader is what makes the book so interesting. He acknowledges that there are good and bad books, but it’s the reader that really makes the difference in the experience. Even a poor book probably has some residues of goodness buried in it somewhere, even if by accident, and the perfect reader will find them.

      The endless literary theories turned me off, too. Actually, they have them in history as well. I had a whole class on historiography — how history has been studied over the ages. It was a fascinating class, but most of what it did was illuminate all the failures of the various theories and “isms” that tried to force history to conform to a particular ideology. My prof seemed to say that some of the theories were of genuine good use for certain kinds of studies, but I never mastered them well enough to tell for myself. I still don’t understand why we can’t just define history as the search for the truth of the past, and leave it at that! That’s what it is to me.

      1. Well, first off, to stand up for sane women, I wouldn’t base my evaluation of a man’s worth solely on whether he’d read Austen. But a well-informed knowledge of Austen is worth many style points, I think. What I mean is, the literary soul is most happy to have found a likewise intelligent soul which shares her love of books. But if she happens to love Austen, she will be impressed that you were not scared off by the “romance” vibe that has gotten attached to her and that you have read her and appreciate her for both for her true merits of moral, style, and story, and because it shows you possess a sense of romance yourself.*

        Also, I realize that I get to dedicate the rest of my semester’s travails to Austen. I finished my Milton paper, which was more fun then I ever expected, and now get to move on to my Austen paper AND a book review about a book on Austen. Pressure! Excitement! Tea!

        *P.S. I *can* tell you from personal experience, by no means let such expressions pass your lips as imply disapproval of Mr. Darcy. This does not impress us females. We love Mr. Darcy, even though if we really were to meet him, we might have reason to loath him as much as Elizabeth first does. (Yes, of course, you are entitled to your well-read opinion of him. And the intelligent woman will value you for this. But it does not do to go about casually dismissing one of literature’s top 3 most desired men.)

  2. Not that I feel you are stating the opposite, but I want to put in a word of defense for literary vivisection. 😉 I have not read this book yet, but I hope that Lewis would agree with me on one point, and I think he would: I do not think that analyzing or “vivisecting” literature is, in itself, a bad thing, any more than analyzing or dissecting the human form is a bad thing. It is the manner in which, and the purpose for which these things are done that make them beneficial or detrimental.
    If we focus too much on the leaf or the forest, we fail to appreciate the tree, and yet the leaf and the forest are important, and can add to the understanding of, and appreciation for the tree.
    So yes, if one analyzes for the sake of analyzing (as sadly many of our literati seem to do) or dissect without appreciation for the whole, one does literature a terrible injustice. If, however, dissecting literature to a purpose allows one to increase in an understanding of, and appreciation for what you read, then analyzing is very beneficial.
    Many people, so many that it breaks my heart, have been put off or frustrated by pointless exercises in literature class because the exercises were considered a merit in themselves rather than a means to expose the vitality and beauty of literature. What I owe to my literature teachers is this: in showing me the bones, tendons, muscles and organs of literary works, they increased my appreciation for the works, and they very rarely robbed me of enjoyment. On the contrary, I believe that my love of literature is enriched by my education, just as my love of humans, plants and animals has been enriched by my study of biology. It’s all in how these things are taught, no?

    1. I do agree with you. If I sounded like I am being overly critical about the study of literature per se, that’s because I took it for granted that my friend David knows I’m an English student and thus I see the good side of all this “required reading.” I’m studying for an MA in English right now, and plan to go on for the PhD, so what you say is certainly relevant: I do find good in analyzing literature and as I hope to teach one day, I want to find a way of teaching that supports and acknowledges the joy of a good story.

      I want to note that I would not, in fact, use the word “vivisect” to describe the proper approach to analysis of a text. While I am in complete agreement that close reading and analysis are very important tools to understanding and appreciating a story, what I think of as vivisecting is just that approach which none of us like, when the looking for the parts destroys the beauty and appreciation of the whole and I (at least) feel like I’ve killed a beautiful story. And as I believe story is the whole point of literature, that is a sad result indeed.

      1. Your statement “I have more trouble with schools of criticism and theory that try to force isms and nonsense into books,” made me think that you were at least an MA in Literature. 🙂 That brand of frustration seems to come with an MA and above, which I do not have. Even my BA is in Art/Art History, not Literature. I thought I might be preaching to the choir, but I felt that non-choir-members might read this post and perhaps even the comments attached to it.

        I echoed the term “vivisection” because I feel that literature can be dissected while alive and remain just as alive, but I see now that your point in using it was different, and more true to the bloody connotations of the word. I completely agree with you. A story can be destroyed by over or careless analyzing, and that, as you say, defeats the purpose. It gladdens me every time I run across someone, like you, who understands. I meet too many people who either believe that analyzing is only destructive, or that it is more important than the work “on the operating table.”

        1. Since I’ve known both of you for a few years and have had some great in-depth discussions with each, I feel it’s safe to say that you ladies do agree wonderfully on many issues. I take full credit for having introduced you two: go now and be awesome. +p

          And my thoughts on these issues are of course the same, as I’ve said above and elsewhere. One kind of dissecting kills, another illumines. It is an abiding love of stories and the individuals who tell them that, I think, will help us in striving for the latter and avoiding the former.

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