Unliterary Readers: “An Experiment in Criticism” by C.S. Lewis, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The Reading of the Unliterary

Each art is itself and not some other art.

Words mean things in a way that musical notes do not. So while the best appreciation of a symphony may be to attend to the intricacy of the notes themselves, even apart from the subjective meanings they suggest to the listeners, we cannot say the same of a book. We cannot just pass our eyes over the shapes of ink on a page and call that reading; we must attend to the meanings and connotations—both objective and subjective—of the words.

The first note of a symphony demands attention to nothing but itself. The first word of the Iliad directs our minds to anger; something we are acquainted with outside the poem and outside literature altogether.

Lewis makes an important side note about poetry at this point. The idea that “a poem should not mean but be” is ridiculous, he says, as I have always asserted. The words must mean if they are to have value. Lewis says this even applies to Nonsense poetry. The silly words of Lewis Carroll, in their context, suggest real creatures and noises and textures. Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose” is not the same as “arose is arose is arose.”

Next, Lewis notes five primary characteristics he has observed in unliterary readers; that is, those who use books instead of receiving them.

  1. They read only for the Event, to find out “what happens next.” They only read narrative, and once read, they discard it. The worst are those who only care to read the news, desiring to read of events they think are real, but are not happening to anyone they know. (Note that Lewis is not criticizing the reading of narratives or the news – merely a certain attitude!)
  2. They have no literary ear. They are deaf to both the beauties and “cacophonies” of certain phrasings. This is especially horrible with academics, who are very well-read. “They will write of the relation between mechanisation and nationalisation’ without turning a hair” (29).
  3. More generally, “they are either quite unconscious of style, or even prefer books which we should think badly written” (29). The really good, unqiue writing demands too much of them. They prefer Flash Gordon to H.G. Wells. Or in modern terms, Twilight to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Eragon to The Lord of the Rings.
  4. They dislike much dialogue, preferring more pictures and action. Now, I think Lewis is too generalized with this point. It seems these days that the unliterary often prefer lots of dialogue—so long as it is bad, clichéd, and accompanied by wild action or slapstick comedy. Many good and great books favor prose over dialogue, just as many great films are also light on dialogue (and I’m not just thinking of silent films, though those are included). But his point still stands. The unliterary prefers not to think about what he is reading, and wants only to absorb and vegetate. Intelligent dialogue and prose make a claim on his energies that he is unwilling to grant.
  5. They demand swift-moving narrative” (30). Common condemnations of other works include “it’s too slow” or “it’s too complicated.” And I admit fully that I share Lewis’ disdain for such people. Their complaint is different from a considered critique that a book is too slowly paced or too boring in that it is an excuse to not really consider the book at all. They will resist enjoying a book solely because it doesn’t work hard enough (by their standards) to grip their wilted attention spans.

Point 3, about style, interests Lewis the most. It’s not that the unliterary reader enjoys bad writing because it is bad. He hardly even notices it. To be conscious of style means to take the words themselves seriously, but the unliterary reader cares only for the Event. Writing that really tries to describe specific things, people, and ideas demand more of his attention than he wants to give, but clichés absolve him of this obligation. He wants everything to be instantly and shallowly recognizable: “My blood ran cold” is the descriptor he prefers to fear over, say, a more complex observation by Dostoevsky, or even another metaphor that is still concise but so specific as to make the reader remember his own fears.

Unless we are fully attending both to sound and sense, unless we hold ourselves obediently ready to conceive, imagine, and feel as the words invite us, we shall not have these experiences. Unless you are really trying to look through the lens you cannot discover whether it is good or bad. We can never know that a piece of writing is bad unless we have begun by trying to read it as if it was very good and ended by discovering that we were paying the author an undeserved compliment.

See, good writing knows when to use many words and when to use few words, but an unliterary reader cannot tell this difference. So he may read a detailed landscape by D. H. Lawrence or John Steinbeck and find them too much to handle, but then think that Thomas Malory was being stingy with words when he wrote: “he arrived afore a castle which was rich and fair and there was a postern opened towards the sea, and was open without any keeping, save two lions kept the entry, and the moon shone clear.” The unliterary reader wants a degree of sensationalism so he can pretend he is imagining without doing the actual mental work.

They would rather be told that the castle was ‘bathed in a flood of silver moonlight’. This is partly because their attention to the words they read is so insufficient. Everything has to be stressed, or ‘written up’, or it will barely be noticed. But still more, they want the hieroglyph—something that will release their stereotyped reactions to moonlight (moonlight, of course, as something in books, songs, and films; I believe that memories of the real world are very feebly operative while they read).

As a writer, I can say this is a particularly important, but difficult, point that Lewis is making. The temptation is so strong to write stereotyped descriptions and characters: the hills always verdant and rolling, the clouds fluffy and white, the mountains jagged and majestic. These adjective are true, but they are generic, and do not describe the uniqueness of a this hill, these clouds, or that mountain. But to achieve the better writing means to imagine better. To understand just what is important about the thing I am describing; why is it here, why am I putting it in this place of the story, how does it affect the other things in the story, and what memories and emotions are attached to it?


  1. A. Setliffe says:

    Mmm. Tricky business, imagining and writing. Just when I think I have learned something about the craft, someone (often Lewis) comes along and gives me a new take. A question I would like to ask him (and again, why I will be looking for a copy of this book) is this: I do not think it is completely right to ignore the reactions of the readers to text, and while the integrity of the story must be the highest goal, where does one find the balance between what the author prefers for the story, and what the audience needs from the story.

    Case in point: I could fill volumes with description. I LOVE description. I love writing it, I love reading it (when well-written), but when my wealth of description becomes an obstacle to readers, there is a problem. I feel that I must find ways to weave the description into my narrative so that my readers get a sense of place without being confronted with a block of descriptive text. I feel I must find a balance between what people enjoy reading, and what I prefer to write, if I mean for my work to be read, no?

    1. David says:

      Yup, absolutely. It’s really interesting the way Lewis develops his argument throughout the book. In this chapter he’s mostly defending good writing and criticizing those who don’t care for it. But the way he applies his theory, he ends up arguing for an approach to reading that can find some good in most books, even the poorer ones. His focus really is on the reader, and how people read books. But it’s a balance, you know? I look at it this way. As a reader, my responsibility is to be as open as possible to hearing whatever the author wants to say, in the way he wants to say it. As a writer, my responsibility is to say what I need to say as honestly and effectively as I can.

      Sort of like the Christian life, in a way. The final word on free will vs. predestination I leave to God. I know I am a speck and that God has everything and every-time in His power, according to His will, and that He knows all things and controls all things. Yet I also know that I appear to have control over my actions and am held responsible for them, and that my responsibility is to live my life as a holy sacrifice to Him.

      1. A. Setliffe says:

        Christianity is a Romance of Paradoxes. And as all true stories echo something of The True Story, I suppose it is only meet that writing holds its own paradoxes. 🙂

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