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An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

Reviewed by A. M. Kaempf

December 28, 2015

An Experiment in Criticism

An Experiment in Criticism

by C. S. Lewis

Cambridge University Press, 2012

In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, Emma Koonse discusses the enduring popularity of C. S. Lewis: half a century after his death, new editions of his works continue to be published; The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters still sell in great quantities; biographers find novel ways of telling the story of his life, and scholars persist in analyzing his writings. But what is absent from this discussion of Lewis—what seems to be absent from almost every discussion of Lewis—is any reference to his literary criticism. This is unfortunate, for his criticism is his most engaging work, and far more intellectually satisfying than his children’s stories and Christian apologetics.

An Experiment in Criticism serves as an excellent example. In this concise and provocative book, Lewis proposes an unconventional method for evaluating literature: to judge books by the ways in which they are read. “Let us try to discover how far it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way,” he writes, “and a bad book as a book which is read in another.” It is an intriguing experiment that proves rewarding regardless of whether or not one agrees with Lewis’s conclusions, for it leads to a serious, intelligent, and insightful discourse on literature.

Having assumed that there are good and bad ways to read books, Lewis proceeds to separate readers into two groups: the literary and the unliterary, or, as he refers to them elsewhere, the few and the many. The few receive art, he claims, while the many use it. “‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception,’” he writes, “because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves, or palliates our life, and does not add to it.” According to Lewis, unliterary readers lack imagination and are drawn to clichés; they enjoy stories only to the extent that they satisfy their inquisitiveness and allow them to experience vicarious pleasure. This kind of reading is ephemeral; it offers a pleasant distraction but leaves no lasting impressions.

Literary readers, on the other hand, seek intellectual expansion through books. Reading challenges their assumptions and opens them up to unfamiliar ideas and experiences. It exposes realities that are different from their own, allowing them to see the world as others see it. Through books, they become countless different people while still remaining themselves. As Lewis memorably phrases it, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.”

Applying the criteria of his experiment, we can define good books as those that invite a literary kind of reading. This reasoning may seem circular—a good book being a book that is read in a good way—but Lewis’s justifications for it are interesting. Judging a book by the way it is read, he says, “fixes our attention on the act of reading” and “puts our feet on solid ground.” The conclusions this method leads to will not be so precarious, not so dependent on the place and date of one’s birth: “For the accepted valuation of literary works varies with every change of fashion, but the distinction between attentive and inattentive, obedient and willful, disinterested and egoistic, modes of reading is permanent; if ever valid, valid everywhere and always.”

Lewis offers another reason for adopting his peculiar method of criticism: “it would make critical condemnation a laborious task, and this I reckon an advantage.” Here Lewis reveals his contempt for other critics. “Forced to talk incessantly about books,” he writes, “what can they do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about?” He finds their traditional evaluative method of criticism to be insufficient for properly judging books, and in his defense he cites the work of Matthew Arnold, who considered criticism an exercise of curiosity. “The great art of criticism,” Arnold wrote, “is to get oneself out of the way and to let humanity decide.” But mere evaluative critics do exactly the opposite: they impose their opinions on readers, as if to prevent them from forming ideas of their own. Lewis cannot recall a single instance of these critics helping him understand or appreciate a great work of literature, and he doubts that they have ever led to anything useful or enlightening. In his opinion, editors, historians, commentators, and lexicographers are much more important.

In his assault on other critics, Lewis combines a vast knowledge of literature with a penchant for proclaiming strong opinions. His tastes are impressively broad, but nevertheless he is a literary snob, quite plainly and unapologetically. A few pages into the book, his attitude of intellectual superiority becomes the cause of discomfort. His depiction of “the many” is worrisome at times, and his use of the phrase “we, the literary” is rather off-putting. There is a casual sexism—or at least a very lazy view of female readers—implied by some of his comments, and a tone of condescension runs throughout the book—the kind of tone an out-of-touch teacher might use with simpleminded students, or that a doctor might use to convince a child to swallow a spoonful of medicine. This is amusing if one chooses not to be offended by it, but even then it is distracting and detrimental to the main purpose of the book.

To say that An Experiment in Criticism is worth reading is not to say that its experiment is worth replicating. Judging books by how they are read can no doubt be interesting and revealing, but doing so seems a bit backwards, and perhaps better suited to a casual conversation than employed as a serious method of literary criticism. The obvious objection to it, which Lewis does not bother to acknowledge until page 113, is that a book can be read in countless different ways. How, then, does one go about making a valid or conclusive judgment about it? Lewis responds to this objection with the following clarification: a book should not necessarily be condemned if it leads to bad readings, but only if it does not lead to any good ones. “The ideally bad book,” he writes, “is the one of which a good reading is impossible.” This is a lovely idea—and a correct one, I think—but by itself it cannot validate Lewis’s entire experiment.

It is a testament to Lewis’s talents as a writer that one can enjoy An Experiment in Criticism without agreeing with its thesis. Though it is a flawed book, there is much to discover in its pages. Lewis encourages thorough, thoughtful reading and a deep respect for literature. He writes with exceptional clarity and precision about a variety of topics, including myth, fantasy, children’s books, realism, and poetry. At its best, An Experiment in Criticism resembles the popular works of Bertrand Russell: it is lucid, erudite, genial, and glimmering with impish intelligence. More than fifty years have passed since it was first published, but it remains an important book, for Lewis is a brilliant guide through the world of literature, and one of its most earnest and articulate defenders. He also reminds us of a fact that many readers and writers prefer to forget: literary criticism is a secondary pursuit, for it is inherently dependent on original texts; it should be used as a supplement to great works of literature, not as a substitute for them.

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A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.