About Reading and Literary Criticism


As I reported in my last post, I read C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism last weekend. In the book, he comes up with an interesting thought experiment. He starts out saying that literary criticism is traditionally all about judging books: what is a good book, what is a bad book. The judgement has a lot to do with the individual taste of the critic. One critic denounces a certain work as in some way deficient, while another may highly praise it. Often, the judgements about certain literary works go through phases of popularity followed by phases when they are out of favour with critics for spurious reasons. Lewis therefore proposes to turn the question on its head, looking not at the work itself but at the kind of reading it inspires:

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, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, HarperCollins, 2012 (originally 1961), p. 1.

Lewis goes on to divide readers into literary readers and unliterary readers. He takes pains to point out that this is not a value judgement about readers’ characters. All readers, whether literary or unliterary can have all the faults common to humankind. Also, unliterary readers can become literary ones, and vice versa, or readers use a mixture of the two reading styles (that’s me, I think). Professional literature critics can be unliterary readers if they view their reading as a job. Readers who read for self-improvement are not literary readers because they focus on the self instead of on the work. To be a literary reader, one needs to be receptive to the work, without primarily using it for something. The difference between the literary reader and the unliterary one is the difference between using or receiving the work. Lewis includes the interaction with other works of art in this way of “reading”:

The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.17.

Lewis devotes a chapter to describing unliterary readers. He maintains that they read only narrative works (which can be non-fiction or fiction). They want the narrative to be full of action. They are not interested in style. They like being excited and they like stories which allow them to experience positive feeling through the characters in the books, a kind of escapism, I guess. But he also says that the unliterary readers are only unliterary because they never progress beyond this type of reading which “cuts them off from the fulness of literary experience” (p. 37). Literary readers also read in these ways, but not solely.

Lewis goes on to give a lot of examples of what distinguishes the literary reader from the unliterary one. He talks about myths, fantasy, and realism and how the different kinds of readers typically engage or understand those types of literature. I like his criticism of readers who disdain certain fiction as “childish” or “infantile”:

The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than loosing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.70.

Lewis also talks a lot about how literary readers also misread, by ignoring that works of literary are both vehicles of meaning and things that exist as themselves:

To value them chiefly for reflections which they may suggest to us or morals we may draw from them, is a flagrant instance of ‘using’ instead of ‘receiving’.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.82.

About poetry Lewis says that only literary readers (who appreciate style and form as well as content) read it, therefore he doesn’t talk much about poetry in his exploration of literary and unliterary ways of reading. He says about reading modern poetry:

To read the old poetry involved learning a slightly different language; to read the new involves the unmaking of your mind, the abandonment of all the logical and narrative connections which you use in reading prose or in conversation. You must achieve a trance-like condition in which images, associations, and sounds operate without these. Thus the common ground between poetry and any other use of words is reduced almost to zero. In that way, poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; ‘purer’ in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can’t do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.96.

He goes on to remark that this makes poetry reading so difficult that not many readers stick with it. I find this explanation about how to read modern poetry strange but also kind of helpful. Now I have an inkling why I find some modern poetry so hard to understand and can stop worrying about it. I shouldn’t strive to understand it, I should achieve a “trance-like condition”. Let’s see how that works out 😊

On the other hand, I’m sure there are modern poets who write poetry that doesn’t need you to “unmake your mind”.

Judging literature not by some arbitrary taste of literary critics, but by the way it is read makes it hard to critically condemn any given work, which Lewis thinks is generally too easy for critics. Any book that gets even one reader to read it in a literary way, could not be judged as being junk. How do we judge if a reader has read a work in a literary way? Well, by the way they talk or write about the experience. And anyway, Lewis asks:

Can I say with certainty that any evaluative criticism has ever actually helped me to understand and appreciate any great work of literature or any part of one?

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.119.

And concludes that:

The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors to enjoy the critics.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p. 123.

I agree with that, but only somewhat. I sometimes enjoy reading literary criticism and it’s true that it’s most fun and illuminating (or not) when I’ve already read the work in question. But it also sometimes leads me to read works I might otherwise not have read. Same goes for book reviews. I’ve often read books because their review sounded inviting. I’ve even sometimes read books that some reviewers hated, just to judge by myself.

Lewis ends with some thoughts about the nature of reading and how it may affect the reader:

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.

C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, p.140.

This work spoke to me. It has interesting ideas expressed in clear language (no literary theory jargon) where the premises are clearly explained. It’s not elitist or snobbish in its description of literary versus the non-literary readers: in fact, it shows up what non-literary readers may be missing in their reading experience and where literary readers may go astray. It values both the original work and criticism, but it positions them in a different relationship. If you are interested in such topics, I can only recommend this book. I loved it and found it thought-provoking.

Keep safe, world.

3 thoughts on “About Reading and Literary Criticism

  1. ‘The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than loosing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility?’

    I think C.S Lewis definitely had the right of that 🙂


    On another note, in my opinion a good review is one that says something about the book that might let some people know it’s for them, while letting other people know it may not be for them whether or not the review is positive. And I think there is too much focus on critically condemning! Very interesting article to read. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Descriptive reviews are helpful, regardless if the review is positive or negative. Sometimes reviewers describe details they really dislike, but that I think I would really like. Thanks for your comment 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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