“It was bound to happen,” I thought at some points as I read An Experiment in Criticism, “a C.S. Lewis work I don’t care for. I’m kind of relieved about it, actually; I’ve accumulated such a long list of raves that I was beginning to worry about being a mere Lewisolater.” This book seemed to break the pattern, making me both weary and a little miffed with Lewis for something I’ve always felt he was untarnished by: snobbery.
In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis proposes an alternative approach to literary criticism. Rather than judging the books, and then defining bad taste as a liking for bad books,
Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary. 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.
At first glance this sounded good to me. It frees books from the stranglehold of literary fashion, whereby certain authors or styles are in vogue and others are pronounced inferior simply because they’re not in step with the current tastes. And we all know that it’s possible to give a good book a poor reading — inattentive or biased. Sometimes we read a review of a book we’ve loved and can see how the reviewer read with an agenda or, for some other reason, missed whole aspects of the book. At first glance it seemed Lewis was democratizing the reading process, freeing books from the domain of the present-day academics (of whatever era) to the whole of culture.
But my initial impression was that in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis simply transferred the snobbery from books to readers. His distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” readers is so heavy-handed one has to believe he was out to raise some hackles. “Literary readers,” he writes, suspend judgment in the act of reading, laying aside all critical preconceptions and all forms of imaginative neediness, enter into the book on its own terms, and “receive” it as such. “Unliterary readers” approach books in a more self-interested way, using them for “egoistic castle-building,” titillation, escape, or philosophical excavation. Their evaluation is thus cluttered, for Lewis, by all kinds of extra-literary considerations.
I agree with Lewis that books can be read in different ways. I agree that it’s fundamentally unfair to presume to evaluate a book if your reading of it has been hampered by distraction or by some other factor. But I dislike the idea of dividing the world into two kinds of readers. Different levels of reading, perhaps (and probably more than two). But two types of readers?
He seems to leave the book as the final arbiter, writing that if certain books “permit, invite, or compel” “literary reading,” they are fundamentally better. But unless a given reader is unfailingly “literary,” there is no way to test this hypothesis. I know I have met Lewis’s standards for “literary reading” with some books, but not unfailingly so, and of course this is not something I can ever say with certainty is the books’ fault.
This is part of Lewis’s point, and it’s here that I began to suspect that he is being tongue-in-cheek throughout Experiment. We can evaluate our reading, but it’s much more difficult to evaluate books. He points out that a positive statement is defensible: “There’s a spider in the room.” A negative statement is much harder to defend: “There are no spiders anywhere in the room.” The same is true for books. We can describe the positive qualities of a given book much more defensibly than we can pronounce a given book a failure on all counts. Evaluative criticism, Lewis remarks, can be fascinating to read, but it doesn’t in the end have much bearing on our own response to whatever work is being evaluated.
Ultimately An Experiment in Criticism is a subversive book, proposing a “new” method of criticism but in effect overturning what “criticism” had become: the reflexive branding of some books as good and others as bad based on fashion or transient academic tastes. “I remain, then, sceptical, not about the legitimacy or delightfulness, but about the necessity or utility of evaluative criticism,” Lewis explains toward the end.
And especially at the present. Everyone who sees the work of Honours students in English at a university has noticed with distress their increasing tendency to see books wholly through the spectacles of other books. On every play, poem, or novel, they produce the view of some eminent critic. An amazing knowledge of Chaucerian or Shakespearian criticism sometimes co-exists with a very inadequate knowledge of Chaucer or Shakespeare. Less and less do we meet the individual response. The all-important conjunction (Reader Meets Text) never seems to have been allowed to occur of itself and develop spontaneously. Here, plainly, are young people drenched, dizzied, and bedevilled by criticism to a point at which primary literary experience is no longer possible…
Such a surfeit of criticism is so dangerous that it demands immediate treatment. Surfeit, we have been told, is the father of fast. I suggest that a ten to twenty years’ abstinence both from the reading and from the writing of evaluative criticism might do us all a great deal of good.
In a way, Lewis is arguing there are no bad books, just bad readers. But he really doesn’t spend any energy condemning “unliterary readers.” His concern is not that people don’t always read carefully or neutrally; that’s a reality he can take with good humor as long as people are reading. His concern is that the penchant for evaluative criticism threatens “primary literary experience,” a worrisome turn of events for Lewis and for us because of the depth and importance of the act of reading in this “vale of soul-making.” He concludes Experiment with a passage that sets aside any possible condescension and simply inspires us to read, and to do it as wholeheartedly we can:
Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do.
The styles may have changed since 1961 when this book was written, but it remains a timely read as a corrective to over-reliance on the critics. Though it doesn’t make the list of my favorite Lewis reads, my first reaction was tempered on further reflection. An Experiment in Criticism is the kind of book that makes you think about your standards for good literature, and as a defense of reading it can hardly fail to inspire.