Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Lewis on bad readers and bad writing

I picked up Lewis' Experiment in Criticism after reading about it somewhere. It's an interesting little book-- largely, an exercise in trying to describe "bad" readers to determine "bad literature", rather than the more-common and somewhat-more-subjective effort to judge "bad literature" directly. 

"Bad taste is, as it were by definition, a taste for bad books. I want to find out what sort of picture we shall get by reversing the process. Let us make our distinction between readers or types of reading the basis, and our distinction between books the corollary." (1)

In defining bad readers or readers with bad taste, Lewis notes common (but not universal) traits of "bad readers" (2-3). They...
a.) don't read anything twice;
b.) read as a last resort and quickly abandon it when any alternative arises;
c.) show no sign that reading changes their consciousness or thinking in any significant way; and 
d.) have the same approach to other forms of art (4). For a recent film that does not focus on "events", see my review of Boyhood.

The bad reader really likes events: "They never, uncompelled, read anything that is not narrative, I do not mean that they all read fiction. The most un-literary reader of all sticks to 'the news'." (28) Beyond that "they demand swift-moving narrative...As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the un-literary reader wants only the Event...he wants to know what happened next." (30) They enjoy events that are exciting; they want "inquisitiveness aroused, prolonged, exasperated, and finally satisfied"; and they want use literature "to participate in pleasure or happiness" vicariously (36-37). 

All that said, Lewis makes clear that there's nothing wrong with fiction, narrative, or literature that covers exciting events. These readers are "unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways but because they enjoy them in no other." (38)

Lewis notes that bad readers are NOT highly correlated with "the rabble"; it's not necessarily a function of education or income class (5). This state can change over time; people can move between bad and good readers (6). Lewis is also not talking about "solemn" readers-- those who read, but not in a way that changes them (12). Fundamentalists of various stripes would fit here-- they are quite "solemn", but not "serious".

Bad reading can stem from treating the work as raw material for other purposes (7). "The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender...the many use art and the few receive it...I do not mean by this that the right spectator is passive. His also is an imaginary activity; but an obedient one." (19; italics in original)

Worse still are some "literary critics"-- "who attends to [words] far too much and in the wrong way....treat language as something that 'is' but does not 'mean'; criticize the lens after looking at it instead of through it...If the mass of people are un-literary, he is anti-literary." (35-36; italics in original)

These are dangers in my line of work (and vocation), where much reading is for professional (or other derivative) reasons. For example, in preparing a book on ministry and discipleship, my recent survey of the literature could easily have devolved into the sort of reading that Lewis is critiquing. Along these lines, I always try to read a range of books-- from what I must read (in various arenas) to what I would like to read (ranging from light to profound/moving).

Finally, I like what Lewis says about escapism (68-71): "There is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived...The important question is what we escape to...Escape then is common to many good and bad kinds of reading. By adding -ism to it, we suggest, I suppose, a confirmed habit of escaping too often, or for too long, or into the wrong things, or using escape as a substitute for action where action is appropriate." 


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