September 02, 2003

On Stories, by C.S. Lewis

This is a mixed bag of Lewis' essays and other short pieces on the general topic of fiction, including nine pieces that have previously been collected and eleven that have not. It includes his original reviews of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, reviews of works by Charles Williams, H. Rider Haggard, and George Orwell, a tribute to Dorothy L. Sayers, and a variety of ruminations on the importance of story in fiction, the difference between novels and romances, and advice on Which Books Not To Review. As always, his words are a delight to read, and gave me much food for thought.

I could easily quote at length from any of the pieces in this book; I'll settle for his advice on Which Books Not To Review, because it's so topical. If you'll look back a month or so, the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix triggered a number of articles about how the popularity of Harry Potter was a sign of infantilism and bad judgement among the reading public. These essays were soundly fisked all around and about the Blogosphere at the time; and it was with a sense of wonder that I realized that all of those fiskings could have been replaced (and all the original articles prevented) by the following quote from Lewis' essay "On Science Fiction":

For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is "Ugh! I just can't bear this sort of thing," then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words--"arch", "facetious", "bogus", "adolescent", "immature", and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 2, 2003 05:23 PM

Deb said:

So essentially the message is that unless you know your subject, keep your mouth shut?

Sounds like good advice except where the review is of a book that is read to learn something--like a history or biography. Then the question is "Did the author teach me anything" which is a different question than "what did I think of this book."

Will Duquette said:

Lewis was speaking specifically of fiction, of course; and in particular why so many critics of they day put their feet in their mouths when "reviewing" science fiction.

Non-fiction is a whole different ball of snakes.

Phil said:

Thanks for the great quote. I wrote some thoughts on the purpose of negative reviews some weeks ago on my (badly in need of updating) blog, Brandywine Books. While I'm still an amateur, meaning that I don't know nothing about being no critic, I couldn't see the lasting value in a negative review, especially from the more widely read and respected literary critics. Silence seems more condemning than a full article on why we shouldn't read the subject of the article.