An Experiment in Criticism, 1961
My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough….But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, but is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. ~C.S. Lewis (140-141)
In this work of literary criticism, C.S. Lewis wants to achieve the thought experiment–what if, instead of judging books to be good or bad, we judged the reading of a book to be good or bad? What happens when the paradigm in literary criticism is flipped and instead of looking at the value of the content (literature, music, or art), we looked at the value of how it is perceived, how it is enjoyed. I particularly enjoyed this thought experiment and how Lewis describes a good reader as one who “receives” the literature, rather than “uses” it. I enjoyed his description of the different types of “castle-building” by readers of fiction or fantasy. I won’t lie that most of his literary references (aside from Jane Austen, Dickens, Arnold, Aristotle, Morris, and some of the Greek/Roman mythology and tragedies) I hadn’t read. But as this is really a work examining how to examine works of literature (instead of actually examining specific works), it didn’t stop me from appreciating this book. I checked this out from the library, but I think I really need to have a copy of my own. There are definitely passages that I would like to return to. I had a very difficult time finding just one quote I wanted to share in this post–I had three or four in mind. I also really appreciated Lewis’s views on Children’s literature and Science Fiction: two traditionally marginalized categories of literature.
The Magician’s Book examines the world of the Narnia books and the great mind that created them, C.S. Lewis. This book is part biography, part literary analysis, in addition to the author’s (Laura Miller’s) personal history with the Chronicles of Narnia. Laura Miller read and loved the Chronicles as a child. As a teenager, she learned of their Christian symbolism and the apology and beliefs of C.S. Lewis and felt betrayed. How could she love something that was intended to convert her to a belief she had already rejected? With this in mind, Miller studied Lewis as well as the Chronicles to gain a deeper understanding into the series and what went into creating them.
I really, really enjoyed this work of non-fiction. Although it contains some literary analysis, it isn’t strictly a work of scholarly criticism and the writing is very fluid and fast-paced. The author also put a lot of herself, her own experiences and beliefs into the book. That made it perhaps an even more compelling read (although I am, strangely, one of those weird people who reads literary criticism for fun). It is very clear up front that she is no fan of Christianity and seeks to look at the Chronicles of Narnia as stories that contain more than a mere “allegory” (a term that is not even properly applied to the Chronicles, I do have to give her that) for Christianity. And indeed, I must agree with her. Lewis drew on a wealth of literary and mythological influences to tell his story. His characters aren’t mere shadows, mere placeholders for virtues or vices. He built a richer world than that. However, every now and then her invective against Lewis and Christianity is sharp (especially towards the Catholic church). Every now and then, as a Christian reader and someone who is a fan of Lewis and his writing, I couldn’t help but think “ouch!” Every great writer has flaws, and Lewis is no exception. However, learning about the flaws of the writer and his writing didn’t necessarily ruin my admiration for both C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles. If anything, this book sparked my interest in some of Lewis’ writings of literary criticism, which I haven’t read yet, but I plan to. For all of his shortcomings, Lewis was a fascinating man (though he might disagree) with a brilliant mind. And his friendship with fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien is certainly of interest to me. My next non-fiction endeavor is a book solely dedicated to their friendship.
It’s no surprise that Lewis makes the top of my Old British Man Crush list (and he loved the Romantics–we ARE soulmates!)
I mean, c’mon, look at that face. And the jacket. I’m in love with his jacket alone.
As an undergraduate student, my major was English. In many of my upper-level English classes we would explore different forms of literary criticism and literary theory. Some of my professors even favored one or two of these theories and so taught their classes in such a way as to promote those theories. But despite having favorites, many English professors I have come in contact with often try to analyze the literature they’ve assigned from as many different points of view as possible. Now that I am a library science student, I’ve quickly come to realize that this field also has a favored literary theory (though I’m sure there are plenty people who have differing views…we’re librarians after all, and all have our own opinions). Much of what I’ve read so far very much tends to favor Reader’s Response criticism. To some degree, this doesn’t surprise me, since this is a popular methodology for teaching literature in education. Louise M. Rosenblatt’s transactional experience (where the text causes the student to bring to the surface of their mind ideas, interactions from their life, and other personal experiences) is one that seems very familiar to the classroom, probing students to question not just “What does this mean?” but also, “What does this mean to me?”
While I am not anti-Reader’s Response theory (nor am I anti-any other literary theory; though I do often tend to say humbug to a lot of New Criticism theory), I know that I most likely will never approach any of the literature I come in contact with as a librarian solely from this point of view. At heart I am a New Historicist (New Historicism is also sometimes called Cultural Poetics or Cultural Materialism). The historical background of any work of art provides a much richer context for understanding the work. I will never be able to divorce a text from its author (at least not in my head) or its time period. Perhaps this is because I want to be a writer myself. I realize that this theory, just like any other, can have its own limitations and challenges. All this being said, I find it very interesting that so many librarians champion Reader’s Response theory. It makes sense in many ways, mostly for the fact that Reader’s Response is perhaps one of the most accepting, encompassing forms of literary criticism. Or perhaps THE most accepting. With the ethics and agenda of libraries and librarians in mind, the shoe does entirely fit.
A great read for any and all information about different forms of literary theories would be Literary Criticism by Charles E. Bressler.