An Experiment in Criticism Paperback – Jan 31 1992
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'Lewis is at one and the same time provocative, tactful, biased, open-minded, old-fashioned, far-seeing, very annoying and very wise.' Church Times
'Genuinely provocative ... makes the best case against evaluative criticism that I have read.' David Daiches, New York Times Book Review
Why do we read literature and how do we judge it? C.S. Lewis's classic analysis springs from the conviction that literature exists for the joy of the reader and that books should be judged by the kind of reading they invite.
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What I do remember is that in this provocative book, Lewis challenges readers to try a little experiment. He advocates judging a book not by evaluating its merits based on a set of criteria that some modernist professors in ivory tower English departments (or worse yet, psychology professors) have developed as a type of objective standard of worthiness (as most of us are taught even in grade school) or by some cultural trend that demands slavish obedience to its current fad (which we learn by osmosis through the media) but rather to look at the type of readers that enjoy a particular work and judge the work on the basis of who reads and enjoys it. Often, the criteria that are developed for literary criticism serve the purpose of setting the reader, or more truly the one who developed the criteria, over the work and thus the story is coloured by its perceived need to "measure up". Rather, Lewis calls readers to simply "receive" a story and let it carry the reader off in what ever direction the narrative tale and artistry of the language leads.
Lewis compares good literature to good art and great works of music and poor literature to mass produced kitsch (you know, the pictures in the furniture section of a department store, with the plastic faux gold frames) and elevator music. Good art is purchased and valued because of the emotional response it creates in the heart and mind of the beholder. This effect continues. Kitsch may sell in far greater numbers but it is `used' because of what it does for us. Kitsch matches the couch so we buy it and hang it on the wall; it is an accessory.Read more ›
Lewis concludes: books that permit - or, better still, encourage - good (that is, receptive) reading are good; books that do not are not. This critical reformulation 'focuses our attention on the act of reading' (p. 104). In other words, on what actualises the merely potential. It makes the job of the literary critic much harder. This is a welcome change, for literary criticism is now 'too easy' (p. 107). Moreover, 'the proposed system puts our feet on solid ground whereas the usual one puts them on a quicksand' (p. 105).
Now, this is just a clumsy bare-bones summary of Lewis' thesis. He covers much else besides - including, escapism and entertainment, literary realism, mythology, fantasy writing . . .
Lewis argues that the best readers do not "use" texts to write their own stories within. Rather, the best readers are those who "receive" the text. In an era where ideology threatens literature and authors, Lewis offers a more noble route.
This book changed the way I read. And its not too long. =)
I'm a Christian, and I believe the single most important priority is to lead people to the knowledge and saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can do such through art. However, anything that Lewis wrote that lead someone to Jesus is, of course, more important than this book in that respect. Jesus comes first, art comes underneath that in priority, as do all things. That being said:
AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM is the single most important work C. S. Lewis has produced when it comes to literature and the arts. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, the SPACE TRILOGY, and TILL WE HAVE FACES are literature, but this overwhelms them all - not because of what it is (a universal principle that can be applied to art), but because of what it is not (a story or work of art that not everyone will have the same taste for). People may or may not like his fiction (although I find it rare to meet a person who doesn't like NARNIA) - but this book anyone can appreciate, especially those interested in literature in specific and art in general (for, although it concerns itself primarily with literature, this book also stands in defense of drama, music, painting, and the artistic endeavours of humankind in general). Because there are differing tastes in terms of fiction, people who will not read Lewis's own literature will (or should) read this.Read more ›
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