mildredWriting about writing C.S.Lewis complained that poor readers ‘flood wretched material’ with their own imaginations, and go away thinking that what they have read is great literature [C.S.Lewis, ‘On Stories’ in Of Other Worlds, Bles,1966).

It’s one of those remarks that I come back to again and again, not only because it carries more than an element of truth, but also because as I write more I become more aware of the fact that it is not only the limitations of the writer that impinge on the experience of the reader.

There surely can be no doubt that we all have our limitations as readers. We bring our own agendas to what we read, which predispose us to look for structures and contents that re-inforce what we already believe, and want to believe about the fictional worlds we are presented with, and the real worlds to which we imagine they refer. We probably also believe absolutely, that though that may be true of other readers, thankfully, we are not afflicted with such delusions. A case of motes and beams I suspect.

As writers, one of the biggest problems we have to overcome is the failure to read our own work objectively. We read what we expect to read, and that expectation has more to do with what we intended to put on the page than with what we actually have put there. Reading other people’s work, it is suggested, doesn’t present us with this problem: we have no expectations, because we had no intentions for the writing. We come clean to it, because we know nothing about it, other that what we actually sit down and read.

What is surprising about Lewis’s rant is that he is not criticising our lack of sensitivty to the writings of others. He is not carping about what we miss that might be there, but about what we generate in our own heads and superimpose on what we are reading. His criticism comes as part of a wider observation about what he calls the ‘unliterary man’. He is interested, but unable to ascertain, ‘whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader’s deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions.’ Even reading the stories will not help you here, for ‘the more imagination the reader has, being an untrained reader, the more he will do for himself.’

This inferior lifeform is discussed at some length, and some interesting remarks are made about it. He deals with an ‘uneducated and immature’ young person’s enjoyment of reading ‘sensational stories’, pointing out that we cannot know the nature of that enjoynent.


‘If he were capable of analysing his own experiences (……) he would be neither uneducated nor immature.’


‘….something of which the educated can receive from poetry can reach the masses through stories of adventure,’


These cogitations carry Lewis for a paragrpah or two, and throw up interesting side lights. One, worthy of further exploration but not here, is that cinema, presumably by requiring observation rather than imagination, ought not to ‘replace popular written fiction’. Another is that the ‘re-reading’ of stories is crucial to our undestanding of how ‘literary’ we are. (And perhaps the same might be said of whether or not we re-watch our movies.) ‘An unliterary man’ Lewis says, ‘may be defined as one who reads books once only.’ ‘There is hope for a man who has never read’ Lewis says, quoting several titles, but ‘what can you do’, he asks, ‘with a man who says he “has read” them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that this settles the matter?’

The second reading, he avers, loses ‘excitement’, but it does not lose something else, and that is the quality that pierces the ‘deeper imagination’, the quality, which Lewis has told us, that educated readers get from poetry. There is something else here, which he does not point up, but which strikes me as being particularly relevant to this great children’s writer, and that is how children react to stories. The reader of popular romances, Lewis tells us ‘goes back to his old favourites again and again’, and however uneducated he or she may be, that return is ‘pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.’ Children, I recall, go back and back to their old favourites too, and woe betide the parent that tries to skip a page or two so they can finish in time for the Archers, or whatever…. The child is no longer seeking surprise either, nor the excitement of finding out what happens next, but that deeper piercing, which Lewis goes on to describe as the ‘quality‘ of unexpectedness. You cannot have an old favourite if you have forgotten it.


Back to the beginning though. We are still left with the conundrum of what, as readers,we bring to stories, and what we find in them, and to what extent our own limitations deepen, or mitigate, the limitations of the writer. Whatever the answer, it might serve to remind us that reading and writing are not comnnected in a mechanical way. There are degrees of success in the writing, and in the reading, and they may take us a long way from the original intentions behind the writing, and a long way from the original expectations behind the reading.