OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomething from C.S.Lewis’s essay on story, in ‘Of Other Worlds’ (Bles, 1961) keeps coming back into my mind:  ‘He (the unliterary reader) will, at a mere hint from the author, flood wretched material with suggestion and never guess that he is himself chiefly making what he enjoys.’

In a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay, it has become, for me, the one statement that is more provocative than the rest. In a sentence packed with keywords…’hint’, ‘wretched’, ‘enjoys’….and the referenced ‘unliterary’ of a previous sentence – the ‘he’ with which this one begins- which cry out for interpretation, it is that underlying sense of some sort of illegitimacy inherent in some readers that attracts my attention. Who is the ‘unliterary’ reader? How, in fact, can there be such a beast? Implying something a little more fundamental than mere incompetency or insensitivity, the phrase reeks of a class prejudice, the dislike, contempt even, of a person who holds himself to be of one ‘type’ for someone he perceives to be of another; and another that is inherently inferior.

I’m reminded of the short lived spat I got into with Professor Charles May, on the pages of the Thresholds blog. I’m a big fan of Professor’s May’s books on the short story form, but I wasn’t so taken with his contention that a short story could not be skim-read. In fact, it rattled my cage considerably. Of course a short story can be skim read, just as a window frame can be badly painted, or any job be done in a slapdash way. The thing about short stories though, is that they can be, and I’m sure are, read in such a way, and enjoyed too. The fact that they might be enjoyed, and understood more fully with a deal more effort and time devoted to them is neither here nor there. My counter-contention – not generally approved of, I sensed – was, and is, that a short story not only can have a thread that can be followed in a skim read, but that it ought to as well! Implicit in what I’m saying is that it should appeal to the sort of unliterary reader who C.S.Lewis is castigating in his statement.

Poetry, I suspect, has undergone an evolutionary process in my lifetime, in which it has become almost incomprehensible to the general reader, and this incomprehensibility has become the hallmark of its quality. The visual arts have followed a similar trend. Watching a short video-ed talk about Jack Vetriano’s work, at the recent Glasgow exhibition, I was interested to hear the opinion expressed that he was disliked by the ‘establishment’ because his work did not need the ‘expert’ to interpret it for the general public. It was, in short, accessible. Inaccessibility, save through the translator services of the academic, is a desirable quality in any of the arts, if you are one of the well-paid translators.

The poem as ‘crossword puzzle’ has been with us for a while. The prose fiction as similar is a near and present danger. C.S.Lewis’s take on the ‘unliterary reader’ and his overactive imagination, it seems to me, is a call to bring it on.

The snobbery implicit in that ‘unliterary’ tag is the main cause of my interest, and disquiet, but there are other words too, that cry out for interpretation. How are we to judge ‘wretched’ material. And how strong does a hint have to be before it is an instruction? How weak must it be before we can safely ignore it? And isn’t the act of reading, or of consuming by ear, a piece of fiction, supposed to give us enjoyment of one sort or another? Isn’t the real basis of Lewis’s statement his own belief that his judgment on these matters is superior to that of others? And of course, it might well be so.

Yet to what extent is Lewis’s statement true, or useful? To what extent is Lewis himself aware of how much of his own enjoyment has been drawn from his own interpretations of the meanings of the words he has read? To what extent does any word hold the exact same meaning for the writer and the reader? Are not all words tinged with the life experiences of the people who read, hear, write and speak them? To what extent are those meanings nuanced by the contexts in which we first encounter the words that carry them?

To what extent, I wonder, is the act of communication through the medium of language an Art rather than a Science?

The chance to chat about such mundane, arcane matters, along with anything else that takes your fancy will be offered again on Wednesday (2nd December) at the Cakes & Ale cafe on Castle Street, Carlisle –  when the writers drop-in hosted by Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop takes place (12.30-2.30pm)…why not come along and join in the conversation!
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