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C.S. Lewis on "Unrealistic" Stories

C.S. Lewis on "Unrealistic" Stories

As I filter through the quotations I’ve saved from C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism I am continually astonished by Lewis’s insights. One of the more moving arguments Lewis makes is in his defense of unrealistic literature. Lewis points out that for some reason people in his day had come to see unrealistic literature as merely a form of “escapism” and therefore to be shunned. According to these people, Lewis notes, the only literature that is worth reading are those that makes “comments on life”:

No one that I know of has indeed laid down in so many words that a fiction cannot be fit for adult and civilized reading unless it represents life as we have all found it to be, or probably shall find it to be, in experience. But some such assumption seems to lurk tacitly in the background of much criticism and literary discussion. We feel it in the widespread neglect or disparagement of the romantic, the idyllic, and the fantastic, and the readiness to stigmatise instances of these as ‘escapism’. We feel it when books are praised for being ‘comments on’, or ‘reflections’ (or more deplorably ‘slices’) of Life. We notice also that ‘truth to life’ is held to have a claim on literature that overrides all other considerations. (pg. 60)

This type of criticism seems to think that the ultimate standard by which literature should be judged is by whether it is “true to life” or not. Lewis finds all of this less than convincing. For some reason people believe that escapism is bad but Lewis notes that “escape” is inevitable, but it is the destination of literary escapism that counts:

Now there is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fiction. All such escape is from the same thing; immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to. (pg. 68)

The problem with the arguments against escapism is that they are blind to the escapism inherent in their own readings. It doesn’t matter if you are reading Marilynn Robinson (very “realistic”) or J.R.R. Tolkein (very “unrealistic”). In both instances you are escaping from your immediate “concrete” reality into another world. But what Lewis is able to show us so well is how the “realistic” or “true to life” versions of fiction are actually much more powerful to deceive us than the “romantic” or “idyllic” forms of literature that are so easily shunned as “escapist.” In fact, Lewis shows us that it is the opposite that is true:

No one can deceive you unless he makes you think he is telling the truth. The unblushingly romantic has far less power to deceive than the apparently realistic. Admitted fantasy is precisely the kind of literature which never deceives at all. Children are not deceived by fairy-tales; they are often deceived by school stories. Adults are not deceived by science-fiction; they can be deceived by the stories in the women’s magazines. None of us are deceived by the Odyssey or Beowulf. The real danger lurks in sober-faced novels where all appears to be very probably but all is in fact contrived to put across some social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment of life’. (pg. 68)

One of the biggest problems facing our culture today is exactly this misconception that Lewis is talking about. We value “realistic” stories over “fairy-tales.” The problem is that these realistic stories are all too often void of true beauty and imagination yet blatantly promote some “social or ethical or religious or anti-religious ‘comment on life.’” This is one of the main avenues that we have been deceived as a culture. We have sought to avoid deception through the very means that deception is most likely to come: “realistic” literature.

Sadly this is especially true in the ways that we want to teach children. Children are made to be captivated by fairy-tales. Yet we want them to think and act like adults starting in kindergarten. But this is not what is best for children. Lewis notes an erroneous belief that was held by many in his day which believed that stories of fantasy and science fiction were “childish.” Lewis combats this belief by noting that growing up is not about leaving our childhood behind but about gaining maturity:

The process of growing up is to be valued for what we gain, not for what we lose. Not to acquire a taste for the realistic is childish in the bad sense; to have lost the taste for marvels and adventures is no more a matter for congratulation than losing our teeth, our hair, our palate, and finally, our hopes. Why do we hear so much about the defects of immaturity and so little about those of senility? (pg. 72)

When we mature in a literary sense we might come to appreciate “realistic” works of fiction which a child might find boring (they naturally prefer fairy-tales). But just because a grown up gains an appreciation for “realistic” literature does not mean that they should lose an aspect of their childhood that is good (a love of fantasy).

Food for thought.


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