I first read C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” several years ago in a collection entitled Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947), which also contains J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous piece on Fairy Tales and appreciations by four other admirers of William’s work, especially his fantasy novels. Lewis originally delivered his analysis of stories as a university lecture entitled “The Kappa Element in Romance” (Kappa from a Greek word meaning “hidden element”). It is available in a 1966/1984 Harcourt paperback collection entitled On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature.
Williams begins “On Stories” by noting that it is “astonishing how little attention critics have paid to Story considered in itself,” though style and character have been discussed abundantly. Arguing that whereas the forms of literature in which Story is merely a means to something else-- for example, the delineation of character or the criticism of social conditions--have been given serious attention,
narrative forms in which everything is there for the sake of the Story have been relatively ignored.
Lewis says that the basic problem with appreciating Story for Story’s sake is that stories, to be stories at all, “must be a series of events—but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is really only a net whereby to catch something else.” That “something else,” which we often call theme, is something that has no sequence in it, says Lewis; it is something “other than a process and much more like a state or quality.” All of which might lead one to ask, continues Lewis, why anyone would write a form in which the means are apparently so at odds with the end. Does this mean, Lewis asks, that to write great stories one should be a poet? Well, if the writer is a writer of stories or romances, as opposed to novels, then, yes, he thinks that might be true.
Lewis concludes that this “internal tension” between a series of events and that “something else” without sequence that lies at the heart of every story actually constitutes the chief resemblance between story and life: “In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied….. In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”
This “something that is not successive” cannot be grasped, suggests Lewis by reading the story only once. We do not enjoy a story fully at first reading, says Lewis. “Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we are leisure to savour the real beauties.” Children, Lewis notes, understand this when they ask for the same story over and over again in the same words.
In the essay “Different Tastes in Literature,” also in Stories, Lewis makes a related distinction between the literary and the unliterary, using what he calls the “rereading test.” The distinction is simply this: Works that are literary are reread; works that are unliterary are not.
I have often argued that great short stories must be reread, but it is an argument that some have taken to be elitist--even, God forbid, academic. After all, how many people, other than professors, go back and reread stories in The New Yorker? If a story requires rereading in order to discover what Lewis calls the “something not successive,” then does that not mean the story requires a different kind of reading than simply following the events as they seem to occur in time? And does that not smack of the pedantic, the academic, the “literary”? If so, one might well throw up one’s hands, curl one’s lip, and say “To hell with it. I think I‘ll watch a movie.”
As a side note: C. S. Lewis says, “Nothing can be more disastrous than the view that the cinema can and should replace popular written fiction. The elements which it excludes are precisely those which give the untrained mind its only access to the imaginative world. There is death in the camera.” Of course, Lewis wrote that in 1940. One can only imagine what he might say about the most popular movies nowadays, which are often promoted not as a story, but as a “ride.”
My students have sometimes been impatient, even angry, with my attempts to show distinctions between the stories of such popular writers as T.C. Boyle and Stephen King, and such literary writers as Alice Munro and William Trevor. I would never try to convince them that they should not “like” Boyle and King, but I cite C. S. Lewis again, who says in his essay “Different Tastes in Literature,” that although some people “like” bad art, good art produces a response for which “liking” is the wrong word.
Bad art may be “liked,” but it never “startles, prostrates, and takes captive,” says Lewis. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes are usually enjoying precisely what is there. And their enjoyment, as I have argued, is not in any way comparable to the enjoyment that other people derive from good art.” If Lewis’s terms “good art” vs. “bad art” are off-putting, then we might simply use the terms “popular story” vs. “literary story,” or perhaps “simple story” vs. “complex story.”
As a teacher who has spent the past forty years trying to “teach” students how to read short stories, I have no objections, of course, to popular or simple stories. Indeed, I am sorry that film and television have taken the place of written stories to satisfy the human need for “Story.” Like C. S. Lewis, I think something about human understanding has been lost as a result.
I also agree with Lewis that a distinction should be made between simple stories and complex stories. I like Lewis’s “rereading test,” but I am never quite sure what the necessity for a rereading of a story really means. Does it mean that one does not really understand a literary story unless he or she rereads it? Or does it mean that one “appreciates” a literary story more when he or she rereads it?
I guess I think both.
First of all, literary short stories are meaningful only when a reader “stands back” from the story as a temporal progression and sees it spatially as one would see a painting. A story is meaningful when one completes the first reading and then, having the totality of the story in mind, rereads it in terms of the significance that develops as a result of perceiving the thematic relationship of the various parts.
This apprehension of the “hidden element” signifies, in my opinion, the most significant “appreciation” of the literary short story.