Sunday, September 16, 2012

C.S Lewis on the Hidden Element in Stories and the Significance of Rereading

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.


Theorbys said...

I can not comment too much on what you have written re Lewis's essays because my reading of them is so drastically different from yours. I'll just say that I think his rereading test was clearly a test of readers, not of what they read. The "literary man" rereads, the "unliterary man" does not, and he seemed to very clearly not to care what they reread, except to say they would not reread "bad art" but that one had to lower ones standard of bad and define bad art in a special way: "You must mean by bad art the things which are not even considered among the people who discuss the question seriously at all."

I do believe rereading to be worthwhile, if not strictly speaking necessary. But in a sense even at the lowest level of art, ie bad art, it is possible to reread in a way. When you read nothing but trash, say romance novels, but read lots of them, you are in a sense rereading, because they are all have, after a while a certain sameness. Same thing for mysteries and so on. You are, in a sense, a literary person.

This is also perhaps true of better writers. I cringe a little to admit it, but reading a collection of Carver stories got me bogged down because reading several in succession made me feel that I was reading the same story, more or less, over and over.

I do not believe complexity, much as I enjoy it, is the only legitimate possibility for the short story, but complex writers, like Munro, oblige you to reread because there is too much information to take in at once. By the way, this rereading has nothing to do, in my opinion with Lewis' reason, which was basically not to be wanting to know what happens next so you could concentrate on that something nonsequential, or hidden factor, by which he seemed to mean an imaginative immersion by which one would identify with all the details of say "redskinnery" or "giantship", not some mysterious literary essence.

Poe was basically right, the human mind can only take in so much, hence we may choose to reread a given story. The test? You read a story and decide it is something you personally want to know better. There are plenty of other ways to do this: read more slowly, perhaps moving back and forth in the story, think about it (maybe laying it down a moment), pause to make notes, look things up, read what others have said about it. And of course, you can combine them.

E.g. I read your blog post re "Amundsen", then I read the story and then the comments. One commentor's ideas (Margaret) really struck me, and when I reread it they provided several key relationships I had not seen. I also looked up TB, streptomycin, HMS Pinafore, the definition of pinafore, and above all the Reddy Fox books. I spent some time thinking about it, during the reading, and after, and again in rereading, and then wrote and rewrote about it myself, and posted the comment. It was all very rewarding, but I can't do it for every story I read, even if I like them. I liked Chef's House but did not give it 1/10 the attention, and don't regret it (I only reskimmed it). Sometimes it is worthwhile to try with stories one doesn't like but so many others do. Talent and genius create, and encode, stories and if you want to just enjoy them that is fine, but if you want to appreciate them more fully you will likely have to do some hard work. Of course experience and learning curves help a lot.

By the way, I am an elitist (a humble one I hope) but not an academic. People, writers, works are NOT equal, even if they must have basic equal rights.


Theorbys said...

The underlined words you see in your blog with hover ads usually comes from a program called Text Enhance and is specific to browsers. The most common solution is to go into your browser's extensions manager and to disable (or even delete) your extensions, one by one, and restart the browser each time. It seems to piggyback on extensions. Each time you restart the browser check the page you were having problems with, if it still has the underlining and hover ad, go to the next extension and repeat the process.
If that doesn't work, do a search on "text enhance", to get ideas. Mine was on Chrome.
It is usually not your site or blog that is doing it. And it is suggested you start with the newest extension, and work back.

Hope this helps,

Kathleen Hynes said...

Hi Dr. May,

I just read this post on the blog OpenCulture: "'Single Sentence Animations' Visualize the Short Stories of Contemporary Writers":

I'm really curious what you think about these animations. On the one hand, I really like that the short videos highlight a single sentence, focusing the viewer's attention and slowing the pace of reading in a way that seems to align with your approach to reading a short story. But the visuals also compete with and perhaps even overpower the text. I guess if there could be a book trailer equivalent for short stories, single sentence animations would be it.

Since the mission of Electric Literature, the journal that produces these videos, is to "use new media and innovative distribution to return the short story to a place of prominence in popular culture," I'm wondering if you think this a productive marriage of the visual and written? Is it moving the reading of short stories in the right direction? (I'm thinking of the "death in the camera" quote you chose from C.S. Lewis above.)

Personally, I found that there was something uncanny in the animation that accompanies A. M. Homes' sentence from "Hello Everybody" that seems to be trying to get at that "something else," albeit in a different way from the short story's text. And certainly a literary sentence, one worth rereading, would be ideal for this type of digital presentation.

Kathleen Hynes

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Kathleen, thanks for calling my attention to this use of animation of a single sentence from a short story.

I like any idea that might lead more readers to the pleasures of the short story. And I think that good sentences are more important in the short story than in the novel, which tends to function more on a macrocosmic level, except such exceptions as Joyce's Ulysses, the sentences of which I relish.

I treasure good sentences, packed with implication, rather than mere information, and creating a rhythm that communicates more than mere information.

I am less sure about the actual animations and, like you, think that perhaps they appeal to our modern desire for moving images and tend to move us away from the actual rhythm of the sentences.

But, then the announced intention is not to substitute an animation for language, but rather to stimulate interest in the story. That, of course, I applaud enthusiastically.

Thanks again. I will continue to watch this web site.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks much, Eric, for a thoughtful response to my blog post on C.S. Lewis on “Stories and Rereading.” I realize that Lewis’s definition of a literary man is one who rereads. And I also realize that Lewis believe that a reader of popular romances may reread them so much that they become a kind of poetry to him even though they may be very bad.

But this does not mean that Lewis tries to make a case for “bad” stories, even those that admirers of such works like to reread. As Lewis says, the desire for bad art is a desire bred of habit, like the smoker’s desire for tobacco.
The relationship between rereading and the “hidden element” in stories is what interests me most in Lewis’s essays. As he suggests, bad art is seldom reread, but gravitates suspiciously towards the spare bedroom.

Bad art, Lewis says, is never really enjoyed in the same way that good art is enjoyed. “The patrons of sentimental poetry, bad novels, bad pictures, and merely catchy tunes s are usually enjoying precisely what is there.”
But Lewis argues that there is something more, something hidden, something latent in good art, or, for my purposes, good stories.

And that something more is not apprehended on a first reading, but only becomes discernible on subsequent readings.
Subsequent readings of good stories--in addition to providing more appreciation of good sentences, subtle nuances, and metaphoric transformations—provides something not possible to ascertain on an initial reading—the transformation of mere events unfolding in time into a spatial pattern of repetitions, echoes, parallels, and juxtapositions that communicate something hidden that was not apparent while following the events one damned thing after another.

Bad art, in Lewis’s view, is often little more than one damned thing after another.