Monday, February 10, 2014

Jacobs on Lewis

Alan Jacobs has a nonsensical post on C. S. Lewis and storytelling:

I don't think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard. Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts....

But in the basics of the kind of storytelling he liked best — creating vivid characters and keeping a lively plot moving along — Lewis struggled, and I think at times he knew it. Note how in That Hideous Strength he has to pause to tell us what we are supposed to believe about his two protagonists: “Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker”; “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.” Apparently we might not have figured out those points without explicit direction.

The problem with this is that nobody is a natural storyteller, except in the sense that all human beings are, and while it is certainly true that Lewis struggled with the kind of storytelling he liked best, this is true of any competent storyteller. In reality the only test of competence in storytelling is whether fair-minded people with a taste for story like the stories. That's the whole point of storytelling, and it can be judged by no other standard. It certainly can't be determined on the basis of things that Alan Jacobs vaguely suspects and can't coherently defend.

The argument about That Hideous Strength shows some of the problems. All storytelling is telling, by definition; and no storytelling is showing. 'Showing' when talking about stories is just a figure of speech for successfully interesting telling, and the success, again, is how it is taken by fair-minded people who like stories. The whole 'Show, don't tell' advice, of which this is just an unoriginal variant, boils down to the claim that you should not tell a story, but tell it well. Likewise, the sarcasm of the sentence starting with 'Apparently' runs aground on the fact that what the comments say about each character are essential to their character arcs. Whether the comments are successful in contributing to the story in this way has to be determined by whether they clarify or impede the typical reading experience of the good reader; that they are there, however, is not itself a flaw. Jacobs has fallen into the well known critic-trap of not recognizing that good criticism requires grasping the common taste of good readers as a standard and enriching its application, not imposing his personal taste as if it were the standard.

I'm not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye's very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin's interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis's novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Again, none of this is about the comparative strengths of Lewis, which have to be assessed from the taste of readers generally. It's obvious from the enduring character of his fiction that he's a better storyteller than a random person off the street, or, for that matter, some of our bestselling authors. And it's obviously a fool's game to demand perfection, since no one, not even Austen, Dickens, and Eliot, have ever achieved it. So the only question is whether there are features of Lewis's works that, when compared to the authors of the highest excellence, can be seen to be less than they could be. And it's really not informative to discover that someone is not as nearly perfect an author as someone like Jane Austen, nor does any such thing reflect on competence, natural storytelling ability, nor is whether an author struggles with something relevant to it. As I mentioned previously in talking about Alfred Austin's poor reputation -- which has come about largely because the critics have not been fair-minded but deliberately out to sabotage a definitely-not-Tennyson-league Poet Laureate who got the title at a controversial time by having the right politics -- to treat anything short of the highest excellence as a defect, in any craft, is a serious flaw in judgment that in reality shows a contempt for the craft itself, whose natural expression cannot be genius but only effective competence. Is Lewis an effectively competent storyteller? The only evidence that matters, that of people who love to read constantly reading his books, shows that he is, and, indeed, is not in the bottom tiers, either. After that we can talk about his defects relative to the summit of the art; but none of this has anything to do with anything Jacobs is talking about.


Jacobs has responded. I note some of the ways in which his response merely confirms the problem here. It should be noted, for those who don't click over, that Jacobs's scurrilous 'bet', by which he is clearly trying to poison the well without any evidence, that I had never heard of Menippean satire before his post is a bet he would lose; I have read quite extensively in the genre. This contrasts with Jacobs, who shows in his arguments every sign of having only a second-hand acquaintance with the genre, through Bakhtin and Frye, given that (1) he never compares Lewis to any actual Menippean satire, nor even mentions any of them; (2) his claims about Menippean satire depend crucially on abstract frameworks given by Bakhtin and Frye rather than evidential claims about the actual works in classical and Late Roman works of Menippean satire; and (3) his account of Menippean satire is so vague and broad as to make it not so much a genre as a literary technique found in radically different works.


  1. Yes. Personally, I love preachy asides to the reader, and I wish they weren't taboo in modern literary fiction style. For me it's one of the main appeals of Lewis.

    This is one of the perennial dangers of literary criticism---the confusion of things which are hard to do well, with vices. For example, if you take a beginning novelist and tell them: 1) "show don't tell", 2) avoid sentimentality or preachiness, and 3) don't write convoluted sentences, you will almost certainly drive up the average quality of their writing, by eliminating terrible passages and forcing them to think about conveying ideas with subtlety.

    But none of (1-3) are actually vices. They are just things that are harder for beginners to pull off. Some good writers can and should sprinkle their writing with sentimentality, preaching, "telling", and very complicated sentences.

  2. MrsDarwin11:33 AM

    "In my view, neither Lewis’s detractors nor his devoted fans have taken these limitations seriously enough." That's a pretty wide range of people-other-than-Jacobs who don't share his particular concerns over Lewis's writing. Not that majority makes right, but when a critic is the only one who sees a problem, sometimes the issue is with the critic, not the author or the reading public. And it's hardly a storytelling flaw for an author to make a snarky observation about his characters (especially when it's an observation about the character's lack of self-knowledge).

  3. branemrys1:13 PM


    Your interpretation is simply inconsistent with Jacobs's actual argument, because it depends crucially on the principle of Lewis being a weak storyteller; but as I've pointed out both here and in the next post, Menippean satire also depends on storytelling.

  4. Ethan_C1:51 PM

    As I mentioned in my comment on your other post, your objection seems to be terminological. Obviously, what Lewis does in his didactic asides is different from what, for example, Tolkien does in his consistent narrative voice. And if you're expecting Tolkien-style storytelling from Lewis, you're going to dislike those asides. Jacobs is trying to explain why some readers might dislike them, while others (like Jacobs himself, and apparently you, too!) appreciate them.

    Let's grant that for the sake of argument that "good storytelling" and "Manippean satire" are bad terms for for what Tolkien and Lewis do differently. Could Jacobs nevertheless be right that Lewis's style is informed by his scholarship and familiarity with Medieval didactic literature, and that it partakes of the qualities that Frye and Bakhtin describe in the passages Jacobs quotes? I'd think that's plausible. Though personally, I'd say it's easier to see the influence of Chesterton on Lewis's narrative style; Chesterton is far more didactic in his fiction than Lewis ever was.

  5. branemrys2:18 PM

    But this is not what he's doing at all. He is very explicit: he is arguing not that there are reasons why some people might not like Lewis's storytelling but that Lewis's storytelling is weak. This is entirely inconsistent with your interpretation, which requires repeatedly insisting that Jacobs means something he could easily have said and yet very definitely does not say. What your question amounts to is, "If we suppose that Jacobs is completely wrong about Menippean satires and is not really arguing that Lewis's storytelling is weak, but simply that Lewis's works are influenced by his familiarity with Medieval didactic literature so that people not used to those conventions might not like the storytelling, would it be a plausible claim?" And the answer is yes: If Jacobs made an argument that is completely different from the argument he makes, for a claim that is different from the claim he makes, it might well be plausible.

  6. Ethan_C4:14 PM

    "If Jacobs had wanted to claim that Lewis was writing satirical novels
    rather than nonsatirical novels, he could easily have done so...One could perhaps make the argument that the taste of readers-who-love-reading for Lewis is due to his satire and not his storytelling, but I don't know of any evidence suggesting that this is true."

    My reading of Jacobs's post is that this is precisely what he is doing in the conclusion to his first post. Moreover, he's arguing that Lewis tends to write satirical novels even when he's not intending to, because he's (A) more of a natural satirist than he is a natural novelist; and (B) he was influenced by his own appreciation for Medieval and early modern satirical writers. In this I think Jacobs is correct, though unlike you I have no standing to declare whether the works Lewis admired were "Manippean" or not.

    As to "storytelling," what bothers me is your: "All storytelling is telling, by definition; and no storytelling is
    showing. 'Showing' when talking about stories is just a figure of speech
    for successfully interesting telling, and the success, again, is how it
    is taken by fair-minded people who like stories." This is where I can't see a way to distinguish between storytelling and general narrative writing.

    And as much as I sympathize with a democratic definition of quality storytelling, I fear that it elides our ability to talk about the difference between a work that is "good storytelling of a particular type" and a work that is "bad storytelling of that same type, but nevertheless good storytelling of a different type."

    And, "[I]t doesn't matter whether any particular person agrees, what matters is
    the fact of how readers with an informed taste in general respond to it..." makes me wonder how one tells the difference between James Patterson and Tolstoy without circular reasoning, given that an "informed taste" itself seems dependent on an idea of "good storytelling" beyond the judgment of popular opinion.

    Essentially, I think you and Jacobs are talking past one another. It think he's got a good point that Lewis is a satirist rather than a plot-and-character novelist, and that his writing partakes of what Frye and Bakhtin are discussing in his quotations from them. And you seem to me to have a good point -- though it's outside of my competence to judge -- that his satire doesn't fall within the term "Manippean satire" rightly used -- but that your points do not invalidate his at all, much less render his post "nonsensical."

    I wish Jacobs allowed comments on his blog; if he did, I might have taken more of your part on his blog, if I'm taking more of his here on yours. :) I have found this exchange quite educational and enjoyable.

  7. branemrys5:25 PM

    This is where I can't see a way to distinguish between storytelling and general narrative writing.

    But there's nothing about this that would require such a distinction. The claim that all storytelling is telling doesn't imply that all telling is storytelling.

    I don't know what you mean by your point about elision. The only type that would be relevant would be whatever type the work in question actually was; it would be strange to insist that the Odyssey is bad storytelling in the genre of the novel and good storytelling in the genre of the epic; it's not a novel, so it doesn't do any storytelling in the genre of the novel, and thus no bad storytelling in it. Boethius's Consolation needs, and has, vivid characters and a good plot pace, but it needs and has the kind of vividness and pace appropriate to a Menippean satire. The Aeneid needs, and has, the same; but it needs the kind appropriate to an epic poem. Even within a genre this holds true. Tristram Shandy needs, and has, the same; but it needs the kind appropriate to its nature as a novel satirizing story itself, and not, say, to a gothic novel. And so forth.

    makes me wonder how one tells the difference between James Patterson and Tolstoy without circular reasoning, given that an "informed taste" itself seems dependent on an idea of "good storytelling" beyond the judgment of popular opinion.

    It isn't really difficult, because it starts with the readers, not the writing. If a story is enthusiastically read by readers who actively love reading, that is a sign that it does something right. If Patterson does this, he is doing something well. If they keep reading it and keep reading and keep reading it. What makes Austen a great author? The fact that people with a genuine love of reading read her over and over and over again, and are still doing so even after all this time. If any novels by James Patterson are still being read fifty years from now by people who love reading novels, that is a sign that, for that novel at least, it doesn't matter whether the critics said he was weak bad: he's clearly written a novel that is very good. And if the same kinds of reader still read him two hundred years from now, even if it's as a lesser known gem, he's a classic, and all the critics who despised him would be shown to have had bad taste. Good literary criticism is, in part, a game of knowing enough about reading, and enough about the features of writing, to be able to make reasoned assessment about whether a work has what is required to appeal to readers -- not just casual readers, but serious readers -- over and over and over again. It doesn't require being exactly right -- if you go back and look at what critics said about Shakespeare, they often make mistakes, but the great critics recognized fully that, nonetheless, this was the sort of reading serious readers would never get tired of. One of the absurdities of Jacobs's position is that Lewis is well-liked by many readers for his vivid characterizations and he is not widely regarded as having books that bog the reader down. So Jacobs really needs to argue either (1) that they are mistaken about why they like it (so, for instance, one might say that many readers would claim to like Dune for its characters, but one could make the argument, based on comparison with other Dune novels, that what they actual like is not the characters but the sweeping and intricate background for the characters, so that when Herbert neglects this background, readers find his characters relatively flat); or (2) that these readers are not, in fact, fair-minded readers with a love of reading, but like Lewis's characters for reasons that have nothing to do with reading itself (as, for instance, some people argue that the enduring popularity of Ayn Rand's novels is not due to the novels themselves but to their perceived message). And similar things for the pace of plot.


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