An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis


Goodreads: An Experiment in Criticism
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1961


C. S. Lewis proposes that we can define books as good or bad based on how they are read.  To do this, he differentiates between the “literary” and the “unliterary,” or readers who enter fully into the work without preconceptions and readers who do not.

Star Divider


C. S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism challenges readers to be better.  His argument posits that “it might be plausible to define a good book as a book which is read in one way, and a bad book as a book which is read in another.”  To do this, he defines the “few” and the “many” or the “unliterary” and the “literary.”  Presumably readers want Lewis to count them among the “literary!”

Lewis’s thesis rests on the argument that what both groups mean by “liking” a book or “liking” to read is very different.  The unliterary do not reread books and “turn to [reading] as a last resort.”  The literary, however, reread “great” books multiple times, experience books as life-changing, and are so caught up in their reading that they both spend time reflecting on their favorite passages and talking about books to others.  So far, so good.  Many readers would probably see themselves among the “few.”

As Lewis’s argument goes on, however, it becomes more challenging.  The unliterary, he maintains, “use” books instead of receiving them.  The book is a jumping off point for their own ideas and fantasies.  They do not receive the ideas of the author by entering the book without preconceptions.  For this reason, Lewis believes that the unliterary prefer fast-paced narratives and even poor prose–the prose cannot get in the way of the use they wish to make of the book.  Erotica may come to mind here as a type of book people use, as Lewis agrees, but he is far more concerned with the pleasure the literary receive from “success “stories, whether that means they imagine themselves in a romance being wooed by a gentleman caller, or in a rags-to-riches tale achieving wealth and fame.  Reading should not, Lewis suggests be about one’s self but should take one out of one’s self.

Lewis’s ultimate argument goes far beyond questioning the intellect of readers; it suggests that reading is a moral act, as well.  The literary can enjoy, with the unliterary, “vicarious enjoyment of imagined happiness,” but that is not the only way they read.  He imagines reading as a process “described either as an enlargement or as a temporary annihilation of the self.”  What a wake-up call!  Though many see reading as for entertainment or enjoyment, Lewis’s stance reminds readers that the way they use free time has stakes.  They could waste their time, but they also might be missing an opportunity to better themselves, or even actively harming themselves.

Lewis’s book, fittingly, requires readers to approach it just as he argues–without preconceptions.  A defensive approach in which a reader prepares to justify their reading habits means that they will likely misread his argument and miss an opportunity to engage self-reflectively with his ideas.  But Lewis, as always, strives to be personable as well as concise and clear, making the book feel like a chat with a friend.  An Experiment in Criticism is a worthwhile read for any reader.

4 stars


10 thoughts on “An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis

  1. Elspeth says:

    Reblogged this on Reading in Between the Life… and commented:
    Because this post interconnects very closely with my most recent post on the different approaches readers can take when sitting down with a book, I’m sharing it here.

    Lewis’ depth of thought certainly gives me, as an avid reader, something to think about. For instance, the notion that it is possible to sit with a book and get no more out of it than one would a half hour sitcom was one image which sprang to my mind.

    The question becomes: Is there ever a time when reading is suitable for that?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Another of Lewis’s works I am unfamiliar with (but now I’ve learned my lesson and seen his scope of work is humongous!), but I am certainly given a lot of food for thought here.

    I wonder how Lewis’s words were taken in the time this criticism was written. In a world without internet, where the television was existing and new, reading was considered both frivolous entertainment and the key to intellectual pursuit. My brain jumps immediately to those who drive a wedge between those who see themselves as intellectuals and those who get in the way by criticizing “great works” or watering down their beloved texts. I don’t know much about Lewis’s life or personality. Is he the sort of man who just wants to be clear that there is a line between literary and unliterary, or is he intentionally driving a wedge?


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Maybe others who know more about Lewis than I do can chime in, but he strikes me as someone who definitely had no patience for “bad” books. However, he personally wrote children’s books, science fiction, fantasy, etc., so obviously he wasn’t one of those people who think “genre fiction is stupid” or something; it really would have been about whether the book held up to rereading or did something more than entertain for a brief period. And his roles as a teacher and as a Christian apologist basically known for being relatable and explaining Christianity to the masses make me think he wouldn’t really be a snob or intentionally drive a wedge.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

        This makes sense to me. I wonder how he defines “bad” book then. To me, I find book selection a very personal pursuit. I’d be interested to learn more about his criteria for appropriate book selection. Your thoughts on Lewis’s potential criteria resonate well with me, though.

        Wow. You and Krysta have certainly encouraged me to pick this up, if only to learn something new about Lewis!


        • Krysta says:

          A bad book would be something that people are not inspired to reread. It may also have overly simple prose or purple prose–either kind of which might enable readers to project themselves onto the book instead of orienting themselves towards other. Something like 50 Shades would probably be a “bad” book by this criteria in that it encourages readers to get pleasure by projecting themselves into the story. Also, judging by the number of copies that went to book sales/used book stores, a lot of people didn’t want to reread it once that got what they wanted out of it.

          However, Lewis also cautions that it’s very difficult to label any book “bad” as we can’t know how everyone else is experiencing it. There might be a “trashy” book that someone loves to reread and they enter into the world and the author’s thoughts. In this case, that one person might be making the argument that said trashy book isn’t really a bad book after all. 🙂

          Basically, Lewis is suggesting we can only really be certain about good books since it’s hard to prove something doesn’t exist (i.e. the single reader who loves the book everyone else uses and then tosses.)


    • Krysta says:

      C. S. Lewis always seemed to me like someone who wanted to build bridges, not drive wedges. That being said, I think he also spoke his thoughts in a straight-forward manner. In this book, he is arguing that reading in an unliterary is a waste of time at best. However, he also argues that it could be morally damaging. That is, if you’re spending time living in a vicarious fantasy world where you’re rich/clever/desirable and not living in the real world–and this is a habit for you–you may be hurting yourself. So I think he’s speaking honestly because he sees this as a real problem and he’s not going to sugarcoat it. But that doesn’t mean he’s trying to set himself up as superior. Kind of like if I said shoplifting is not good for a person. I can say that and it’s true, without my trying to add a “P.S. and I’m better than you!” At least, that’s how I read the text.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Haha, I hope not! Lewis does explain that, of course, even literary readers enter vicariously into the story. It’s just that they are also able to separate themselves and not make it all about them. Lewis thinks reading should orient us toward others.

          I kind of think it’s almost like when someone is talking to you. At this point, we should, theoretically, be entering into their experience, but in such a way that we are concerned for them and really trying to understand them and be present. Not thinking about how this is exactly what happened to us two months ago and how we’re going to make the conversation all about us as soon as this person stops talking. Most of us probably fail at some point in being really present and not making the conversation about us, but that doesn’t mean we’re chronic terrible conversationalists.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

            Well said! This observation really resonates with me, Krysta. I feel like I have to defend my positive reviews of historical literature all the time. Why? Because people feel like the values and ideals of our time should be reflected in the text. If the book was written in 1802 we should expect VERY different perspectives and respect that. Just because this book displays classist, sexist, or racist ideas doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read and learn from this.

            Now I *really* want to read this!


            • Krysta says:

              I think Lewis would agree with you because it’s difficult to understand a work fully if someone is mainly concerned with arguing back/imposing their values onto the text. That kind of attitude leads to misreadings because people start looking for things to get mad at/attack instead of comprehending the full argument before responding. And Lewis wants readers to understand the author, not what they imagine the author must be saying as a [insert pejorative term of choice.0


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