You and I might condemn a passage in a book for being ‘laboured’. Do we mean by this that it sounds laboured? Or are we advancing the theory that it was in fact laboured? … If we mean the second, notice that we are ceasing to write criticism. Instead of pointing out the faults in the passage we are inventing a story to explain, causally, how it came to have those faults. And if we are not careful we may complete our story and pass on as if we had done all that was necessary, without noticing that we have never even specified the faults at all….
… A critic will say of a passage, ‘This is an afterthought.’ He is just as likely to be wrong as right. He may be quite right in thinking it bad. And he must presumably think he has discerned in it the sort of badness which one might expect to occur in an afterthought. Surely an exposure of that badness itself would be far better than a hypothesis about its origin? Certainly this is the only thing that would make the critique at all useful to the author. I as an author may know that the passage diagnosed as an after thought was in reality the seed from which the whole book grew. I should very much like to be shown what inconsistency or irrelevance or flatness makes it look like an afterthought. It might help me to avoid these errors next time. …
In a book of essays of mine the critic said that one essay was written without conviction, was task-work, or that my heart was not in it, or something like that. Now this in itself was plumb-wrong. Of all the pieces in the book it was the one I most cared about and wrote with most ardour. Where the critic was right was in thinking it the worst. Everyone agrees with him about that. I agree with him. But you see that neither the public nor I learns anything about that badness from his criticism. He is like a doctor who makes no diagnosis and prescribes no cure but tells you how the patient got the disease (still unspecified) and tells you wrong because he is describing scenes and events on which he has no evidence. The fond parents ask, ‘What is it? Is it scarlatina or measles or chicken-pox?’ The doctor replies, ‘Depend upon it, he picked it up in one of those crowded trains.’ (The patient actually has not travelled by train lately.) They then ask, ‘But what are we to do? How are we to treat him?’ The doctor replies, ‘You may be quite sure it was an infection.’ Then he climbs into his car and drives away.
I love this essay. I don’t always agree with Lewis*, but I think a good dose of this kind of sharp and sensible thinking would improve a lot of published reviews, let alone the reviews we write (and I include myself in that) as bloggers.
* This seems to need saying because for some reason, any time I admit to a fondness for C.S. Lewis’s writing people seem to assume that I admire him unconditionally and agree with everything he ever said or wrote, which — no. Really, no.
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