At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

[Read more…]

Ray Bradbury

I recently took part in a discussion on Sarah A. Hoyt’s blog about Ray Bradbury. Wishing to scrapbook my remarks for my own future consideration, I reproduce them here. Those not interested in my unformed maunderings are invited to skip this post, with my apologies.

Goldwin Smith, a British-Canadian journalist of the Victorian period, at once praised and damned the then prime minister of Canada, Alexander Mackenzie, in these words: ‘Mr. Mackenzie was a stonemason; he is a stonemason still.’ The qualities that made a good stonemason, he implied, were just those that made a man doctrinaire, clumsy, and incapable in public office. (But then, Goldwin Smith was no treat. An astute historian has remarked that his idea of independence was to be unfair to each side alternately.)

With thanks and apologies to Mr. Smith, I can say that Ray Bradbury is a horror writer, and when writing science fiction or anything else, he is a horror writer still. He reaches for an emotional effect, and does it very well; but he reaches no further. He writes (for instance) stories about little boys who long to become rocket men, and he is very good at making you feel their longing; but he is content with that, and does not take you any deeper into their world. Horror is all about the emotional effect; its job, by definition, is to horrify the reader. Science fiction, when well done, is about the discovery. A story must appeal to the intellect and the sense of curiosity, not to the emotions only, if it is to be successful by the terms of that art. Bradbury seldom makes any appeal to the intellect, and his appeal to curiosity is essentially negative; for a horror story is generally a cautionary tale against curiosity, in which evil things will happen if you go into the haunted house, or inquire too closely into the neighbour with the unearthly manners. [Read more…]

C. S. L. on entertainment

If entertainment means light and playful pleasure, then I think it is exactly what we ought to get from some literary work – say, from a trifle by Prior or Martial. If it means those things which ‘grip’ the reader of popular romance – suspense, excitement and so forth – then I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

I am at the moment laid up with a bad case of viral bronchitis, so close to pneumonia that it took an X-ray for the attending physician to tell the difference. My essai in progress (and almost finished), on the inclusion of Mervyn Peake’s grotesque satires, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, in the fantasy genre, is therefore up on blocks in the yard, covered with a tarpaulin. It will have to wait until I am more lucid to finish it. Many other projects are also behind hand; I am too keenly aware of them for my own comfort. Meanwhile, I am trying to make some constructive use of my illness by re-reading some thought-provoking books, including the one quoted above – which my Beloved Other kindly found for me today, after I had long believed my copy lost.

I beg your kind indulgence for the delay.

Sowell on book reviews

Over the years, I have come to find writing book reviews even more distasteful than reading them. Part of this is my own fault, for being one of those old-fashioned holdouts who still believes that you should actually read the book before reviewing it.

Sometimes I am only into the first 20 pages of a 500-page book when it becomes painfully clear that this one is a real dog. The rest of the ordeal is like crossing the Sahara Desert—except that often there are no oases. True, the reviewer gets to slaughter the author in print at the end of it all, but this merely appeases the desire for revenge, which only real blood would satisfy.

—Thomas Sowell, ‘Some Thoughts about Writing’

The exceptional in fiction

Just as all except bores relate in conversation not what is normal but what is exceptional – you mention having seen a giraffe in Petty Cury, but don’t mention having seen an undergraduate – so authors told of the exceptional. Earlier audiences would not have seen the point of a story about anything else. Faced with such matters as we get in Middlemarch or Vanity Fair or The Old Wives’ Tale, they would have said ‘But this is all perfectly ordinary. This is what happens every day. If these people and their fortunes were so unremarkable, why are you telling us about them at all?’

—C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

How to Shut Down Tolkien

A talk given by Brandon Rhodes at PyGotham 2014, and in my humble but infallible opinion, a very interesting one. Rhodes has much to say about how to encourage the creative faculties and how to bully them into silence.

There are one or two minor factual errors. Lewis was not the first person to whom Tolkien showed the Silmarillion matter: he had given some of it to R. W. Reynolds (for whom he wrote the ‘Sketch of the Mythology’ about 1926), and his earliest audience had been his wife, Edith. But these are unimportant in this context. Lewis was definitely the critic and catalyst who awoke Tolkien’s full powers and spurred him on through his most productive period. How he did so, and how he almost failed, makes an illuminating story.

Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for sending me the link.

What’s that you say? Something sold?

To my astonishment, to say nothing of crogglement, confustication, and gobsmackosity, I have sold an essay to Sci Phi Journal: and for actual money, too. With a speed hitherto unknown to magazine-kind, it has been scheduled for publication in the upcoming issue.

Look for Sci Phi Journal #2, containing ‘The Making of the Fellowship: Concepts of the Good in The Lord of the Rings’, coming soon to an ebook store near you.

In other news, I am still filled with doubt and concern about Where Angels Die. The first chapter seemed to be a rousing success, but the second has met with dead silence so far, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of that. Are my 3.6 Loyal Readers still waiting for more? Or have I done something dreadful, on a par with the infamous Klingon practice of farting in airlocks? Please advise.

The Art of Courage

The lovely and talented L. Jagi Lamplighter, a.k.a. Mrs. John C. Wright, is starting a weekly series on Superversive Fiction on her blog. I have the honour of being chosen as the first guest blogger in this new series. Colour me bashful.

In this short essai, I explain the origin and intended meaning of the term ‘superversive’, particularly as it applies to fiction. I first came up with the term (in that meaning; others have used the neologism for different purposes, but it did not catch on) in a very old essay, ‘Superversive: The failure of subversion in imaginative literature’. This new piece covers some of the same ground, but with a different emphasis and a new twist in the conclusion.


Behold the Underminer! I am always beneath you, but nothing is beneath me!

The Incredibles

For about a hundred years now, ever since the First World War broke the confidence of Western civilization, it has been fashionable to praise subversion. Art, music, and literature, as many of the critics tell us, are not supposed to go chasing after obsolete values like truth or beauty; they are supposed to shock, to wound, to épater les bourgeois – to subvert the values of society.

Read the rest at Welcome to Arhyalon….

How not to take criticism

Then Victoriana took a little toy harp and began. The noises of the toy harp were so strange that John could not think of them as music at all. Then, when she sang, he had a picture in his mind which was a little like the Island, but he saw at once that it was not the Island. And presently he saw people who looked rather like his father, and the Steward and old Mr. Halfways, dressed up as clowns and doing a stiff sort of dance. Then there was a columbine, and some sort of love-story. But suddenly the whole Island turned into an aspidistra in a pot and the song was over.

‘Priceless,’ said the Clevers.

‘I hope you like it,’ said Gus to John.

‘Well,’ began John doubtfully, for he hardly knew what to say: but he got no further, for at that moment he had a very great surprise. Victoriana had thrown her mask away and walked up to him and slapped him in the face twice, as hard as she could.

‘That’s right,’ said the Clevers, ‘Victoriana has courage. We may not all agree with you, Vikky dear, but we admire your courage.’

‘You may persecute me as much as you like,’ said Victoriana to John. ‘No doubt to see me thus with my back to the wall, wakes the hunting lust in you. You will always follow the cry of the majority. But I will fight to the end. So there,’ and she began to cry.

‘I am extremely sorry,’ said John. ‘But—’

‘And I know it was a good song,’ sobbed Victoriana, ‘because all great singers are persecuted in their lifetime – and I’m per-persecuted – and therefore I must be a great singer.’

—C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

‘The Island’, in this particular allegory, is the particular experience, partly aesthetic and partly religious, that Lewis referred to elsewhere as ‘Joy’. If you want to inspire Joy in your audience, and you fail, I can heartily dis-recommend this method of dealing with it.


‘How to read Tolkien’

Michael Drout’s superb lecture, ‘How to Read Tolkien’, is now available on YouTube, and by the magic of the Intertubes, it’s available on this tube too: