Different Tastes in Literature by C.S. Lewis

Art and Literature (1867)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
source Wikiart

Is there good literature?  Is there bad literature?  How do we make the determination, and do we even have the criteria to judge?  In his essay, Different Tastes in Literature, if Lewis does not directly answer these questions, he at least gives the reader criteria that makes it easier to judge, and challenges us to examine our reading experiences.

First, Lewis investigates the notion of “tastes” and indicates a determination between good and bad literature is complicated by the fact that there are no objective tests.  But the error people make is in assuming that people like bad art in the same way that they like good art.  Instead, Lewis proposes, bad art does not succeed with anyone.

Lewis defines bad art as very low art, such as novels, and popular music that are read or sung and then forgotten soon after.  When it goes out of fashion, it is never thought of afterward.

Geniuses of Art (1761)
Francois Boucher
source Wikiart

Yet while bad art itself is not so easy to describe, the consumer of bad art is more easily targeted:

“He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it.  But he never re-reads.  There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary.  It is infallible.  The literary man re-reads, other men simply read.  A novel once read is to them like yesterday’s newspaper …… It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk.  Whether the bad poetry is re-read or not …. I do not know.  But the very fact that we do not know is significant.  It does not creep into the conversation of those who buy it.  One never finds two of its lovers capping quotations and settling down to a good evening’s talk about their favourite.  So with the bad picture.  The purchaser says, no doubt sincerely, that he finds it lovely, sweet, beautiful, charming or (more probably) ‘nice’.  But he hangs it where it cannot be seen and never looks at it again.”

With bad art, there is no question of the ‘joy’ that good art brings. “The desire for bad art is the desire bred of habit: like the smoker’s desire for tobacco, more marked by the extreme malaise of denial than by any very strong delight in fruition.”

Art Critic
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

On experiencing good art, it is not like moving from one type to the next, but more like “when you opened the door, to lead to the garden of the Hesperides ….”  However, we must not say that some men like good art and some bad, rather that the term “like” is not the proper word for good art, and the response towards good art, has never been produced in bad.

Is it too simple to say that bad art does not ever have the same effect on a person as good art?  What about those books that captured our imagination in youth but that we now consider bad?  Might this simply mean that the reader’s imagination was superior to the author’s, but lacking both maturity and discernment?  In effect, we would not have been enjoying the book for what it was, but for what it was not.  But this “mirage” is quite different from the actual liking of bad art.  Bad art is “tepid, trivial, marginal, habitual.  It does not trouble them, nor haunt them ….. No one cares about bad art in the same way as some care about good.”  It is only when we eliminate the bad art that the discussions about the superiority of one work of art to another can have some value.

The Disquieting Muses (1916-18)
Giorgio di Chirico
source Wikiart

In this essay, Lewis more distinguishes what is not good art than what is, however his insights, as always, are invaluable.  We have so little time on this earth.  Life comes and goes in the blink of an eye.  Don’t we want to be discerning about our literary choices and choose to read works that add perspective, wisdom and purpose to our lives, instead of reading words that pass through us in the blink of an eye?  I do.

Deal Me In Challenge #10 

0 thoughts on “Different Tastes in Literature by C.S. Lewis

  1. interesting post. i'm afraid i'd be classified as low. i read books about mountain climbing, sci fi, mysteries, geology, physics, quantum mechanics, victorian, some modern lit, an occasional zane grey, travel (walking in particular; i like to walk), classical music, spanish lit(in translation), diaries, and more. my rationalization is that i'm interested in all these things but i only have a given amount of time left, so want all of everything i can get. call me greedy and uncultured… i admit it backfires when i forget what i read – that's getting worse; maybe i'll have to (gasp) CHANGE!! nooo….

  2. I don't know whether you'd be classified as low. I think some of those books Lewis wouldn't classify as literature necessarily. And do you remember those books? Do they stay with you after you finish and parts of them pop up at unexpected times? Do they last through centuries (I think Zane Grey has)? Then they aren't necessarily bad literature, but perhaps good literature that is on the low scale of good, KWIM?

    Ha ha! Change can be good although as we age, we tend to like to resist it. 😉

  3. I really must start reading Lewis myself. The more I read your reviews, the more I think, he and I will be great pals. This is a very interesting essay and while I completely insync with the thought that good art is the one we keep going back to, I am kind of wondering about those books that started off as low but over the years have become iconic. Also though I LOVE my classics, there are times I need a break and I read everything that can be typecast as a modern day yarn…a good read, but may be not high literature and because they are a good breezy read, I love going back to them when I want a change. Does that make me high, low, middle…what? The thing is books and art are very intimate things and each person relates to each article differently! And what we drive from that piece of work is again very unique and personal to each one! There is no doubt that there is some really bad low art in this world, but to cleanly divide it between low and high…well I am not sure if I can go along that though route! PS. love the picture of the art critic!

  4. I don't think that Lewis was saying never read the "brain candy" books, but simply don't view them on the same level as good literature. In that case, I agree with him. I also don't think he's categorizing the reader into high, low, etc. only the works; but if one's main diet is low lit, he cannot consider himself a "literary man". However, how to split the good and bad literature is more problematic and I think Lewis does an adequate job of giving us some valuable criteria.

    It wasn't Lewis' best essay as far as structure went. Ideas with the same thread popped up all over, instead of being succinctly communicated as a complete whole, but even if they were a little disorganized, his thoughts as always were marvellously insightful.

  5. Somewhat reminiscent of Bacon's observation: "Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly."

    There are books which are merely entertaining, and there are books which speak to the soul. I doubt anyone would look for philosophical depth in James Patterson, Twilight, that sort of thing. But with some books, it may vary on the reader. You can read 1984 as a simple dystopian thriller and close it by commenting that it was horrifying and golly, it's nice to be back in the Real World again….or you can read it and glimpse this vision where man is nothing but an object to be handled and molded according to the ideology of the Party in charge. You can apply that vision to the politics and culture of your own country and see connections.

  6. i just had to say how much i liked the rockwell painting: the two feet close together is a touch of genius! and di Chirico has long been a favorite…

  7. What great comments, Stephen! I so agree about the different levels of reading; I also think good literature guides you into a deeper approach.

    Bacon's example is excellent. I like to think of it as: if I eat mostly snacks and junk food, my body isn't going to be very healthy …. the same applies to bad literature and your mind.

  8. Of all the 62 books I read this year (plays, novels, French, non-fiction, children's lit) I would re-read only one:
    House of Mirth (E. Wharton). The rest? …like yesterday's newspaper. Must take a serious look at my reading list for the coming months! Loved your review…and good 'food for thought', thank you C.S. Lewis!

  9. I think that is so true that as much as people like to read popular fiction or listen to popular songs or watch movies, they are so transient.
    I find this true with popular worship music as well. While the hymns last for hundreds of years.

  10. I loved The House of Mirth too. Of the 31 books I've read this year there are six that I wouldn't read again, so I suppose I'm doing quite well. A number of those books were the recent biographies that I've read. I quite love how you chop and change and transform your reading lists. I'll keep my eyes open for a new one!

  11. I used to read more popular fiction and not really like it. I find it curious that I have some reading friends whom I follow and when they read pop fiction, they often give the book only 3 stars, yet they keep reading it and reading it. Why not read a classic for 4 to 5 stars?

  12. Yes…I do agree that if I am constantly on the a diet of low lit, I cannot be considered literary man…I really need to read this essay! I seem to agree so much and yet have questions!

  13. I contemplated all weekend about my reading lists, habits and goals. At the moment I am writing a post about it and will upload soon. I must ask humbly if I may use some of you excellent lists to assemble my reading plan. I have just 6 more months this year ..and list making is time consuming. Thanks so much for being a 'moving force' in my reading. 🙂

  14. You are very welcome to use my lists! I quite enjoy following your reading journeys as you add some unique ideas to the ideas already bouncing around in my head. I can't wait to see your new path! 🙂

  15. I'm not sure about the strength of the re-read criteria for determining literary quality. Is a particular work worth a re-read according to who? For example, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library was one of the most fun books I've read in a long time, the writing is solid enough, and it's very clever. I certainly wouldn't argue it is a great work of literature on the same level as Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Homer, but the book is a lot of fun to read, has some elements that are thought-provoking, and I would definitely re-read it. Although to be honest, re-reading it is not a priority. Likewise, I know many people who re-read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy novels that I would never consider great works of literature yet for them these works are worth re-reading.

  16. All day I have been working on my 'new path. I'm removing old lists and sticking to this 'path'
    I want to join Deal Me In for the last half of the year. The challenge offers such a variety of reading that I would otherwise miss. Problem: I'm not a 'poem person'. I will really have to force my self to read 6 this year. List is coming…. 🙂

  17. Perhaps pick some short poems. That's what I did and after you've read a few short ones, longer ones are not so much of a problem. I can't wait to see your Deal Me In list!

  18. Ah…"Good" literature vs. "Bad" literature. I don't think that the debate over what those things *mean* will ever be over. There are definitely some pieces of work that are so far on the extreme end of one or the other that there is no debate on whether it is bad or good, but the question lies on those works that are more towards the middle.

    I once heard an interesting definition of what is Literary Fiction ("good") vs. Commercial Fiction ("bad"): Literary Fiction takes you more through the inner (mental, spiritual, emotional) worlds of the characters, whereas Commercial Fiction is more focused on the external (the plot) and the action that takes place within the story.
    It's not a perfect definition, but I found it intriguing.

  19. I don't think Lewis meant to use re-reading as the only criteria. I felt he was trying to convey the value of reading good literature, more than criticizing the bad. He was very clear that he was aware people read pop-fiction or listen to pop music, but more he was questioning the time spent on these things vs. the profound value received from good literature which can reveal more to a reader each time it is read. If you read Homer, no doubt you can draw deep meaning out if it every time …. Mr. Lemoncello, not so much, I'd guess. 😉 In any case, I think Lewis gets into re-reading and good literature in other essays so it will be interesting to see how his ideas mesh together.

  20. Your definitions are very apt, Kenia. While commercial fiction gives you a short "buzz", I believe literary fiction stays with you long after you read it. And in your titles, there is a question of purpose. People used to write to convey ideas, to work out questions they had about life, to have "conversation", to protest, etc. but most of it came from inner convictions. Nowadays, I'm sure many writers write to make money, or at the very least, with profits in mind. That change of purpose can cause a reduction in quality and even a change the way ideas are presented. It's certainly something to think about.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!