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C.S. Lewis on Writing and Criticism: When Reviews Become Useless

C.S. Lewis
Statue of C.S. Lewis looking into a wardrobe.
Photo credit: “Genvessel”

C.S. Lewis wrote the essay “On Science Fiction” which can be found in the larger work Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. There’s a quote from Lewis in this particular essay I wish to discuss which relates to both writing and criticism. And I find it intriguing:

“It is very dangerous to write about a kind you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel. Criticism of kinds, as distinct from criticism of works, cannot of course be avoided: I shall be driven to criticize one sub-species of science fiction myself. But it is, I think, the most subjective and least reliable type of criticism. Above all, it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works. Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett. Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaller, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist?”

If we despise paranormal romance are we capable of writing well within that genre? Or would it turn out to be “drivel” as Lewis argues?

First of all, Lewis talks about writing. Should we write in a particular genre we hate? If we despise paranormal romance are we capable of writing well within that genre? Or would it turn out to be “drivel” as Lewis argues? Certainly, I’ve read a book, seen a TV Show or even watched a film where I wasn’t completely convinced the writer actually “liked” what they were writing about. Sometimes I think they are even trying to deconstruct the genre, archetype, etc… I personally find it irritating to watch a romantic comedy for instance CLEARLY written or directed by an individual who hates and mocks the genre. Yet, in today’s world of cynicism, this seems inescapable. That said, personally, I’d rather watch a film or read a book from someone who appreciates and even embraces what makes a specific genre work. Not the opposite.

Now, I know there are a few rare gifted individuals who could probably write the phone book or anything for that matter and it would somehow be fantastic, but for the most part “hatred” for something kind of colors whatever it is that person is creating.

When it comes to criticism, the same idea applies. How often have I read reviews of a period drama, a romantic comedy, a romance, urban fantasy, etc…where said critic hates the genre, yet attempts to write a critique on it? How then, as Lewis argues, can the critic give a fair assessment of the book, film or TV Show? If they do not understand or appreciate the genre, certainly they cannot see what works or doesn’t work. Why? Because they don’t actually know.

I remember when Moonlight first aired a few years back. The pilot episode was ripped to shreds by the critics. Yet most of these critics weren’t actually fans of urban fantasy, paranormal romance or even period drama (all genres the show dipped into). The San Francisco Chronicle called it the “worst new fall show” while my local paper the Caliente called it “horrorable” and that it took “a single brain cell to watch.”

I mean, really? A single brain cell? Not a shock these critics had no love or understanding of the type of story it was. The first mistake people made about Moonlight is that it was a crime show first, a vampire show second, and a romantic show last. What the show really was (first and foremost, the show was a romance), and why it gained a cult following through word of mouth and online buzz, was a romantic urban fantasy drama (the crime to be solved to further develop the characters and mythology). The mystery was the subplot, while the romance and the characterization are the foundations which held the show together. With themes steeped in literature and influence from Beauty and the Beast and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (the monster within), it’s no surprise many people using more than a single brain cell were drawn to it.

So then, only those who love the amalgamation of these genres Moonlight belonged to would have been able to write a fair critique on it, at least according to Lewis. Otherwise, isn’t their criticism useless? How can they appeal to the audience for which it was intended? And how can they give a fair critique if they do not like the genre nor understand it or its audience?

…it’s impossible to completely escape critiquing the works of genres we don’t typically like. But perhaps criticism would be better served if this was less often the case.

In all, I think Lewis makes a good point. Obviously, it’s impossible to completely escape critiquing the works of genres we don’t typically like. But perhaps criticism would be better served if this was less often the case.

Maybe with the popularity of blogs continually growing, reviews will become more balanced, less biased and more honest. Most review blogs focus on the particular genres they love, and it is then these reviewers become more trusted because they’re being read by people who also love those same genres.

In the end who would you trust more? The critic who hates romantic comedies and writes a review on one? Or the critic who loves romantic comedies and writes a review on one? It’d be an entertaining critique to read if you hate romantic comedies yourself, but if not, then frankly the review, the criticism becomes completely ineffective.

Personally, I think C.S. Lewis was onto something!

So what do you think? Do you agree with Lewis? Disagree? If possible, should we strive to write in the genres we love? And is criticism only fair if it comes from a critic who loves the specific genre? Sound off below…



Read Rebecca’s article on Oscar Wilde – No Ordinary Romantic

Don’t miss my defense of M Night Shyamalan’s The Village

Read about the new age of book banning

Check out why reviews should rate by genre

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By on October 6th, 2013

About Amber Topping

Amber works as a writer and digital publisher full-time and fell in love with stories and imagination at an early age. She has a Humanities and Film Degree from BYU, co-created The Silver Petticoat Review, contributed as a writer to various magazines, and has an MS in Publishing from Pace University, where she received the Publishing Award of Excellence and wrote her thesis on transmedia, Jane Austen, and the romance genre. Her ultimate dreams are publishing books, writing and producing movies, traveling around the world, and forming a creative village of talented storytellers trying to change the world through art.

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