some thoughts on C.S. Lewis
The thing is, it's incredibly difficult, at least for me, to write about things I love. I've noticed that, looking back on my various reviews and essays. The ones I am least happy with are the ones where I am most happy with whatever I'm writing about. I've been wondering why that is. It's not difficult for me to write about things I like, or about things I like very much indeed. But the books of my heart, the books I've reread so often I can recite portions; the movies and visual media I rewatch on an incredibly regular basis; the music I can't listen to without putting it on repeat for an hour-- I find I have to use angles and swerves, when I try to write about those. I have to edge up to them. I have to rant about how they're out of print or compare them to something else the author did lately or tie them in to a conversation I am having elsewhere. I don't seem to admit, in writing, how much I love some of the things I love. It goes without saying, and if it doesn't, I don't fill people in on it. (My username is taken from a novel. I have never written about that novel. I'm not going to now.)
This is not uncommon among critics. It's rare that you get something like that project Roger Ebert has where he sits down and writes reviews of movies he just simply thinks are amazing on a fairly regular basis. Often, too, when a reviewer does something like that, it becomes A Critical Defense Of The Thing In Question, an argument about the thing's objective* merit. Entire schools of criticism have been founded because a friend-group really, really liked a maligned subgenre. Entire artistic movements, and the theories which go with them, ditto.
* We are not at present getting into the whole objectivity-in-art discussion.
Myself, I have no particular urge towards A Critical Defense Of, well, most things, honestly. Upon thinking about it, I find that in my case, specifically, I find it hard to write about things I love because there are two assumptions I expect my audience to have when they read my reviews or a piece of my critical writing, neither of which is helpful:
1) that because I love xyz, I am trying to get my audience to love it, also.
Well, not as such, no. I enjoy it when people like things I like, because then I have people to talk with about the things. I enjoy it when I can help people find things they didn't know about and turn out to like, because then everyone is happier. But I am also delighted, as a reader, when a critic sees something interesting in a book I know perfectly well that I hate and describes it to me. It doesn't mean I have to like the book better or even think it is a better book. The criticism, as a work in itself, is valuable. I like being shown things I haven't seen, and I enjoy people who argue brilliantly for things I disagree with. Nabokov wrote an essay about Jane Austen (he hated Jane Austen) of which every single word is flagrantly, screamingly Wrong including 'and' and 'the', and it is a great essay, well-reasoned and hilarious, entertaining as hell when you can stop flailing your arms and shouting at him. I would be proud to have someone have that kind of experience with an essay of mine. I am never going to like Proust, but I can have Sylvia Townsend Warner's experience of Proust any time I want, and she is much better and wiser at loving Proust than I think I could ever have been if I were a Proust person. I would be proud to have someone get something like that from an essay of mine, also.
2) that because I love xyz, I am unaware of its flaws, or must defend its flaws, or will be hurt by people bringing up its flaws.
No. We love what we love. A novel, for instance, has been defined as a work of prose of x words length which has something wrong with it.
It's keeping myself from being defensive that's really the hard part, here. To say cheerfully yes, that character is two-dimensional, the soundtrack should have been handled differently, the author was a product of the British Raj now wasn't he. To admit, but not to defend.
It can be hard to deal with the fact that there are things that are very, very wrong with the things you love, and sometimes they are things that hurt people. Sometimes they are things that hurt you. But no one can answer for another person what amount of that kind of hurt makes it not worth it. If I love something, and it is a considered love, I have decided it is worth it for me. I do sometimes ask myself, gently, whether I am failing to notice particularly problematic or hurtful things about new loves, when I am in the flush of first meeting something before I sit down and really think about it. I will recalibrate my own emotional calculus when someone else points out something very hurtful about something I love which I had never thought of. I do point these things out to others, when they have new infatuations, or when they ask for my perspective. But in general, I find it is a human courtesy to assume that people consider the things they love worth it.
The problem is that when something is so very flawed, as most things are, sometimes we judge ourselves for finding the thing worth it. Sometimes we judge other people on what they find worthy. And sometimes they judge us.
So for me, personally, when I write about something I love, the temptation is always to over-defend, to say the bad things are not such a flaw, not such a big deal, and insist that anyway I hashed it all out years ago and have critical literary analytical doubletalk to try to deal with it, and then show my work. Which takes away from writing about, well, any of the reasons I actually care for the thing in the first place, instead of the reasons not to. If I, or anyone else, is going to judge me for caring about something, the judgment should at least be based on the positive side of my relationship with it, but all too often I find that in my essays I use the flaws of the thing I am writing about as a mechanism to distance myself from the consequences of admitting I care deeply.
Again, I think that's not just me; I think a lot of critics do that. I think part of it comes from the sense that academic writing, or writing which resembles it, should not be tainted with the subjective, or with the messiness of emotion. Part of it comes from the difficulty of showing vulnerability in public, and the embarrassment and fear that go with that. There are undoubtedly other reasons too. But wherever it comes from, I think it's a bad habit and I want to stop doing it.
( Anyway, I wrote all that so I could write about C.S. Lewis"s Perelandra. This cut is for length.Collapse )
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