Our Experiment in Criticism
In 1961, C.S. Lewis, in full ornery Oxford don mode, drew on his experience as a literary scholar and critic to write a little book titled An Experiment in Criticism. It never once mentions the silver screen, but it has a lot to say about how we watch and think about and write about movies.
In this essay, I don't have space to explain why we cover mainstream Hollywood films and small "art house" flicks at Christianity Today, nor to explain—though others have in many venues—why we sometimes talk about movies and TV shows that have content that isn't appropriate for every audience. Instead, I want to tell you what guides me as I write and edit our coverage, why I think criticism is important—and maybe get you to read Lewis's book, too.
Lewis's titular "experiment" is this: instead of judging a book based on its content and style, let's judge it based on how well it allows for a "good" reading (more on that in a moment). So a book of what we might dismissively call genre fiction today (for instance, a work of science fiction or children's literature—Lewis certainly was not a disinterested party here) that can be read "well" is better than a technically impressive but inaccessible book. A good book opens itself to a good reader.
So what is a good reader? He is someone who, first and foremost, loves books. The good reader opens to the first page expecting to be both delighted and challenged. He wants to be changed by the book—to reach the end and be a different person.
A bad reader, by contrast, "rush[es] hastily forward to do things with the work of art instead of waiting for it to do something to them." The bad reader's goal when approaching a book is to see what he might extract from it: an abstract principle that he can apply to his life to improve it, or a new standard by which to measure others, or a higher social standing, or just some predictable amusement. His primary love is himself. He is frustrated when a book challenges his ideas or lifestyle, when it makes him see what it's like to be someone else, when it unsettles his status quo—even if those things have the ring of truth.
The bad reader, Lewis says, seeks to "use" the book for his own ends. The good reader wants to "receive" it.
So when the good reader approaches a good book, she finds that it delights her. It invites re-reading. It sticks with her long after she turns the final page. It may also improve her social standing, teach her a principle, or give her a brief escape from her real life, but that's a byproduct, not the goal. Instead, it shifts her perspective, helping her see the world, and her neighbor, in a new way.
A bad or mediocre book will fail to engage the good reader; it is forgettable, because it has not resonated with her experience as a human, nor has it challenged her in any way to enter someone else's experience or see her life anew. And that's something that "highbrow" literature can fail to do just as much as "lowbrow."
Lewis doesn't restrict his argument to books. It's not just about judging a book by the good reader; you can also, for instance, judge a painting by the good viewer, an album by the good listener—or a movie by the good watcher, something I'm always thinking about, for obvious reasons. (Television falls into this category, too, but I'll keep referring to movies from here on out for simplicity's sake.)