Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Prime Passages: Cyril Connolly & C.S. Lewis Discuss Some Threats to Literary Appreciation

Connolly was writing seven decades ago, Lewis five, but amid a publishing culture geared almost exclusively toward so-called "upmarket fiction" their views are remarkably relevant.

"Writing is a more impure art than music or painting. It is an art, but it is also the medium in which many millions of inartistic people express themselves, describe their work, sell their goods, justify their conduct, propagate their ideas. It is the vehicle of all business and propaganda. Since it is hard to paint or compose without a certain affection for painting or music, the commercial element—advertisers, illustrators, are recognizable, and in a minority, nor do music and painting appeal to the scientific temperament.

But writing does. It is an art in which the few who practice it for its own sake are being always resented and jostled through its many galleries by the majority who do not. And the deadliest of these are the scientific investigators, clever young men who have themselves failed as artists and who bring only a passionate sterility and a dark, wide-focusing resentment to their examination of creative art. The aim of much of this destructive criticism, though not yet as publicly avowed, is entirely to eliminate the individual style, to banish imaginative beauty and formal art from writing. Prose will not only be as unassuming as good clothes, but as uniform as bad ones." (p.76)
Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (1938)

What is more surprising and disquieting is the fact that those who might be expected ex officio to have a profound and permanent appreciation of literature may in reality have nothing of the sort. They are mere professionals. Perhaps they once had the full response, but the ‘hammer, hammer, hammer on the hard, high road’ has long since dinned it out of them. … For such people reading often becomes mere work. The text before them comes to exist not in its own right but simply as raw material; clay out of which they can complete their tale of bricks. Accordingly we often find that in their leisure hours they read, if at all, as the many read. I well remember the snub I once got from a man to whom, as we came away from an examiners’ meeting, I tactlessly mentioned a great poet on whom several candidates had written answers. His attitude (I’ve forgotten the words) might be expressed in the form, ‘Good God, man, do you want to go on after hours?’…For those who are reduced to this condition by economic necessity and overwork I have nothing but sympathy. Unfortunately, ambition and combativeness can also produce it. And, however it is produced, it destroys appreciation." (p.6-7)
C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961)
and Connolly again (same book as above):

"One further question is raised by Maugham. ‘I have never had much patience,’ he states, ‘with the writers who claim from the reader an effort to understand their meaning.’ This is an abject surrender, for it is part of the tragedy of modern literature that the author, anxious to avoid mystifying the reader, is afraid to demand of him any exertions. ‘Don’t be afraid of me,’ he exclaims, ‘I write exactly as I talk—no, better still—exactly as you talk.’ Imagine Cezanne painting or Beethoven composing ‘exactly as he talked’! The only way to write is to consider the reader to be the author’s equal; to treat him otherwise is to set a value on illiteracy, and so all that results from Maugham’s condescension to a reader from whom he expects no effort is a latent hostility." (p.79-80)