When it comes to writing for a popular audience, the elite strata of academia possess no shortage of disdain.
C.S. Lewis was only one of many professors who found writing for the common people diminished them in the eyes of their snobbish peers. In Lewis’ case, his lay theological essays were considered bad enough. His fantasy and science fiction works were regarded as particularly gauche.
I have a personal theory about the way self-important scholars treat their colleagues who reach down to interact with the hoi polloi. It seems to me that they deride people like Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien because of envy. The envy is twofold.
First, they covet the large audience and expanded influence of the scholar who successfully transcends the university. These elements arouse their lust far more than the potential wealth that such success might bring, although I have no doubt some resent being criminally underpaid as educators.
The second aspect of the envy is directed at the genuine talent of the belittled author. The majority of faculty would not possess the skill to write successfully for a popular audience. Thus, the significance of such publication needs to be diminished.
Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) was not an academic, but even he did not appreciate being relegated to the ranks of pulp writers. Despite writing screenplays and more than 100 books, he was best known for his science fiction. Nevertheless, he once threatened: “Call me a science fiction writer and I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
Returning to Lewis, one biographer devotes an entire chapter to the condescending attitude of his Oxford peers. He entitles it, “A Prophet without Honour?” This is a reference to Jesus’ saying that “a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44)
Lewis, then, was famous by the time the Second World War ended in the summer of 1945. If the simple philosophy of life propounded by modern celebrity culture has any validity, Lewis at that point should have been a happy and fulfilled person. Yet Lewis’s personal history for the next nine years tells a quite different story. Fame may have raised Lewis’s profile, but in the first place, this just made him a more obvious target for those who disliked his religious beliefs.
And in the second, many of his academic colleagues came to believe that he had sold out to popular culture to secure that fame. He had sold his academic birthright for a populist pottage. (C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath)
The disdain of his Oxford colleagues prevented him from receiving a full professorship at the university. This is why Lewis eventually accepted a chair at Cambridge, which was much more receptive to his unashamed sharing of the Gospel. Tolkien was stunned by the “extraordinary animosity” of the English Faculty towards his friend.
The fact that C.S. Lewis wrote some science fiction—and encouraged his friend Tolkien to do so as well—does not mean that he had an exaggerated opinion of the genre’s quality. He was quite aware of the great range between the good and the bad. In fact, in 1955 he ended a lengthy letter to a correspondent with the sentence: “We must talk about Science Fiction some other time (most of it is atrocious).”
I have posted about Lewis’ connection to science fiction in the past. Perhaps one of these topics will interest you.
Learn about the genuine Martian crater named Malacandra in honor of Lewis’ space trilogy.
Explore the place of robots in science fiction and reality.
Ponder the ramifications of post-apocalyptic faith.
Consider Lewis’ compliment to H.G. Wells.
19 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and the Academics”
I heartily agree. Perhaps this idea is mainly what one references in the ‘you can’t please everybody’ advice.
I believe the best writers are those able to touch the most people, whether that literally means fame or just that the writer is able to express his ideas well enough to be understood by a majority of his interested audience.
Yes, it’s impossible to please everyone. Another maxim that may apply is that everyone (writers included) “must be true to ourselves.”
I’m thinking that we each have our own “voice,” and for many, that limits their audience. Some envious academicians respond to that fact by belittling others whose words speak to a broader group.
It’s healthiest, I think, when people accept the fact that not everyone will be drawn to their words. After all, there are very few C.S. Lewises in the world. He was capable of writing for different populations, and he consciously did so.
Not to say that anyone can effectively write in all genres or to all people. Consider Lewis’ yearning to be affirmed as a poet.
And many today find Lewis beyond their reach, which is sad.
I think, if possible, one ought to write to his audience (and genre) AND stay true to himself. I know Stephen Hawking intentionally kept his simpler.
That’s interesting that C.S. Lewis wished to be recognized as a poet.
Yes, I strive (mostly unsuccessfully) to keep my posts more accessible to a broad audience. But I’ve come to realize my “voice” is inescapable.
I’ve posted about Lewis and poetry before (for example in discussing Lewis and Yeats :https://mereinkling.net/2017/08/30/c-s-lewis-yeats-and-an-intermediary/). But your comments reminds me that I have not expressly addressed Lewis’ disappointment with the reception of his own poetry.
I definitely think there can be some envy of writing something that “people actually read.” My experience in grad school was that it is very possible to spend hours, months, years writing articles that maybe five people in your subfield will read or working on a conference presentation there will be three people in the audience actually listening to. This wasn’t THE reason I left academia, but the idea I could pour my life into doing research that, frankly, seemed to have absolutely no effect and no audience besides a few other specialists depressing to me. My co-blogger once mentioned to a grad student that we can publish something on our blog and get 50 people to read the post just that day, and the student looked really upset and wistful. That kind of reach is small for a blog but enormous for many academic papers. Yeah, you should become an academic because you find your research fascinating and fairly fulfilling on its own, but I think most people do want their work to have some sort of impact or audience because “Well, I learned a lot about how cemeteries function in some minor poet’s work…cool” can be hard to sustain people over an entire academic career.
Thank you for sharing from your personal pilgrimage. Yes, the more obscure our area of specialty is, the smaller our audience. And that is sad, especially in light of the energy involved in researching and writing a thesis.
Years ago an Episcopal priest and I carpooled to post-M.Div. courses at a Roman Catholic seminary. I wrote my (successful) thesis on the Odes of Solomon, the earliest Christian hymnal. Despite my advice, he initially pursued a dead-end with a topic involving Irenaeus. I told him that since our advisor (a nun) had written her dissertation on Irenaeus, he would either “recycle commonly known points or, worse yet, contradict some of her interpretations.”
Midway through the year he was forced to switch to a much more thesis-worthy subject: The Eucharistic Theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia.
This is a great story! And as a non-expert, I have no idea what any of this means, though I think I think I *would* go to a talk on the earliest Christian hymnal!
I think STEM people also get grief for “speaking to the masses” because you have to simplify things for non-experts to get it and then it’s wrong. Like, I’ve heard from physics grad students that in college you learn that what you learned in high school was wrong because it was over-simplified. Then in grad school, you learn what you learned in undergrad was technically wrong because it was simplified, etc.
I’ve considered writing a popular book on the Odes of Solomon. My advisors encouraged me to attempt to have my thesis published years ago, but I was far too busy with pastoral duties to try that. Lots of people have written stuff on the writings, but much of it comes from new-agers seeking to co-opt them.
That’s a good insight about simplifying complex scientific subjects. It’s very easy to relate to that when we’re so busy teaching our 10 curious grandkids about every subject under the sun.
Yep, you nailed it with academic elites: envy.
Research arena is survivable/tolerable – if you have some balance – and freedom of thought – with something like blogging, music, or art.
It is nice to know we’re not restricted to a single domain in which to express our creativity (and opinions).
Fortunate (or blessed) are those whose primary vocation allows them the freedom to exercise a wide range of their gifts. And for the rest–that’s what hobbies are for.
Have a jubilant Christmas, Mere Inkling—strictly in the non-academic sense, of course 😊
Merry Christmas to you, as well. I preached a sermon for the end of Advent yesterday… but tonight I’ll be surrounded in the pews by family, grandchildren and friends for the Candlelight Service.
Preaching is a privilege, but there’s nothing like worshiping God while surrounded by loved ones.
I would like to offer another reason for the disdain many academics have towards their colleagues who end up writing for a popular audience.
A small handful of academics have claimed that, if you cannot explain your ideas to a grade-school child, you do not really understand your subject matter. (Both Albert Einstein and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have made similar claims.) Many scholars are simply unable to do so. C. S. Lewis’ ability to communicate to the masses highlights the shortcomings of his critics in academia.
That’s a great insight. Being able to simplify complex subjects is not a skill that comes to easy to people with high IQs.
Regular folks are typically better at it, in my opinion, since they don’t have to contend with climbing down from lofty ivory towers.
Parents have natural training in this as well. Pastors too, for that matter, because most theological matters are more complex than what is preached on Sunday mornings. Of course, the central message, the Gospel, remains the same.
It’s in the classroom that the deeper discussions can be explored. One reason that catechesis is a blast!
Jesus also brought the mighty presence of God and made that wisdom known to the common man. That really ticked off the religious elite. Lewis made great truths accesible into everyday life.
That is our job, too. I pray we can create content that brings God Word into everday person’s lives.
Happy New Year,
The goal in communicating is being able to help another understand what we are sharing. It’s especially important to recognize that when we are attempting to communicate things of great import.
As Christians, we naturally place the greatest value on sharing the Gospel–the glorious news (exemplified by Christmas) that the Lord deeply loves every single human being.
When people understand they are precious to their Creator, it is life-changing.
Yes, these Last Days are going to have to be the Lord using all kinds of creative methods and people. I pray we all have a part of it to do.
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