Archives For Fiction

shakespeare-and-lewisC.S. Lewis’ prolific, genre-crossing success teaches us two things. First, that a very good writer can fruitfully write in a variety of fields. Second, that even the most gifted of authors cannot write with equal talent in all genres.

Students of C.S. Lewis are well acquainted with the fact that one of the great disappointments of his life was failing to succeed as a poet. Although he did write a reasonable amount of poetry, it failed to elicit the response for which he hoped.

Lewis did, of course, receive well-deserved kudos for his literary fiction and children’s stories. His fiction and nonfiction are extraordinary, and over the years I have appreciated the value of his many essays to be among the most precious of his works.

Finally, as a correspondent, Lewis stood in the first ranks. He regarded the responsibility of personally responding to the letters he received as something not to be shirked.

Fortunately, the excellent collections of his letters offer us many insights into Lewis’ life and career. For his Christian fans, they reveal insights into how a disciple of Jesus can gracefully navigate life.

The following letter was written in 1959, to a man who was apparently the editor of a small newspaper. He had requested an article from the exceedingly busy professor. Lewis’ response is quite interesting.

Dear Mr. Aylard,

Yes! my handwriting is awful. It used to be nice but my muscles have stiffened up and the strokes no longer come out as I intend. I give ‘this generation’ all I can in the way of books and articles. Particular articles by request are not usually the good ones: and, you know, I should reach more readers through other organs than your paper. I hope this doesn’t sound stand-offish or conceited, for it is not meant to be. It is really common sense to speak where one can be most widely heard.

I agree that drama is a good medium for our purpose. In this country Dorothy Sayers’ broadcast set of plays on the life and death of Our Lord (The Man Born to be King) did a great deal of good. I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic. With all good wishes.

I draw several observations from reading this letter.

  • Lewis took the time to personally pen many of his letters, despite the fact that this presented an uncomfortable challenge to him.
  • Lewis preferred to address subjects as he felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, rather than on demand.
  • He did not have the time to dress it up in gentle fluff, but candidly expressed the fact that if he had sufficient time and energy to write, it would not be the wisest stewardship to send the piece to a publication with a limited distribution.
  • Even though he did not intend for that remark to be curt or “conceited,” Lewis still felt compelled to offer his “I hope this doesn’t sound…” apology.
  • Lewis appreciated drama, and recognized Sayers’ work as quite noteworthy.
  • He recognized that drama would not be his forte, and wisely preferred to stick with the type of writing wherein he was most accomplished.

Even this final thought is offered with C.S. Lewis’ characteristic—and genuine—humility.

I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic.

As a writer myself, I find this sentence quite comforting. And not simply because my own extremely modest talents also lie in the narrative realm. Even if I were a poet or a dramatist I would recognize how liberating it is to acknowledge that one cannot be fairly expected to excel at more than one genre.

And “excel” is not really the best word to use here. Perhaps it’s sufficient that writers think of themselves like children of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor tells us “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves to be adequate or exceptional writers, it is necessary to understand where our skills reside, and to transgress those boundaries only with the greatest trepidation.

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

Literary Martial Arts

December 31, 2014 — 8 Comments

nonficOne of the lowest moments in my writing life occurred when a creative writing professor advised me to “stick with nonfiction.” Oh, she said it gently, but it still struck me with the power of a mixed martial arts (MMA) hammerfist.

I was majoring in editorial journalism at the University of Washington. Attempting to expand my scope, I took a short story writing course. It was a mistake.

I thought I had done adequately during the course. I was even moderately pleased with a couple of my stories. The instructor, on the other hand, well let’s just say she was not impressed with my effort.

She was right. At the time, my ear for good fiction was quite immature. I do not claim that it’s particularly well developed today, but I have written a story about a medieval pilgrimage that I hope to unveil in a year or two.

I was reminded of my literature professor’s grim assessment as I recently read an interview with a pastor, who is also a lawyer, and happens to be a writer as well. His name is Randy Singer.

Singer describes the similarity of his professions by saying “They all require skills in persuasion, in telling stories to illustrate things.” I guess he’s right.

The difference being that pastors tell true stories, authors of fiction write imaginary stories, and attorneys weave tales that lie somewhere in between.

The part of the interview, which appeared in World Magazine, that I found particularly insightful was this:

When your only desire is to tell the story so people don’t even notice the wording, at that point you’ve become a fiction author.

Singer’s description struck me with the force of an MMA ridge hand (a reverse knife-hand). When I came to, I finally knew why composing fiction does not come naturally to me.

I love words too much. Too much to sacrifice them simply for the sake of the story. Oh, I value the message also, but getting there is half the fun.

Although I don’t love words to the degree many poets lust after them, I still possess an affection that does not allow me to view them through purely utilitarian lenses.

To add insult to his literary injury, Singer adds the following, in response to the question of what he learned while writing several successful novels.

Third, to be less verbose and let the action carry the story instead of thinking, “What are some really flowery and cool phrases and words that I can weave into this?”

That’s enough, friend. You made your point. I would have responded a bit more colorfully and fragrantly, but I hear you.

Singer doesn’t cite C.S. Lewis in the interview, but his counsel is consistent with that of the Oxford don. Lewis advised using clear and concrete language, “so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.” (Personal Correspondence, 1956).

Similarly, Lewis would always argue for the words not to draw attention to themselves. Essentially, they need to get out of the way so the message can come through. “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the things you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible,” describe it so that we’ll be terrified.”

It’s wisdom like that which causes us to recognize C.S. Lewis as the brilliant, gifted, creative, versatile and anointed writer that he was.

As for Singer, perhaps I’ll have to check out one of his legal thrillers. The latest is set in antiquity, with a Roman jurist defending Paul before Nero. Should be quite interesting. Not so good as a nonfiction account of such a trial would be . . . but probably worth reading.

Avoiding Gadzookeries

August 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

gadzookeryWriting quality historical fiction is challenging. This is especially true if one wishes to avoid the common crutch that a talented writer of the last century first labeled “gadzookery.”

And just what is this faux pas we should avoid when writing about the past? Well, it relates most directly to the dialog placed on the lips of historical figures. The offensive technique involves the overuse of archaic expressions or phrases. (Some would argue it includes any use of any archaisms.)

If the word gadzookery sounds a tad, how shall I put it, “goofy” to you, you may prefer using another word that means the same thing: “tushery.” Tushery was coined by Robert Louis Stevenson. Way back in the nineteenth century.

Gadzookery is a newer version, insulting the same lazy writing technique. I believe it may have been coined by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992). Sutcliff’s historical influence has exerted a literary influence on my life second only to C.S. Lewis.*

The article about Sutcliff in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature praises her work, saying, “She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’”

Having tested the waters of historical fiction myself, I know this to be far more difficult that it may sound.

Sutcliff had several things in common with C.S. Lewis. Both wrote for adults and for children. (It was her young adult series about the decline of Roman influence in Britain that sparked my own lifelong interest in Rome.)

Both authors also received the Carnegie Medal for their work. When Lewis was awarded his, he received a congratulatory letter from Pauline Baynes, who had illustrated several of his books. He responded quite graciously.

Dear Miss Baynes, Very nice to hear from you again, and thanks for sending on the book, which I have returned to Lane. Thanks for your congratulations on the Carnegie, but is it not rather ‘our’ Medal? I’m sure the illustrations were taken into consideration as well as the text. I am well, and as happy as a man can be whose wife is desperately ill.

Although C.S. Lewis had married, quite late in life, the two authors were alike in spending most of their life single. Sutcliff, in fact, lived with her parents during most of her life, having suffered crippling arthritis as a child. She did not resent remaining unmarried. In a 1992 interview she said,

Beatrix Potter wrote all her gorgeous stories when she was very lonely and not very happy—after she married, she never wrote another thing. Nothing worth reading, anyway.

Another similarity between the two was that they both fell under the powerful sway of myth during their childhoods. They used their familiarity with its rich echoes to imbue their own work with themes that flowed far beyond the familiar channels travelled by other writers.

Each of them took their readers seriously, and refused to speak down to them. That is why they share one more quality I wish to mention in closing—their high standards. Neither Lewis nor Sutcliff could tolerate poor writing. And their finely tuned skills meant neither ever needed to resort to gadzookery.

______

* Excepting, of course, the Bible itself, which is literature of an entirely different sort. I don’t consider it fair to compare mortal writers, no matter how inspired, to a volume I regard as God’s written word.

Following Your Heart

January 27, 2014 — 11 Comments

trust your heartI read a lot. That’s no surprise, and it’s true of most readers of Mere Inkling. We read a lot.

It is not easy to resist the temptation to pass on many more of the profound insights I encounter on my literary meanderings. I am encouraged there are so many brilliant people in the world who understand what it means live life with integrity and influence in this new millennium.

I want to share a comment taken from a recent interview with Steven James.* He has authored more than thirty books, and won a number of awards. Since most of my reading is nonfiction, I confess I’m not familiar with his writings, but based on the interview I am quite intrigued about his work.

James was asked: “Are non-Christian books and movies more often either manic or depressant?”

That’s a nicely provocative question. There are certainly many examples that could justify either response. In his response, James identifies one of the lies that has come to dominate Western thinking—that there is no ultimate, objective truth.

Building upon that underlying premise, we see the inevitable consequence. Today’s governing philosophy has become one of personal freedom and choice. Nothing (certainly not a nonexistent agreement on right and wrong) can stem the resultant  moral and ethical chaos.

“To thine own self be true,” reads one of Shakespeare’s best recalled lines. Its power arises from the fact it resonates with our deepest desires. Don’t impose your standards on me, our flesh cries out, I will be the master of my own destiny. Of course we wouldn’t want to be untrue to our own conscience. The part that is so often left out here, is the need to pursue truth (Truth).

The Book of Proverbs includes the following maxim: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes . . .” (We prefer to dispense with the second part of the wisdom saying: “. . . but the Lord weighs the heart.”)

What, you may be wondering, was James’ response to the interview question. Trust me, it was worth the wait.

Some movies and books say life is just terrible now: Slit your wrists. Disney on the other hand is: Follow your dreams and everything will be wonderful in the end. This whole idea of follow your heart—that’s not Christian either. Rapists follow their hearts. Pedophiles are true to themselves.

Nazis pursued their dreams. The Bible says that the heart’s deceitful above all things. Why would you want to follow something deceitful? We believe you should follow something greater than your heart, that you need Someone else to inform your dreams. We turn to God.

Point made. Nihilistic films aside, even the sentimental, idealistic, “positive” types of entertainment are fundamentally flawed. Neither reflects reality. And, while the poisoned fruit of the former may be more apparent in its corruption than the latter, the produce of unrealistic optimism is also tainted.

C.S. Lewis describes the untrustworthiness of personal desires, consciences and hearts.

“If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart.” And equally, if our heart flatter us, God is greater than our heart.

I sometimes pray not for self-knowledge in general but for just so much self-knowledge at the moment as I can bear and use at the moment; the little daily dose. Have we any reason to suppose that total self-knowledge, if it were given us, would be for our good?

Children and fools, we are told, should never look at half-done work; and we are not yet, I trust, even half-done. You and I wouldn’t at all stages, think it wise to tell a pupil exactly what we thought of his quality. It is much more important that he should know what to do next. . . . The unfinished picture would so like to jump off the easel and have a look at itself! (Letters to Malcolm).

This isn’t all bad news, of course. As Lewis says, we are freed from depending on our hearts—the emotions of the moment—for our understanding. We no longer need to be “tossed about by the waves” of circumstance.

In the scriptural passage Lewis cites, we are reminded that “God is greater than our hearts.” He alone deserves to be the “Someone else” who “informs our dreams” and reveals to us reality. And, the wonderful result is that when we listen to God, we learn just how deeply he loves us.

_____

* The interview was entitled “Truth Teller,” and appears in the 14 December 2013 issue of World magazine.

roeShould literary critics look down on authors whose work proves popular with “common” people? Is it appropriate for the literary elite to smirk dismissively whenever the prose of a writer outside their circle resonates with the masses?

These, my friends, are rhetorical questions. The answer to both is “no,” and if you believe otherwise, you probably won’t find yourself too comfortable with the opinions shared here at Mere Inkling.

I believe each piece of literature, regardless of its source, should be judged on its own merits. Not all genres appeal to all people. And not all writers compose their works with equal skill. Nevertheless, it is possible for even a poor miner to strike gold.

Likewise, an accomplished writer is not infallible. Even a master wildcatter can sink a dry well.

I’ve been writing an article about Civil War chaplain who became one of America’s most popular writers during the nineteenth century. In fact, many years his novels outsold the works of Samuel Clemens himself.

And yet, despite his success—or possibly, because average people enjoyed his stories—he received an extraordinary amount of criticism from the literary establishment.

I’m going to share his insights about writing in a moment, but  before doing so, I want to draw a parallel with one of the twentieth century’s most gifts authors. C.S. Lewis was loved by common women and men of Britain and other English-speaking countries. And yet, this very popularity undermined his standing in the world of academia and, I daresay, literary snobbery.

Lewis describes this condescending mindset in a 1939 essay entitled, “High Brows and Low Brows.”

The great authors of the past wrote to entertain the leisure of their adult contemporaries, and a man who cared for literature needed no spur and expected no good conduct marks for sitting down to the food provided for him.

Boys at school were taught to read Latin and Greek poetry by the birch, and discovered the English poets as accidentally and naturally as they now discover the local cinema. Most of my own generation, and many, I hope, of yours, tumbled into literature in that fashion.

Of each of us some great poet made a rape when we still wore Eton collars. Shall we be thought immodest if we claim that most of the books we loved from the first were good books and our earliest loves are still unrepented? If so, that very fact bears witness to the novelty of the modern situation; to us, the claim that we have always liked Keats is no prouder than the claim that we have always liked bacon and eggs. For there are changes afoot.

I foresee the growth of a new race of readers and critics to whom, from the very outset, good literature will be an accomplishment rather than a delight, and who will always feel, beneath the acquired taste, the backward tug of something else which they feel merit in resisting.

Such people will not be content to say that some books are bad or not very good; they will make a special class of “lowbrow” art which is to be vilified, mocked, quarantined, and sometimes (when they are sick or tired) enjoyed. They will be sure that what is popular must always be bad, thus assuming that human taste is naturally wrong, that it needs not only improvement and development but veritable conversion.

For them a good critic will be, as the theologians say, essentially a “twice-born” critic, one who is regenerate and washed from his Original Taste. They will have no conception, because they have had no experience, of spontaneous delight in excellence.

I confess I’ve sometimes felt slightly embarrassed when in the presence of a group of people singing the praises of authors of fiction popular among the well-educated. Sometimes I don’t even recognize their names, much less have an idea of what they have written.

Part of my “handicap” rises from the fact that I’m by and large a non-fiction sort of guy. As seminary I was less enraptured by abstract “systematic theology” than the time-proven lessons learned during the Church’s two millennia history. Likewise, I found “practical theology” far more beneficial. After all, I was being equipped not to be a theologian per se, but to become a shepherd entrusted with the cura animarum (the cure of souls).

In that spirit, valuing history and lessons I could put into practice as a pastor and writer, I have been researching the legacy of Edward Payson Roe (1838-1888). He was a Presbyterian pastor who served as a chaplain in the Union cavalry, and later as a military hospital chaplain.

After the war, Roe served a congregation, and eventually turned his energies to writing wholesome fiction. He played a key role in helping many suspicious Protestants realize that, like manna, fiction was neither good nor bad. It’s effects depended on the use to which it was put. Roe proved quite popular with readers. Less so with the literary establishment.

The following account comes from an essay about his life solicited by one of the prominent magazines of his day. It is well worth reading, touching as it does on a broad range of subjects, including international copyrights and the vagaries of publishing in the late 1800s. Most precious, though, are the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.

“While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly. When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception. I had none of the confidence resulting from the gradual testing of one’s power or from association with literary people, and I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.

“That I knew my work to be exceedingly faulty goes without saying; that it was utterly bad, I was scarcely ready to believe. Dr. Field, noted for his pure English diction and taste, would not publish an irredeemable story, and the constituency of the New York ‘Evangelist’ is well known to be one of the most intelligent in the country.

“Friendly opinions from serial readers were reassuring as far as they went, but of course the great majority of those who followed the story were silent. A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought. If my memory serves me, Mr. R.R. Bowker was the earliest critic to write some friendly words in the ‘Evening Mail;’ but at first my venture was very generally ignored.

Then some unknown friend marked an influential journal published in the interior of the State and mailed it so timely that it reached me on Christmas eve. I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, ‘The story is absolutely nauseating.’ In this instance and in my salad days I took pains to find out who the writer was, for if his view was correct I certainly should not engage in further efforts to make the public ill.

“I discovered the reviewer to be a gentleman for whom I have ever had the highest respect as an editor, legislator, and honest thinker. My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact. Meantime, the book was rapidly making for itself friends and passing into frequent new editions. Even the editor who condemned the work would not assert that those who bought it were an aggregation of asses. People cannot be found by thousands who will pay a dollar and seventy-five cents for a dime novel or a religious tract.

“I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York ‘Tribune.’ ‘Here is a man,’ I thought, ‘whose fame and position as a critic are recognized by all. If he deigns to notice the book, he will not only say what he thinks, but I shall have much reason to think as he does.’ Mr. Ripley met the diffident author kindly, asked a few questions, and took the volume. A few weeks later, to my great surprise, he gave over a column to a review of the story. Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see; it would seem that the public had sanctioned his verdict

“From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending. There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people. Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm: the only thing for a writer is to be himself and take the consequences. Even those who regard me as a literary offender of the blackest dye have never named imitation among my sins.

“As successive books appeared, I began to recognize more and more clearly another phase of an author’s experience. A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds. In my own case, I do not mean classes of people looked at from the social point of view. A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency. He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back. This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.

“Certainly, if I had my choice, I would rather write a book interesting to the young and to the common people, whom Lincoln said ‘God must love, since He made so many of them.’ The former are open to influence; the latter can be quickened and prepared for something better. As a matter of fact, I find that there are those in all classes whom my books attract, others who are repelled, as I have said.

“It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown. Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration. On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.

“While I clearly recognize my limitations, and have no wish to emulate the frog in the fable, I can truthfully say that I take increasing pains with each story, aiming to verify every point by experience—my own or that of others. Not long since, a critic asserted that changes in one of my characters, resulting from total loss of memory, were preposterously impossible. If the critic had consulted Ribot’s ‘Diseases of Memory,’ or some experienced physician, he might have written more justly.

“I do not feel myself competent to form a valuable opinion as to good art in writing, and I cannot help observing that the art doctors disagree woefully among themselves. Truth to nature and the realities, and not the following of any school or fashion, has ever seemed the safest guide. I sometimes venture to think I know a little about human nature. My active life brought me in close contact with all kinds of people; there was no man in my regiment who hesitated to come to my tent or to talk confidentially by the campfire, while scores of dying men laid bare to me their hearts. I at least know the nature that exists in the human breast.

“It may be inartistic, or my use of it all wrong. That is a question which time will decide, and I shall accept the verdict. Over twelve years ago, certain oracles, with the voice of fate, predicted my speedy eclipse and disappearance. Are they right in their adverse judgment? I can truthfully say that now, as at the first, I wish to know the facts in the case. The moment an author is conceited about his work, he becomes absurd and is passing into a hopeless condition. If worthy to write at all, he knows that he falls far short of his ideals; if honest, he wishes to be estimated at his true worth, and to cast behind him the mean little Satan of vanity. If he walks under a conscious sense of greatness, he is a ridiculous figure, for beholders remember the literary giants of other days and of his own time, and smile at the airs of the comparatively little man. On the other hand, no self-respecting writer should ape the false deprecating ‘’umbleness’ of Uriah Heep. In short, he wishes to pass, like a coin, for just what he is worth.

“Mr. Matthew Arnold was ludicrously unjust to the West when he wrote, ‘The Western States are at this moment being nourished and formed, we hear, on the novels of a native author called Roe.’ Why could not Mr. Arnold have taken a few moments to look into the bookstores of the great cities of the West, in order to observe for himself how the demand of one of the largest and most intelligent reading publics in the world is supplied? He would have found that the works of Scott and Dickens were more liberally purchased and generally read than in his own land of ‘distinction.’ He should have discovered when in this country that American statesmen (?) are so solicitous about the intelligence of their constituents that they give publishers so disposed every opportunity to steal novels describing the nobility and English persons of distinction; that tons of such novels have been sold annually in the West, a thousand to one of the ‘author called Roe.’

“The simple truth in the case is that in spite of this immense and cheap competition, my novels have made their way and are being read among multitudes of others. No one buys or reads a book under compulsion; and if any one thinks that the poorer the book the better the chance of its being read by the American people, let him try the experiment. When a critic condemns my books, I accept that as his judgment; when another critic and scores of men and women, the peers of the first in cultivation and intelligence, commend the books, I do not charge them with gratuitous lying. My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public. I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.”

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If you are interested in learning more about E.P. Roe, check out my article in the new issue (4.2) of Curtana: Sword of Mercy which was published online just last week.

Hip-Hop Literary Lessons

April 27, 2013 — 7 Comments

flocabDo you ever have trouble remembering the key elements of a story? Well, you may not now, since you’ve become an accomplished writer. However, there was once a time when you were just learning about such matters. And that learning might have been far easier than it was if some of today’s teaching resources existed then.

This week I stumbled across a very unusual approach to teaching the fundamental building blocks of stories. You might want to bookmark the page, in case you ever experience difficulty remembering those five pesky elements required for your short fiction, or want to teach a young learner. You need look no further than Flocabulary’s innovative lesson “Five Things.”

The song is less than four minutes long, so go ahead and watch it now, before reading on. (Barring a small typo, it’s quite educational, and their website includes testimonials from teachers affirming how well it connects with young people.) Despite the fact that it’s got a hip-hop beat—not my favorite musical genre—it’s actually quite entertaining . . . and it’s easy to see how well it would connect with today’s younger students.

[Warning: If you watch the following video, you may well be singing along with the chorus before it ends.]

Plot, Character, Conflict, Theme,

Setting, yes these are the 5 things

That you’re going to be needing

When you’re reading or writing

A short story that’s mad exciting.

Music is a powerful medium, and when it is harnessed for educational purposes, it can accomplish wonderful things.

Music can be enjoyed for itself . . . its own inherent loveliness.

Music can also be used to communicate holy things. I believe this is the very reason it exists. Divine grace and our response to our Creator’s love are too majestic to be restricted to simple words.

The brilliant African Bishop Augustine of the city of Hippo is cited as saying “he who sings, prays twice.” Many have echoed these words. I have no doubt Augustine believed this, but the more accurate quotation is: “he who sings well prays twice” (bis orat qui bene cantat). Lest those of us with less than professional vocal chords be dismayed, I am confident the “well” here refers here to worshiping God in spirit and truth (John 4:23).

I have no doubt which of these two pleases God more. The most wondrous voice ever created (a gift itself from our Creator) flawlessly navigating three octaves and singing of the cares of this world—or the feeble, cracking, off-key strains of a tone deaf beggar who is praising the Lord for the gift of his daily bread.

C.S. Lewis famously expressed his disaffection for most church hymnody in a 1950 letter where he wrote:

I naturally loathe nearly all hymns; the face and life of the charwoman in the next pew who revels in them, teach me that good taste in poetry or music are not necessary to salvation.

We must forgive Lewis his condescending comment here, which was only meant for a private communication. And, if read in context it can be interpreted almost as a sort of confession. While he disliked the quality of contemporary Anglican hymns, he was acutely aware of how insignificant the matter was in light of the vital importance of  knowing Christ. (His description of the glorification of the modest Sarah Smith in The Great Divorce reveals how well he recognized that the charwoman beside him, despite her musical preferences, could easily dwarf him in holiness and religious courage.)

In a letter written in 1916, Lewis alluded to the wonder of music, and it’s relationship to particular words. “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Toward the end of his life, Lewis invested much time in a literary study of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. (It was actually published after his death, based upon his notes, as Spenser’s Images of Life. It includes a sparkling description of the book as a musical masterpiece.

A story of this kind is in a way more like a symphony than a novel. Corresponding to the themes of the musical form, the literary form has images, which may be delicious or threatening or cryptic or grotesque, but which are always richly expressive of mood.

The images are in every possible relation of contrast, mutual support, development, variation, half-echo, and the like, just as the musical themes are. But the ostensible connection between them all—what keeps the meddling intellect quiet—is here provided by the fact that they are all happening to someone.

They are all worked into the experience or the world of the characters “whose” story it is. That, no more and no less, is the raison d’étre of characters in the characterless story.

I have no doubt Lewis would have found the video above jarring. Yet, I suspect he would have approved of the fact that the music was creating a bridge to some for whom traditional learning is incomprehensible. He was a traditionalist. In many ways, a medievalist. But he was, above all, a redeemed child of God. And, because of that, he desired the best for his neighbor, his nation, and our world.

That said, I don’t want to hear that any readers of Mere Inkling got it into their heads to put any of C.S. Lewis’ words into hip-hop melodies. Ever!

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If you are interested in checking out the official website for Flocabulary, you can view their lesson “Wordplay” (on figurative language). I understand, however, that some of their lessons with political dimensions have been considered superficial.