Monday, March 31, 2014
Reader Response Criticism and C.S. Lewis’s “An Experiment in Criticism”
C.S. Lewis, besides being the author of many popular children’s stories, was a professor of medieval literature at both Cambridge and Oxford. Contrary to what might be supposed, he was not an author by career, and much of what he wrote was in the same vein of his area of expertise, literary analysis. “An Experiment in Criticism” is his longest and most complete work, and also the most layman friendly. While the outlook and perspective he takes in his book conforms roughly to the definition of reader-response criticism, it is also very much his own work, and a great number of things he says, and the narrative approach he takes, would not be included in a textbook entry. Nevertheless, C.S. Lewis was, in the words of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, "an exceptionally good literary critic”.
It is the job of the reader-response critic to examine the range of reactions readers have in response to a text, and determine what variables attribute to a reader’s reaction. According to the description on the Poetry Foundation’s website, a reader response critic must, “analyze the ways in which different readers … make meaning out of both purely personal reactions and inherited or culturally conditioned ways of reading”. Lewis does this by lumping all readers into two groups, the “many” and the “few”. Farther on in the book he refined these terms to the “literary” and “unliterary”, and takes great pains to describe their different motivations and mental processes. This terminology sounds elitist, but he goes on to explain what, exactly, he means.
The main distinction between these two groups is whether they distance their personal vagaries from the reading of a text or not. Lewis stresses that those who don’t bother with trying to become an ideal reader may nevertheless be lovers of reading, while the...
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