Thursday, February 3, 2011

C.S. Lewis on the Stylemonger, the Antiliterary Reader

"Having said that the unliterary reader attends to the words too little to make anything like a full use of them, I must notice that there is another sort of reader who attends to them far too much and in the wrong way. I am thinking of what I call Stylemongers. On taking up a book, these people concentrate on what they call its 'style' or its 'English'. They judge this neither by its sound nor by its power to communicate but by its conformity to certain arbitrary rules. Their reading is a perpetual witch hunt for Americanisms, Gallicisms, split infinitives, and sentences that end with a preposition. They do not inquire whether the Americanism or Gallicism in question increases or impoverishes the expressiveness of our language. It is nothing to them that the best English speakers and writers have been ending sentences with prepositions for over a thousand years. They are full of arbitrary dislikes for particular words. One is 'a word they've always hated'; another 'always makes them think of so-and-so'. This is too common, and that too rare. Such people are of all men least qualified to have any opinion about a style at all; for the only two tests that are really relevant -- the degree in which it is (as Dryden would say) 'sounding and significant' -- are the two they never apply. They judge the instrument by anything rather than its power to do the work it was made for; treat language as something that 'is' but does not 'mean'; criticise the lens after looking at it instead of through it. It was often said that the law about literary obscenity operated almost exclusively against particular words, that books were banned not for their tendency but for their vocabulary and a man could freely administer the strongest possible aphrodisiacs to his public provided he had the skill -- and what competent writer has not? -- to avoid the forbidden syllables. The Stylemonger's criteria, though for a different reason, are as wide of the mark as those of the law, and in the same way. If the mass of the people are unliterary, he is antiliterary. He creates in the minds of the unliterary (who have often suffered under him at school) a hatred of the very word style and a profound distrust of every book that is said to be well written. And if style meant what the Stylemonger values, this hatred and distrust would be right."

--C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961) pp. 35-36

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