How not to Write: DON’T be C.S. Lewis

I consider myself a writer. As a young teen I won a contest and got published in an anthology, I have several other short stories written, and I have one play that nobody is ever allowed to look at ever but is my only finished “long” work. I also write a ton of stuff for this blog (in fact, my output rather shocks me).

C.S. Lewis is my favorite author. There are a lot of things that writers can learn from reading him. He is absolutely brilliant at evoking…things, I guess. Images, emotions, vague concepts turned into tangible realities. Lewis knows that great writing comes from choosing the right words, not the most. He packs a ton of power into perfectly chosen words and phrases, managing to paint unforgettable and fully fleshed out characters using simple, broad strokes.

But there is one thing C.S. Lewis does in his fiction that no fiction writer should ever, ever do: Lewis preaches. He preaches openly. He blatantly peddles a particular ideology and doesn’t care who knows it. To give a clear example,”The Screwtape Letters” is more than a normal book. It’s a sermon, and he imparts his views on morality to the reader directly. If Lewis lacks one thing, it is subtlety. Even “Till We Have Faces”, arguably his least obtuse work, inserts some beautifully written but definitely clear-cut moralizing at the end of it. Lewis does not leave room for the reader to disagree with him. By the end of the story he wants to convince you of something.

And Lewis pulls it off, because Lewis is a genius. Somehow Lewis proselytizes and moralizes and preaches loudly and openly in his novels and not only gets away with it but creates absolutely beautiful work. “The Screwtape Letters” might be a sermon, but it’s also a wicked satire. Lewis, basically, has the gift of writing interesting sermons.

And that is something nobody should try and imitate. Most writers are not C.S. Lewis. Even Tolkien is not C.S. Lewis. Tolkien’s work is infused with a glorious strain of Christian spirit, but Tolkien very intentionally wrote it with absolutely no attempt in mind to try and convert people to Catholicism or peddle his particular moral view. He simply tried to write a brilliant story…and he did. In fact, Tolkien criticized the later Narnia books because he believed that even Lewis was preaching too much (I disagree, but I get why he’d think that)!

Don’t get me wrong – everybody who writes needs to have a particular point of view to work from in mind when they start their story. You cannot write a work of fiction working under the assumption that it’s equally possible that nihilism and Thomism are the correct philosophical worldview. This leads to work utterly lacking in any sort of conviction, and it comes off as if the author has no idea what he wants to write about. And it’s even fine to say, “By the end of the story I want people to realize that Christian redemption is what changed Jean Valjean’s life”.

But do not write a story that goes “Here’s an undersea world with a fish named Aslo who’s really Jesus”. This is not only just aping off Lewis, but you will not be able to pull it off. Instead of coming off deep and insightful, you are going to look like an arrogant tool, and you will turn people off.

If you want to write Christian fiction, write fiction from a Christian perspective. Don’t write a Christian sermon as told by a fictional character, or a journey through the afterlife written specifically so you could peddle your beliefs, or a fantasy series designed to teach children about Christianity. You will fail, and badly. The ability to proselytize and not come off as arrogant and condescending is a gift that 99.9% of writers do not possess, including most of the masters.

You and I are not C.S. Lewis, and we shouldn’t try to be.

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7 Responses to How not to Write: DON’T be C.S. Lewis

  1. calebt45 says:

    Have you read Alister McGrath’s Aedyn Chronicles? I haven’t read them, but the title would seem to suggest that he falls into the trap that you are talking about.

  2. I think there’s good reason to regard this as purely a cultural taste — that is, it arises for the same reason that didactic poetry and allegory are rare. Modern Western readers don’t like to be preached at, unless they are sure they will already agree; other readers, in other cultures and at other times, like message texts even if they disagree with the message. This is in fact exactly why Lewis did what he did — he was deliberately trying to write works capturing some of what he liked in ancient and medieval literature, and some of those things are simply unattainable without a strong didactic element, because a lot of ancient and medieval literature builds itself around precisely such an element. Likewise, many of the bestselling novels of the nineteenth century were, in fact, Christian sermons novelized; only the very best novelists managed to do well while not doing that sort of thing. Tastes have since changed; now the novels that are still read are the ones that didn’t. But it’s all because modern reading culture takes it to be arrogant to tell people what they should believe.

    And while it’s true that most people who try to write in this didactic vein will fail, the same advice can be given for practically anyone who is taking any approach to writing. Most people who attempt just to write a story without preaching will not be able to pull it off. If you try to write like Tolkien, you will likely fail. The most that can be said in this direction, I think, is that your failure will be less noticeable for a while because a lot of other people will be failing in the same way.

    • I’m not so sure about that. There are definitely guidelines writers can follow that generally, with decent prose and plot, will turn out at least a well-paced story. They get a bad rap. Most works of fiction follow a lot of these structures naturally, and trying to stay within those boundaries CAN help a lot.

      Saying there are no methods that can be applied generally to all writers is at best a big exaggeration and at worst flat out false. Sure, of course there are things Tolkien does we should not attempt to try, just like their are things Lewis does that are undeniably worth emulating. Be smart about it, and know your limits.

      • Far from being an exaggeration, that there are no methods that can be applied generally to all writers is pretty obviously what the history of literature shows: there is no method that all fiction writers follow, and no rules to which they all conform. It does not follow, of course, that there are no methods or rules; but which methods or rules to follow will depend on tastes. Your guidelines, for instance, would eliminate practically everything that the late medieval period thought was genuinely important in fiction, for instance. What our contemporaries think is a “well-paced story” is almost comically high-speed compared to serious Victorian fiction, like a movie run at three times normal tempo, our sense of pacing having been trained by radio and then, massively, by TV. What people today think “decent prose” would have been regarded by Samuel Johnson as badly structured (David Hume’s prose is usually considered very good by today’s standards, and Johnson thought it was like someone woodenly translating French into English). Johnson’s Rasselas is one of the most influential English-language fiction works of all time; it’s preaching from one end to the other, literally. There are always rules and methods, but they change from period to period, and from culture to culture, and even sometimes from project to project. Nothing you said in the post is wrong if you are interested in appealing to the set taste of most Western readers in our own time, who hate being told what right and wrong are and who despise didactic fiction. This, though, is a matter of modern taste; it is provably not a taste that has always dominated, it is not a taste that dominates every culture even now, and it is not a taste that will dominate forever. Assuming the taste, you can have guidelines for satisfying it; but where you can’t assume the taste, or like Lewis are trying to shift the taste, all bets are off on what the rules are: they have to be developed as you go along, with all the risks that come with doing that. There’s no problem with suggesting guidelines; it’s just important to recognize that the guidelines are being set by contingent tastes, not universal principles.

      • I don’t necessarily disagree. I merely point out that if we have standards for judging quality literature we need to have SOME sort of, if guideline is the wrong word, then at least idea of what it generally takes to create it.

  3. Itinérante says:

    Mr. Malcolm,
    It is true that the reader today finds it a bit repulsive to read preachy content today but not necessary because preachy is not what they want hear but rather in the way preachy is getting through. It tremendously lacks confidence, humility and “example-ness”. When C.S. Lewis preaches, it is very clear that he does it from a genuine heart, a humble spirit and a convinced mind, even when he does it in the context of fiction. I very much doubt we would reject any work done today if it came with this attitude. The truth in every age will choose to come through because it is eternal, and there is no method to make it audible beside following the example of the Preacher (Jesus Christ), not exactly in the genre for sometimes it is in fictions/parables, sometimes in sermons, and so on, but more in the character the writer needs to be working on to become (to set an example in living Christ-like). That said, I do agree that we must be careful taking this upon ourselves, preaching that is, least we portray a false image of the message we want to get through.
    Again, I hope I make sense.

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