C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing

C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing

Corey Latta. C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing. Cascade Books, 2016, 250 pages. $30.00.

Could there be any two people more different than George Orwell, an atheist and socialist who worked as a policeman in Burma, spent a year living as a hobo in Paris and London, and fought in Spain on the loyalist side, and C. S. Lewis, a bookish Oxford don and Cambridge professor of English who never held a job other than teaching and who, after many years as an atheist, matured into the foremost Christian apologist of the twentieth century? And yet, the similarities between their lives and works are striking.

Orwell (1903-1950) and Lewis (1898-1963) both spoke over the BBC during WWII helping their fellow Brits understand what they were fighting for. Both wrote dystopic novels--Animal Farm and 1984; That Hideous Strength--that exposed the dangers of totalitarianism from the right or left and that warned against social engineering and the loss of personal freedom. Both spoke to the common man and both deserved the title of apostle of common sense.

More to the point of this review, both men were prose stylists of the highest order who equated clear writing, not only with clear thinking, but with moral clarity as well. In his seminal essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell exhorts his readers to use simple, concrete language, avoiding such rhetorical pitfalls as abstract terminology, academic jargon, tired clichés, pretentious syntax, and weak, foggy euphemisms.

Poor and lazy writers succumb often to these pitfalls, but so do wicked writers who manipulate language for their own nefarious ends. The political propagandist uses abstraction, jargon, and euphemism as a way of hiding his atrocities. For the Nazi or Communist ideologue, the goal of writing is not clarity but obfuscation; words are not meant to reveal goodness, truth, and beauty, but to lend an aura of respectability, or at least inevitability, to inhuman thoughts and actions that should be unthinkable.

Although Corey Latta does not mention Orwell in his new book, "C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing," he makes it clear that Lewis approached writing with the same type of aesthetic and moral seriousness. Writers are not people who play with words, but stewards entrusted with a precious gift. Latta, an author, teacher, and public speaker who has written on Lewis, the imagination, apologetics, and literary theology, demonstrates that Lewis, from early childhood to the closing weeks of his life, identified himself primarily as a writer, one equally devoted to his own individual writing and to the community of writers that God put in his path.

Latta's contention that Lewis's dedication to writing lies at the core of his being should come as no surprise to lovers of Lewis. And yet, no critic to date has devoted a book to the fascinating subject which Latta describes in his lengthy subtitle: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing.

In keeping with his subtitle, Latta quotes passages from all the various genres in which Lewis wrote; however, what makes his book a treasure trove for Lewis lovers is the time Latta has spent combing through the thousands of letters Lewis wrote to achieve an admirably rounded and nuanced view of him as a writer. What emerges from Latta's loving interaction with Lewis's letters is the portrait of an Inkling whose veins ran with ink: "There is hardly an area of Lewis's life untouched by writing. Every relationship. Every loss. Every fear. Every ambition. Every hope. Every disappointment" (5).

Composed as it is of brief, impressionistic, kaleidoscopic chapters, C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing is a hard book to summarize, but its mostly chronological approach draws out facets of Lewis's character missing from most of the standard biographies:

  • Lewis wrote because he had to, because he was a writer: "I am sure," he wrote in one of his letters, "that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development" (134).
  • Lewis the writer possessed, as his atheist tutor Kirkpatrick pointed out in a letter to Lewis's father, "fixity of purpose, determination of character, [and] persevering energy" (109).
  • Though dedicated to his craft, Lewis was discerning enough to know when a project needed to be dropped; contrariwise, he had a long enough memory to be able to pull out an idea he had dropped decades before and bring it to completion.
  • Lewis's dutiful letter writing--much of which he dreaded--included not only personal and spiritual advice, but his reading and commenting at length, often with considerable detail, on poems, stories, and essays that had been mailed to him by friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
  • Lewis's experience and philosophy as a reader and writer are inseparable: "Each work Lewis wrote was an attempt to give the reader a new view of the world. To turn readers into witnesses of and participants in what was for Lewis a transcendent act" (76).
  • Lewis downplayed the role of originality in writing, not only on aesthetic grounds, but because of his spiritual understanding of the relationship between God the Creator and the human artist: "Beauty descends from God into nature," wrote Lewis in a letter to his longtime friend Arthur Greeves, "but there it would perish and does except when a Man appreciates it with worship and thus as it were sends it back to God: so that through his consciousness what descended ascends again and the perfect circle is made" (145).
  • Lewis also downplayed originality because he believed "the writer wasn't responsible for--or even capable of--original thought, [but] was more of a translator for pre-existent truths" (165-166); and not just any translator, but one who translated "existent ideas into accessible language, into vernacular" (166).
Most lovers of Lewis will know that Lewis's colleagues at Oxford were highly critical of his popular and Christian works and that his dear friend J. R. R. Tolkien--whose Lord of the Rings Lewis championed--was dismissive of his Narnia books. Most will also know that Lewis's original ambition was to be a celebrated poet, an ambition he never realized.

Still, even here, Latta brings a fresh approach and new insights to the table. It was not until Lewis was able to die to his early desire for fame, not until he was able to embrace his gift for writing as an end in itself, that he was able to persevere through all setbacks and mature into a truly accomplished writer: "It's when, Lewis believed, the writer stops seeking reputation as one who communicates great ideas and starts loving the ideas for themselves that he can actually write. It's dying to the novelty of being a writer that frees one up to go and write. Lewis discovered this unlikely artistic version of 'he who wants to gain his life will lose it' by writing for himself. Without the motivation of the public's praise, Lewis found the act of writing its own reward" (133-134).

Finally, in the midst of painting his rounded portrait of Lewis the author, Latta offers plenty of sound advice on how to become a good writer. He culls this advice mostly from Lewis's letters, particularly one he wrote to a young American girl in which he listed five rules of thumb for crafting prose. Latta sums up those five points for us--"1) make quite clear what you mean, 2) prefer the plain, 3) never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do, 4) instead of telling us a thing, describe it, and 5) don't use words too big for the subject" (4-5)--and then devotes a number of chapters to fleshing them out, with Lewis, of course, as his model. As an added bonus, Latta invites us to become Lewis-like writers ourselves by providing, at the end of each chapter, a series of probing questions and thought-provoking assignments.

C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing makes a fine addition to the ever growing number of books about Lewis, offering yet another reason why Lewis remains a major literary and popular figure. Indeed, reading Latta's book and comparing it with the life and work of George Orwell has convinced me that God chose Lewis, not only to be a defender of the faith in a time of unbelief and an apologist for beauty in an age of ugliness, but to be an advocate for clear, common-sense truth at a time when totalitarianism from the right and left threatened to extinguish it forever.

Louis Markos (www.Loumarkos.com), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Lewis Agonistes, Restoring Beauty: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, and C. S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education.