Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

light posting, fore and aft

Y’all haven’t heard much from me here lately, and that may not change in the near future. I am loving my new gig here at Baylor, but I’m also teaching books I haven’t taught before or haven’t taught in a long time, and that’s keeping me quite busy. Happily busy — but busy. So forming posts worthy of your time is a little beyond me right now.

However, I keep track of much of my ongoing reading — mostly for general research rather than for my classes — on my Pinboard page, so you can find lots of links and quotes there. Also, my longish article on the apparently endless “Two Cultures” controversy is up at the Books & Culture site. I’d be honored if you read it.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

the hidden costs of e-book lending

This article by Jennifer Howard on the barriers to lending e-books via ILL (InterLibrary Loan) gives an interesting little glimpse of the future, or a future.

ILL is a pain in the neck for libraries, though a necessary one. It has existed in one form or another for a long time, but could only become truly effective first with the computerization of library catalogues and then with the sharing of them over the internet. (I remember the dizzy rapture with which I first searched overseas university library catalogues, via telnet, back in the early ‘90s.) But ILL remains cumbersome: once requests come in they have to be processed, which in the case of books means packing and mailing, and in the case of articles in journals often means scanning to PDF before emailing. And with books there’s always the question of whether they will be returned on time or at all.

So it’s easy to see the great appeal for libraries of new tools like Ocaam’s Reader, which allows lending of e-books by providing a link that opens the books in a web-browser window. Once the allotted time is up, poof, the book (or, presumably, any other digitizable item) disappears. Howard writes that “Borrowed e-books can be read but not copied, printed out, or downloaded. The idea is to give borrowers quick access while reassuring publishers that copyrighted content will remain secure and can be shared without eating into sales.”

But if I can see it on my screen I can copy it — just with a bit of effort. For instance, I can take a screenshot, convert that image to PDF, and open it in PDFpen, which has built-in OCR capabilities. (Or, if I were going to do this often, I could change the default screenshot file format to PDF, thus saving a step.) The Ocaam’s Reader designers have done everything they can to assuage the concerns of publishers about too-easy lending limiting book sales, but any electronic format is, if you have the right tools, easier to copy and transmit than any paper format.

The great boon of e-books for publishers is obvious: it eliminates one of the great uncertainties of the book business, which is how many books to print. Established publishers are very good at guessing the likely sales of a given book, but when they’re wrong the consequences can be significant: being unable to meet demand of an unexpected hit, demand that might fade before the books are back in the stores; or, more common, getting stuck with a warehouse full of unordered or returned copies that then have to be remaindered or pulped. E-books make all those uncertainties disappear; but I suspect that many publishers are wondering whether they don't in the end amout to a Trojan horse for the book business.

Monday, February 17, 2014

De Quincey's pharmakon

The one book for which Thomas de Quincey is known today is his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, in which he details, in a style owing much to writers of the seventeenth-century Baroque, “the pleasures and pains of Opium” — though with, it seems to many readers, more emphasis on the pleasures. He says at the outset that he admits no guilt, and seems to want more than anything else to give a plausible and self-exculpating explanation of how an English “scholar” and “philosopher” could have fallen under the sway of the drug so closely associated with undisciplined and weak-willed “Orientals.”

Perhaps feeling that he had not done enough to explain himself, De Quincey later wrote a sequel, Suspiria de Profundis, which he begins with an interesting reflection that connects, oddly enough, with the themes of this blog. NB: De Quincey writes few short sentences.

Habitually to dream magnificently, a man must have a constitutional determination to reverie. This in the first place, and even this, where it exists strongly, is too much liable to disturbance from the gathering agitation of our present English life. Already, in this year 1845, what by the procession through fifty years of mighty revolutions amongst the kingdoms of the earth, what by the continual development of vast physical agencies, steam in all its applications, light getting under harness as a slave for man , powers from heaven descending upon education and accelerations of the press, powers from hell (as it might seem, but these also celestial) coming round upon artillery and the forces of destruction, the eye of the calmest observer is troubled; the brain is haunted as if by some jealousy of ghostly beings moving amongst us; and it becomes too evident that, unless this colossal pace of advance can be retarded (a thing not to be expected), or, which is happily more probable, can be met by counter forces of corresponding magnitude, forces in the direction of religion or profound philosophy, that shall radiate centrifugally against this storm of life so perilously centripetal towards the vortex of the merely human, left to itself, the natural tendency of so chaotic a tumult must be to evil; for some minds to lunacy, for others to a regency of fleshly torpor. How much this fierce condition of eternal hurry upon an arena too exclusively human in its interests is likely to defeat the grandeur which is latent in all men, may be seen in the ordinary effect from living too constantly in varied company. The word dissipation, in one of its uses, expresses that effect; the action of thought and feeling is too much dissipated and squandered. To reconcentrate them into meditative habits, a necessity is felt by all observing persons for sometimes retiring from crowds. No man ever will unfold the capacities of his own intellect who does not at least checker his life with solitude. How much solitude, so much power.

In short, the pace of technological acceleration (including technologies of text) has the effect of making people too occupied, too social, “living too constantly in varied company.” Varied company may be good, but sometimes people need their own internal company. But they are incessantly drawn out of themselves and “dissipate” their mental powers by being deprived, or depriving themselves, of the restorative and concentrating effects of solitude.

De Quincey argues that this constant sociality limits one particular kind of human power to a great and (to him) deeply troubling degree:

Among the powers in man which suffer, by this too intense life of the social instincts, none suffers more than the power of dreaming. Let no man think this a trifle. The machinery for dreaming planted in the human brain was not planted for nothing. That faculty, in alliance with the mystery of darkness, is the one great tube through which man communicates with the shadowy. And the dreaming organ, in connection with the heart, the eye and the ear, compose the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain, and throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of the sleeping mind.

But just as there are technologies that dissipate human power, so too there may be technologies that concentrate it in dreams:

But if this faculty suffers from the decay of solitude, which is becoming a visionary idea in England, on the other hand, it is certain that some merely physical agencies can and do assist the faculty of dreaming almost preternaturally. Amongst these is intense exercise; to some extent at least, and for some persons; but beyond all others is opium, which indeed seems to possess a specifc power in that direction; not merely for exalting the colors of dream−scenery, but for deepening its shadows; and, above all, for strengthening the sense of its fearful realities.

De Quincey goes on to say that, yes, exercise is better for you than opium, and that he could only throw off the yoke of opium by intense exercise — but he also makes it clear in this passage that exercise does not intensify and deepen the dreams of the solitary person the way opium does.

In De Quincey's ideal world, then, the sociability of textual technologies would be countered by equally powerful but also safe solitude- and dream-conducive pharmaceutical technologies. Alas that the world is not ideal.

In the most famous passage of his Confessions, de Quincey writes this great apostrophe:

O just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest and assuaging balm; – eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath, and, to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure from blood; and, to the proud man, a brief oblivion for “Wrongs unredressed, and insults unavenged;” that summonest to the chancery of dreams, for the triumphs of suffering innocence, false witnesses, and confoundest perjury, and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges; thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles, – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos; and, “from the anarchy of dreaming sleep,” callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the “dishonours of the grave.” Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh just, subtle, and mighty opium!

But, in the deepest and bitterest of ironies, de Quincey knows, and expects us to know, that he is patterning his praise on another famous apostrophe, this one written by Sir Walter Raleigh: “O eloquent, just, and mighty death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised: thou hast drawn together all the farstretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet.”

Opium kills. The perfect pharmakon with the power to cure our technologically-induced alienation from our selves, and the power to release our full mental powers, without poisoning us or in any way harming us, had not yet been developed. How does the situation look in 2014?

Friday, February 14, 2014

CSL and the Menippean satire, once more

There's probably not much point in responding to this post, with its rhetorical strategy of huffing and puffing and blowing my house down by intoning words like “nonsensical.” The best response to such stuff us almost always this.

But then there's precedent for this, also.

So here's the key passage, I think:

I'm not even going to get all the way into the fact that Jacobs does not get Menippean satires, taking as he does Frye's very abstract characterization for the purpose of contrasting with novels and Bakhtin's interaction with it as part of his philosophy of dialogue as if they were proper characterization of the genre itself. Of all of C. S. Lewis's novels, the only one that has clear concrete similarities to a Menippean satire is That Hideous Strength, and this is obviously because it has Menippean satires among its major literary influences. It also should not have to be said, but apparently has to be said, that Menippean satire is a form of storytelling.

Well, see: no. It isn't. And that's the key point.

(By the way, I'd be willing to bet that Brandon had never heard of the genre before he took it upon himself to tell me that I don't understand it. He clearly hasn't read Bakhtin on the subject, or he would know that the “characterization of the genre” — that's precisely what it is, just look it up and you'll see — doesn't appear in a “philosophy of dialogue” but in a work of literary criticism that at that point is tracing the generic pre-history of Dostoevsky's novels. That was an especially blustery day on Brandon's blog, Pooh! )

The Menippean satire is a genre that includes narrative but also includes many other things — the various “inserted genres” that Bakhtin refers to, which may be poetry, song, philosophical disputation, almost anything. And in some cases, an overarching narrative that contains very different narrative genres within, as, to take an example especially important to Lewis, when Apuleius puts the tragic myth of Cupid and Psyche in the middle of the often farcical and picaresque Satyricon.

So, to anyone passingly familiar with the genre, its marks are not just on That Hideous Strength but on much of Lewis's fiction: the songs and debates interspersed in the narrative of The Pilgrim's Regress; the debates — yes, again with the debates — in Perelandra, topped off by an extended theological lecture; the curious combination of satire and dream-vision in The Great Divorce; and so on. And this should be no surprise, because versions of the menippea are scattered throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The combination of dream vision and satire may be found in Piers Plowman; the insertion of long theological debates in fabulous narrative is especially characteristic of Guillame de Lorris's continuation of the Romance of the Rose; the alternation of argument and song may be found not only in The Pilgrim's Progress but also, in a very different way, in a book whose influence on CSL has not been well-enough noted, Sidney's Arcadia.

Lewis taught and wrote about all of these works, and if you read what he had to say about them, you'll see that he understands that modern readers of them are likely to grow frustrated and impatient. Why? Because we live in the Age of the Novel, in which Henry James's emphasis on “organic form” has long been sovereign (though coming under increasingly frequent challenge in recent decades). The average reader expects a story to be just that, a story, and tends to be puzzled when songs turn up or lectures or disputations go on for too long. Example: it's amazing how agitated readers can become by the songs in The Lord of the Rings — though in that case Tolkien may be the victim of his own skill at keeping a story moving: his readers don't want to pause. Or don't think they do. (But I digress.)

Which leads me back to the chief point of my earlier post, which is that if we're going to have a proper appreciation of what Lewis was up to in his fiction, we do well to realize what his models were, and how many of them involved the mixing-and-matching of genre that we see best exemplified by the Menippean satire. Sometimes Lewis's stories seem to lose impetus or focus because he's not the best storyteller in the world; but sometimes he's not at that moment trying to tell a story: he's pausing in the narrative to complicate and deepen its picture in varying ways.

I think this has almost everything to do with Frye's comment that “the novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.” One of Lewis's most consistent purposes as a writer was to diagnose the diseases of the intellect that arise when the intellect is cut off from its proper and healthy connection to the “chest,” as he puts it in The Abolition of Man: the seat of moral discernment and judgment. Other great modern practitioners of the Menippean form seem to believe the same: I think especially of Kierkegaard in the nineteenth century and Walker Percy in the twentieth. The generic multiplicity and intellectual daring of the Menippean satire are, I think, under-exploited resources, especially for the Christian thinker.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Grimm's heirs


The last year or so has seen an intriguing renewal of a genre from the early years of the internet: the email newsletter. A couple of months ago Alexis Madrigal described this development as a natural and healthy response to a never-ending and increasingly vast stream of online data: "My newsletter is finite (always less than 600 words) and it comes once a day. It has edges. You can finish it." Madrigal also draws on a metaphor created by Robin Sloan, who has a newsletter of his own, and who sees online life as comprised of stock and flow: Stock is "the durable stuff," accumulated and consolidated knowledge, while flow is what steadily, or overwhelmingly, comes to you through your email and Twitter and Facebook and RSS. But only if the flow is manageable can the best of it be converted into stock. Newsletters, in Madrigal's reading of the situation, filter the flow and as it were pre-convert it to stock. Or at least make it readier to be converted.

Whether they know it or not, today's newsletter-makers are following an interesting historical precedent: their great model is Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm, a German who made his name in Paris as a friend of some of the most famous literary figures of his day, including Diderot and Rousseau (both of whom came to hate him, probably for good reason, but that's another story).

In 1753 Grimm began to write and edit La Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique, a newsletter about cultural events that was meant to supplement and when necessary correct official news sources, which were subject to rigorous censorship. The situation was not as bad as it might have been, thanks to the fact that for many years the chief censor was Malesherbes, who knew most of the philosophes and supported them in every way possible. (Without Malesherbes to clear the way the great Encyclopédie would surely never have been published. Incidentaly, we owe another debt to Malesherbes: he was the great-grandfather of Alexis de Tocqueville.) Still, there were things one dared not say for fear of offending some powerful person connected with the court of the ancien régime, some person Malesherbes couldn't protect you from, so Grimm made sure that his newsletters were copied — by hand, interestingly: Grimm used amanuenses rather than printing presses — and distributed from outside France, i.e., beyond the reach of the censors.

La Correspondance was a curious combination of journalism, learned instruction, and gossip column. Grimm would summarize recent works of philosophy or literature or social criticism and then describe how those works were being received by le monde (and even occasionally le demimonde). He commisioned Diderot to attend the annual art exhibition at the Paris Salon and write up his responses to what he saw — which Diderot did at great length and with vivid acuity: these became the most celebrated contributions to La Correspondance. Grimm became very skilled at recruiting guest writers who understood disciplines he didn't know well or who wrote from social locations he couldn't get access to. Moreover, as I have learned from Yoni Appelbaum, the historian Paule Jansen has discovered that Grimm also functioned as a filter and aggregator: much of the content of the Correspondance previously appeared in other journals.

For the first twenty years of La Correspondance Grimm ran the newsletter himself and was its chief contributor, but then he turned it over to his secretary, who kept it going (in a diminished state) until 1790, when the Revolution made it impossible to continue.

Perhaps the most interesting point to make about La Correspondance is this: it never had, nor did Grimm ever want, a large subscriber base. Grimm's interest was in what John Milton called a "fit audience, though few" — but Grimm defined fitness by social standing. He counted among his subscribers Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia, and several other European kings, princes, and aristocrats. Their interest in the newsletter seems to have been both personal — wanting to be "in the know" about the goings-on in Paris, the cultural capital of their world — but also politically self-interested, since some of the French thinkers took rather extreme political positions which, in the nature of things, were likely to spread to the intellectuals of the rest of Europe.

Moreover, these handwritten newsletters, even though not written in Grimm's own hand, had the personal touch: they were not official publications, diplomatic dispatches, authorized works of scholarship, but confidential and gossipy letters from knowledgable and charming friends. There was something of both stock and flow about them. They brought cultural and artistic news the subscribers weren't likely to get otherwise, at least not in so reliable a form, but they also explained what one should think about, how one should evaluate, the ever-changing, dynamic, rollicking world of Parisian art and culture. La Correspondance may not have had many subscribers, but I bet on the day of any given issue's delivery the readers' pulses were reliably racing.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

the quantified un-self

Nicholas Felton, who has for some years now been documenting his life in exhaustive detail and issuing annual reports on his data, want to help us do the same. So he has created the Reporter app, which is all about helping us towards self-knowledge.

Reporter works by buzzing you several times per day with a brief quiz based on the questions Felton asks himself. They range from "Where are you?" to "What are you doing?" and "Who are you with?" Some questions can be answered by tapping Yes or No, while others are multiple choice questions, let you type in text, or offer a location picker that polls Foursquare for nearby places. You can also add your own questions (like "Are you happy?") or program certain questions to occur only when you hit the app’s Awake or Sleep switch (like "How did you sleep?" and "What did you learn today?"). Each time you report, the app also pulls in various pieces of information like the current weather, how many steps you’ve taken today (using the iPhone 5s’ M7 motion coprocessor), and how noisy it is around you using your phone’s mic.

Note that this is pretty much — with the possible exception of the question about learning — self-knowledge as conceived by eliminative materialism: knowledge of the self is basically plotting a body in space. It’s object-oriented ontology, and you are the object.

I’d like to suggest, for a hypothetical update to Reporter, a new set of questions:

  • Did you repay rudeness with kindness today?
  • Did you seek to rectify an injustice today?
  • Were you vindictive today?
  • Did you praise the praiseworthy at any point today?
  • Did you write any snarky tweets today that you now regret?
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, how faithfully and responsibly did you do your work today?
  • Did you express your love of someone today? If so, in words or deeds?
  • How many times today, if any, did you pray?
  • If you prayed, please report how many of those prayers were (a) thanksgivings, (b) utterances of praise, (c) laments, (d) petitions.
  • If any of your prayers were petitionary, did you petition on behalf of (a) yourself or (b) others?
  • In comparison to one year ago today, have you progressed or regressed in the love of God and your neighbor? Please explain your answer using no fewer than 5,000 words.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

TV, still

George W. S. Trow's "Within the Context of No Context" was a really famous essay at one time, and thought to be precisely diagnostic of a culture shaped and sustained by television, but no one talks about it much anymore because we feel that the internet is the thing now and TV (while still powerful) secondary and dependent on online conversation to sustain it.

But maybe just because of the internet, and before it, for a few years, personal computers, TV is more important than ever. In many countries people are watching more of it than ever — maybe it has new sources of impetus, new energies feeding its energies. The internet is the child of the PC which is the child of television. The PC took hold in large part because it had a monitor and we had already grown accustomed to receiving both education and entertainment via CRT. Perhaps until the internet of things reaches its full maturity we’re all still really watching TV, just with a keyboard attached. That is, maybe the interactive element (the keyboard, or for that matter voice recognition) isn’t as important as the monitor that occupies our eyes. In that case maybe Trow’s essay is diagnostic of a world that succeeded the one he wrote about.

A small thought experiment: What if the PC had been invented before the television? Or no one had thought to use a CRT as a device by which we might “monitor” — the noun has a verb in it — what the computer is doing? Maybe then using a computer would be more like writing a letter and receiving one in return, or using a Ouija board, or sending and receiving telegraphs at the Western Union office. If any of those things had happened, how would we understand our experiences with computers? And what would be our ruling metaphors for mind and thought?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

launch and iterate

I enjoyed this brief interview with Rob Horning of The New Inquiry, and was particularly taken with this passage:

What do you think is good about the way we interact with information today? How has your internet consumption changed your brain, and writing, for the better?

I can only speak for myself, but I find that the Internet has made me far more productive than I was before as a reader and a writer. It seems to offer an alternative to academic protocols for making “knowledge.” But I was never very systematic before about my “research” and am even less so now; only now this doesn’t seem like such a draw back. Working in fragments and unfolding ideas over time in fragments seems a more viable way of proceeding. I’ve grown incapable of researching as preparation for some writing project — I post everything, write immediately as a way to digest what I am reading, make spontaneous arguments and connections from what is at hand. Then if I feel encouraged, I go back and try to synthesize some of this material later. That seems a very Internet-inspired approach.

Let me pause to note that I am fundamentally against productivity and then move on to the more important point, which is that online life has changed my ways of working along the lines that Horning describes — and I like it.

There’s a mantra among some software developers, most notably at Google: Launch and iterate. Get your app out there even with bugs, let your customers report and complain about those bugs, apologize profusely, fix, release a new version. Then do it again, and again. (Some developers hate this model, but never mind.) Over the past few years I’ve been doing something like this with my major projects: throw an idea out there in incomplete or even inchoate form and see what responses it gets; learn from your respondents’ skepticism or criticism; follow the links people give you; go back to the idea and, armed with this feedback, make it better.

Of course, writers have always done something like this: for example, going to the local pub and making people listen to you pontificate on some crack-brained intellectual scheme and then tell you that you’re full of it. And I’ve used that method too, which has certain advantages ... but: it’s easy to forget what people say, you have a narrow range of responses, and it can’t happen very often or according to immediate need. The best venue I’ve found to support the launch-and-iterate model of the intellectual life: Twitter.

Monday, February 3, 2014

after the Golden Age

Clay Shirky says that the “Golden Age” of American higher education, when our universities were flush with money, “was a nice time, but it wasn’t stable, and it didn’t last, and it’s not coming back,” and that, therefore, “If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.”

Golden Age or MOOCs, baby. Those are the options.

Except of course they aren’t. As Freddie deBoer points out, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that super-cheap, internet-based, adjunct-staffed teaching has any chance of achieving either the educational or the economic (poverty-eliminating) goals Shirky says he supports. The idea that education in any form is a magic bullet for poverty is misbegotten; and we already have a good deal of evidence showing that only the already-educated and already-prepared benefit significantly from MOOCs.

Moreover, Shirky seems to think that academics (teachers and administrators) who have not yet been convinced to restructure their priorities — to cut back on climbing walls, redundant administrators, and cushy research-based jobs with low teaching loads — can nevertheless be convinced to tear down the entire system of American higher education. Or maybe not: maybe Shirky is talking over our heads to Davos Man, and telling Him that our universities need to be torn down rather than reformed. So maybe he doesn't care what his fellow academics think — the ones who can’t make a living from consulting gigs, at least.

Chesterton famously said that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” The same may be said for the structural reform of higher education. This is why I’m still waiting for just one school in financial straits to completely restructure its priorities in favor of a near-total focus on the teaching of undergraduates. Then maybe others will follow. But in any event the idea that MOOCs are preferable to such genuine reform strikes me as nuts.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

the problem of Lewis the storyteller

A recurrent problem for those of us who suffer from chronic logorrhea is our tendency to forget what we have and have not written. There’s a point about C. S. Lewis that I have spoken many times over the years but — I now, after some Googling, suspect — may never have written down in any detail. So here we go:

I don't think Lewis was by any means a natural storyteller, and all of his fiction suffers to one degree or another from his shortcomings in this regard. Every time he sat down to write a story he was moving outside the sphere of his strongest writerly gifts.

What were those writerly gifts? Above all he was a brilliant satirist and parodist — abilities bolstered by his greatest more-generally-intellectual gift, a prodigious memory — and the master of a familiar, trust-inducing essayistic tone. (A tone that, by the way, he put to excellent use in his scholarly work, which is why The Allegory of Love and his OHEL book remain so exceptionally readable.) Now, his fiction sometimes benefits from these skills. For instance, consider the just-right pitch of this passage from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you — you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.

— or the terrific parodies of administrative jargon in The Screwtape Letters and That Hideous Strength.

But in the basics of the kind of storytelling he liked best — creating vivid characters and keeping a lively plot moving along — Lewis struggled, and I think at times he knew it. Note how in That Hideous Strength he has to pause to tell us what we are supposed to believe about his two protagonists: “Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker”; “It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging.” Apparently we might not have figured out those points without explicit direction.

Think also of the palpable creakiness, the lumbering joviality, of the whole Bacchus-and-Silenus passage in Prince Caspian; and the still more lumbering, and for CSL unusually mean-spirited and score-settling, assault on Experiment House at the end of The Silver Chair; and the endless explanatory talkiness, even long after the main plot points are settled, of Perelandra. (His dear friend Owen Barfield — one of the few people regularly to stand up to Lewis in dialectical situations — rightly commented that in writing fiction CSL was afflicted by an “expository demon.” To Lewis’s credit, he told this story on himself.)

There are far, far too many such passages in Lewis’s fiction. In my view, his only novel that’s free of these faults is The Horse and His Boy (and even then the allegorical treatment, near the end, of how God is present with us in our suffering is almost too much of a good thing). In my view, neither Lewis’s detractors nor his devoted fans have taken these limitations seriously enough. It’s a problem for his fans because they remain puzzled when other readers don’t like Lewis’s fiction as well as they do, and tend to attribute any dislike to some kind of spiritual dysfunction. It’s a problem for his detractors because they tend to attribute to malice or ethical narrowness what might just be lack of competence: maybe, as I suggested the other day, Lewis fell into The Problem of Susan not because he was anti-woman or anti-sex but because his desire to make a certain theological point was stronger than his storytelling common sense.

And yet, despite these flaws, all his novels possess a remarkable, but hard to define, vitality. I say “novels,” but in at least some of them, certainly each of the Ransom books, the vitality stems from the fact that they’re not novels at all. Lewis may not have realized it, but in those books — and even in some of the Narnia books, especially The Magician’s Nephew — he was writing Menippean satires.

What is a Menippean satire, you ask? Well, please see this definition from Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism:

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. . . . The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the intellect.

See also Mikhail Bakhtin, in the revised version of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics:

In the menippea there appears for the first time what might be called moral-psychological experimentation: a representation of the unusual, abnormal moral and psychic states of man — insanity of all sorts (the theme of the maniac), split personality, unrestrained daydreaming, unusual dreams, passions bordering on madness, suicides, and so forth. These phenomena do not function narrowly in the menippea as mere themes, but have a formal generic significance. Dreams, daydreams, insanity destroy the epic and tragic wholeness of a person and his fate: the possibilities of another person and another life are revealed in him, he loses his finalized quality and ceases to mean only one thing; he ceases to coincide with himself. . . .

Characteristic of the menippea is a wide use of inserted genres . . . [and] its concern with current and topical issues. This is, in its own way, the ‘journalistic’ genre of antiquity, acutely echoing the ideological issues of the day.

Can you imagine a better description of the generic tendencies of That Hideous Strength than these two critics offer? And these traits are prominent in all of Lewis’s fiction, even the books for children. He tried to write novels, but his deep scholarly knowledge, his polemical temperament, and his marvelous abilities as a parodist and satirist led him to write Menippean satires instead. I think this goes a long way towards accounting for Tolkien’s distaste for Lewis’s fiction: he himself, a born storyteller if there ever was one, knew that on some level Lewis was faking it, was writing not so much stories as extremely clever imitations of stories, fantastically skillful mechanical models of stories. And given his narrow tastes he couldn’t abide what his friend was doing.

But if we realize the kinds of books Lewis was (willy-nilly) writing, then many of the faults — faults primarily according to the canons of novelistic narration — do not exactly disappear but slide into the background. Lewis then emerges as someone who was a successful writer of fiction after all; just not the kind of fiction that he tried to write and wanted to write.