On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

"You can’t get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” – C. S. Lewis

What is the chief pleasure derived from reading a story? Is it the characters? The suspense? The setting? In C. S. Lewis’ essay “On Stories,” readers are given the opportunity to look behind the camera, as it were, into the general perspective on fiction held by of one of the greatest storytellers of the modern era. Lewis expresses his disappointment that critics always seem to pass over “the Story” in favor of discussing such elements as the delineation of characters and the style. In this collection of Lewis’ literary essays, he argues in the titular piece that the chief pleasure to be derived from a story is the very “escapism” so demonized by critics. 

In Walter Hooper’s introduction, he writes that in Lewis’ time, “The most vocal of the literary critics were encouraging readers to find in literature almost everything, life’s monotony, social injustice, sympathy with the downtrodden poor, drudgery, cynicism, and distaste: everything except enjoyment. Step out of line and you were branded an ‘escapist.’”

Lewis, however, contends, “That is one of the functions of art: to present what the narrow and desperately practical perspectives of real life exclude … [It] strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”

The experience of another world, and not just the excitement of the plot, is critical in this artistic function; it is not simply the momentary suspense of a story that gives true pleasure, but rather it is the world to which that particular excitement belongs that is so enticing. Lewis goes on to explain that reading a book merely for the feeling of suspense and curiosity as to what will happen can naturally only be achieved in a first reading, and he defines an “unliterary man” as one “who reads books only once.” If someone rereads a book over and over, even if it is widely considered to be poor literature, Lewis maintains that it nevertheless must hold “a sort of poetry” to this reader, writing, “In the only sense that matters the surprise works as well the twentieth time as the first. It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us. It is even better the second time … We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not ’til the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties … free from the shock of actual surprise you can attend better to the intrinsic surprisingness.”

Shocking to no one will be the fact that Lewis was also a great proponent of reading fairy tales and fantasy at any age; just as not all children’s books are fantasies, so not all fantasies should be relegated to being children’s literature. “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty,” he contends. In another essay in this collection — “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” — Lewis reflects on his fear as a child that his love of fairy tales would be discovered by his peers; as an adult, he admits to reading them openly, having quite grown out of the childish fear of childishness. 

“Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence … this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development … Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.”

Furthermore, Lewis explains how the realistic book, not the fantasy, is far more likely to give children inaccurate expectations for their lives, as “it sends us back to the real world undividedly discontented.” The popular child who is the hero of a realistic story flatters the ego, he argues, while “fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his life-long enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth.” The fairy tale makes all real woods just a little enchanted and creates a “special kind of longing” in which the child, far from being discontented at the inability of the story to become their own reality, is “happy in the very fact of desiring.”

This excellent conglomeration of Lewis’ literary thought also includes essays on the way in which his own stories came about (always through “pictures” in his mind), his opinion of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “On Science Fiction,” “The Death of Words,” and a myriad of others. Despite his passing in 1963, Lewis continues to garner passionate followers, and this collection is a must-read for a true Lewis fan as well as for any literary devotee.