Lewisian Musings: Literary Criticism...Don't Criticize What You Hate

I'd been reading Lewis's On Stories (the essay collection, not the essay) and came across a really interesting passage in his essay "On Science Fiction", where he was talking about literary criticism. Which was separate from his actual essay "On Criticism", which I also found fascinating. But anywho. As someone who literally has a blog that is around 50% devoted to book reviews, I found his thoughts on reviews very helpful. And somewhat convicting. You see, he says this:

"Do not criticize what you have no taste for without great caution. And, above all, do not ever criticize what you simply can't stand." What he means by this (as evidenced by earlier and continuing context which is long to quote and so I won't, because we can get what he means from this quote and I am lazy and will assume that you are too) (except oops, probably could have quoted it in the space of that parenthesis) is that if you don't like a genre, trope, type of book, etc., you should not review it


Mic drop.

Epic silence.

What in the world, Lewis? 

Does this even make sense? If people love a thing, won't they be blind to its faults? So shouldn't people who don't like something have a chance to criticize it?

Well, maybe not? Lewis goes on to say "if our real reaction to a book is 'Ugh! I just can't bear this sort of thing,' then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has." 

Think about this for a second.

If (haha, since) I hate love triangles, and I review a book with a love triangle, am I going to be able to evaluate the love triangle as a love triangle? No. I'll be too busy trying not to puke. (Unless it's an unconventional love triangle. Which: if you know any of those, please lemme know, because I'd be open to reconsidering my position on that particular trope.) But someone who likes love triangles would be able to tell which love triangles are done well, and which are done poorly, and write a reasoned critique/review of a book with a love triangle in it. 

Because, what is more useful to a reader considering reading a book--an "I hate love triangles" review, or a "here's how well this love triangle was done" review? 

Of course, there are exceptions. If something is truly morally wrong (i.e. promiscuousness, glorified murder, etc.), we should definitely note that and criticize it. But for things that are morally neutral (love triangles, for instance) that's not really necessary.

Is this going to stop me from noting that there was a love triangle (or anything else that I dislike), in my review? Probably not. But is it going to stop me from trying to review that part of the book, or even the entire book, if that's an integral part? Maybe. Probably. I'm still thinking about it. (This is, after all, entitled "Lewisian Musings" not "Lewisian Resolutions".) But it has certainly made me think about how I do reviews, and what I like and dislike in terms of tropes, so I'll know what I can critique well, and what I can't

Going on, though, for the moment, Lewis says: "good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favorable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why."

If you know and love a trope inside and out, and find a bad example of it, that is something you can usefully review for others. But otherwise? Maybe don't. Maybe note that you don't like xyz ever, so you can't speak to how good it is. Maybe carefully consider your star rating. Maybe save a lot your energy for "good adverse criticism...under the most favorable conditions." 

To quote the quirkiest bishop I've ever met: "Think about it!"

So. What do you think? Let's chat!


  1. This is so interesting. I've definitely criticized things unfairly, just because they weren't my type of book. I have been trying to work on that, though.

    1. Thank you! I know, I've done the same! It's hard to avoid, sometimes.

  2. I think that's really good advice. I tend to not write a review if I really dislike a book or dnf it.
    But just because it wasn't something I enjoyed or to my taste. Doesn't mean it was bad, wish more people would do that.

    1. I know, Lewis is always so wise! Yeah, it's a hard line to walk--explaining why one dnfed it without bashing the book as a book... I wish more people would do that, too!

  3. Honestly true, especially when you know it's something you don't really like. There's plenty of things we criticize already without being on the lookout for more in things in stuff you know you'll hate.

    1. Yes, precisely! We don't have to criticize things that we personally dislike when we could be constructively criticizing things that we do...

  4. SO MUCH YES TO THIS. *stands and applauds*

    GKC has a similar take on criticism: the critics would get it right more often if they focused on what the artist did WELL, instead of trying to tear him down. Because frequently the super nasty critics are the ones totally missing the point. Whereas, if you get or at least try really hard to get the point, you're more likely to come up with a fair and thoughtful analysis. Judging the work on its own terms and all that.

    "Don't criticize what you don't understand" is a snippy-sounding adage, but there's truth to it. :D Especially if we tell it to ourselves and not to others. XD

    Anywho. Loved this post, Sam. I've been behind on comments but this essay provided me with some good discussion fodder over the weekend. :)

    1. Thank you! (Although. I get zero credit for this. It's all Lewis. XD)

      Ahhh, all those smart British authors with their excellent views on criticism! (Seriously: nasty critics who completely miss the point are useless! And getting the point is...kind of important for actually critiquing the work?? :))

      Precisely! It's not something one would necessarily tell someone else, but it's a good thing to remember for one's self.

      Thank you! I'm so glad it gave you something to talk about--I love it when that happens. :)


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