Monday, 17 May 2010

The Great Divorce

by C.S. Lewis

This is the second of the three books I recently purchased (for two months) with sweets. This was one of the few titles that pretty much everyone was bidding on, and it cost me an amount of sweets so large I dare not mention it anywhere near Michael. He'd call it blasphemy, or something. He's mad about sweets.

I got given a box set of the seven (beautiful) Narnia novels when I was eight or so. I think I must have already been into reading, by then -- Enid Blyton definitely figured -- but those books really woke me up to the idea that books could be things to get excited about.
Since then, though, I've fairly neglected him. At least in the context of the hundreds of other things I've read since then. Of Lewis I've read Out of the Silent Planet, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, and a bunch of theological essays.

The best thing about Lewis is that he makes me deeply suspicious of my own mind. He makes me think that every decision I've made is the product of subtle demonic influences. Which is odd, because I don't even half-believe in demons. But he writes with such calm, almost casual, authority, and with the sort of familiarity that you only get from a family member two decades separate, that I don't even notice. When I disagree with him, I generally assume it's me that's got it wrong.

So I doubt my own motives in everything. But then I notice that the doubt itself could just be me congratulating myself on being self-aware enough to entertain it. A 'well done for being so modest' type arrangement. So I have to doubt the doubt, too. And the more and more I lose my grip on everything, the more I think (or Lewis tells me?) that I'm holding on too tight to the very things I shouldn't be.


I worked a 17-hour shift without a break over the last night. I've got some crazy kind of stock-take jetlag. That's my excuse and I'm sticking with it... Back to what this blog is (sort of, a little bit, when I feel like it) about. Learning what works for me and doesn't work for me in fiction.

The Great Divorce is a fantasy about what Heaven and Hell might be like. It's a theology of the perspective and relation between the two, rather than the mechanics of it. And though it's fiction, it's there to get across a specific idea.

I sort of have a problem with that. I often argue with a friend about books and scripts and stories needing or not needing a central message to convey. I don't think books should be meaningless, but I think they should be their own meaning, rather than being a vessel for it. A book isn't just another way to spread your message, or your meme, like the birdshit that contains a few undigested seeds ready to germinate. Books aren't birdshit.

A book can convey an idea, but it also is that idea. It is the message. If the 'message' can be communicated in half the space or a third of the words, then what's the point of the book? Just write the message instead. Save yourself and any readers a lot of wasted time.

That is something of a half-baked thought, and I'm going to keep it in the back of my mind in future, and see how it stands up. Maybe some more subtle shaping will happen when it gets battered this way and that by various opposing fictions. It's a Popperian, Darwinian experiment, maybe.

Or maybe I should just ask you.

"What is the role of the message in fiction? What is the role of fiction in the message?"

Answers on a postcard, please.


  1. That's a big question, and definitely one I couldn't fit on just a postcard.

    Take for example my work in progress. It involves a couple with mental illness. Sure, there are things I'd like to say or show through my characters but I'm aware that people will probably draw all sorts of their own messages. Messages get scrambled in fiction because every reader brings prejudices, opinions, pre-conceived ideas.

    Messages are fine, but I resent any book that is quite blatantly ALL MESSAGE. I can't be dealing with authors that are so hung up on their message that their writing fails.

  2. I don't like pedantic novels of the soap-box variety, though I don't remember being bothered by The Great Divorce. Maybe because I knew its intent going in? And as such read it as a non-fiction book as much as a novel?

  3. I'm thinking Lewis may be my L author.

    Interesting review. For me the only message in fiction should be "enjoy this, it's fun".

  4. Bethany-- that's a really interesting point, about the differences between the message an author might put in their work and the message a reader might draw from it. It undermines the idea of books as straightforward message-bearers, though. They're low fidelity replicators of the intention.

    Bryan-- I completely forgot to make the point I intended with this post, which was going to be about the different priorities of message/fiction between Narnia and The Great Divorce, and the reasons. But I got side-tracked.

    Matt-- fiction should be enjoyable. I wonder, though, if there are different types of enjoyment, of even levels. I'm thinking John Stuart Mill, higher and lower pleasures, or at least somewhere between the snobbery of that and the lowest common denom. of mass appeal...

    gah. i need to work out what i think about books soon.

  5. Interesting. I think of Lewis' Great Divorce book more as a fable or allegory than a novel and, as with most fables/allegories, the embodiment of the message is fairly straightforward. Fables are an ancient and illustrious form of story-telling (starting with the oral tradition of folk tales).

    In the Narnia books, the message is still there but more fully embodied in novel form.

    While I take your point about literature being irksome if reduced to just being message-vehicles, I am a great fan of Jonathan Swift - in particular 'A Modest Proposal' - a satiric message-driven essay. Then there's Gulliver's Travels, (a fable-like novel?) where the sprinkling of satire dealing with the politics of Swift's day is lost on most modern readers, but the book can be enjoyed without noticing that aspect.