I looked last week at Lewis’s article ‘High Brows and Low Brows’. Thinking of those ideas led to some natural applications I want to talk about today. First, and most briefly, the Bible. Definitely difficult literature, at least today. I think that idea of simple and difficult literature somewhat explains the ‘foolishness’ of preaching. Any literature becomes difficult to understand in a hundred or two hundred years – much more in two thousand! So it makes sense that God instituted preaching as a way to take the Scripture – some originally easy literature, some difficult, but all becoming more difficult as time passed – and bring it down to the level of people, of whatever culture in whatever time, who could only understand simple writing – writing of their own time, in their own language. Can I just say that I love the way the elders of my church seek to understand pertinent aspects of the culture to which a given passage was written, and the language in which it was written, then explain the ideas and apply them to our own cultural context?
Next I see some applications to my own writing. I’m a teacher at heart. I spend most of my time with seven to eleven year olds. So I tend to write and speak in such a way as to make what I’m saying clear, or not ‘difficult’. Even when I taught college I tended to use very straightforward language, as I wasn’t teaching communication majors, but the general population – and the goal wasn’t to challenge them to puzzle out communication terminology, but to enable them to give a decent speech! In my current situation, that tendency to straightforwardness could make some scholars think I’m not serious or knowledgeable – because they prefer or expect more difficult or ‘highbrow’ language and a more roundabout way of getting at concepts. Well, so be it. My goal in writing isn’t to make people think I’ smart, but to get ideas from my mind into others’ as clearly as possible. I don’t think anybody really likes reading gobbledygook, even if it’s academic gobbledygook. I could, however, stand to use a bit more terminology others have used when writing about Lewis. Like a word from the essay I read recently that pointed out evolutionary theories in Lewis’s time moving from static ideas of ‘being’ to a more movement-oriented ‘becoming’. Now, that terminology fits in very well with what I called in my article ‘maturation’ – a continual growing, moving forward, following Maleldil in the dance. And the more I read, the more of that terminology I’m bound to pick up. I don’t think there’s any danger of becoming one of those writers that use big words just because they like them, or because they think it makes them sound smart, so I don’t think I need to worry about that side of it!
Another application I’ve been thinking of is Agatha Christie. I wrote some time ago about someone lecturing and saying she didn’t have much ‘atmosphere.’ He felt at liberty to say that precisely because it’s ‘lowbrow’ literature. And as Lewis notes, those who read ‘highbrow’ literature have a tendency to feel free to dismiss or criticize ‘lowbrow’ literature with little to no cause. There’s also the fact that humans have a tendency to see what they expect to see – so if they expect stock characters, impossible situations and coincidences, that’s all they’ll see. But if you read Christie a bit deeper, you see that she was having fun with those tropes. She winks and nods to readers astute enough to see it. ‘Look! I’m using this trope – watch how much fun I have with it!’ (For instance, I just finished a really early novel – The Blue Train, 1928. It centers on a woman who works as a companion to an old lady. The employer dies and leaves all her money to the woman, much more money than anyone knew she had. So you can read that and roll your eyes and think Christie unoriginal. Or you can read a bit further, when on hearing of this happening, another character remarks, ‘What about it? . . . It is the sort of thing that is always happening. Cheese-paring old women are always dying in villages and leaving fortunes of millions to their humble companions.’ THAT is Christie’s wink to let us know that she’s using the trope on purpose and having fun with it. And she gets away with it all the time!) The characters ARE often stereotypes. But they’re still individuals – and so very lifelike. We enjoy recognizing their type, and getting to know them as individuals. That, in my book, is genius.
As to atmosphere, the critic I mentioned earlier was right in a sense. Christie’s novels contain plenty of atmosphere, but it’s essentially the same atmosphere, at least for most of her books. The critic was noting that it doesn’t change much – and he was right. The few novels that vary significantly are replete with their unique atmosphere – like Death Comes as the End (set in ancient Egypt) or The Mysterious Mr. Quin. But the usual consistency of atmosphere is, I believe, a part of the reason her mysteries are so successful. She sets up a very conventional, predictable, organized, distinctly English atmosphere. Even novels with exotic settings, such as the Orient Express or an archeological dig, are peopled with English or Continental types her readers recognize readily. Even her notoriously un-English (Belgian) detective is notoriously meticulous – despising every speck of dust, noticing crooked cravats and fireplace spills and chairs placed at the wrong angle. So when murder occurs, or a piece of jewelry is missing, solving the crime becomes an urgent matter – because things are no longer as expected. Murder doesn’t fit this organized world she has created.
Christie didn’t mess around with that atmosphere very often because it worked so well. The surprise ending leads, full circle, back to what the reader has been led to expect. The boy gets the girl, the killer gets her/is comeuppance, the innocent suspect is cleared, somebody eats a good meal or inherits some money, and the reader can breathe a sigh of relief because order is restored. I would also argue that that’s part of why so many readers object to Tommy and Tuppence. I quite like them – because I’m reading for the characters and I find them amusing. But those who are in it for the plot (and for that pattern of normalcy established – normalcy broken – normalcy restored), their quick repartee doesn’t quite fit. They’re too unpredictable, so for those readers they disrupt the flow.
Interestingly, Christie didn’t write the mysteries because it was the best stuff she could write. She wrote them, first for the fun of it, then to make money to support herself and her daughter, and then, I surmise, because, well, it was expected of her – and maybe to put her grandson through school or keep herself well indoors on archeological expeditions. I wouldn’t put it past her. And part of what tells us that are those little winks that are all over the place if you’re looking for them. She did publish six ‘serious’ novels – character studies of the kind she really wanted to write. They sold moderately well. A common theme is the ways in which we deceive ourselves. (Listening to another Christie, I just connected this to the way Hastings continually deludes himself in thinking that he’s a good detective!) These novels aren’t difficult, in the sense of being hard to understand, but they are perceptive. In fact, my theory is that they didn’t sell better because they hit far too close to home. No one wants to be confronted with the fact that their family finds them annoying because of all the sacrifices they’re constantly making and talking about. That’s the theme of the novel she declared herself absolutely satisfied with – Absent in the Spring. Lewis described the same kind of women in Perelandra – and not in a positive context!
What I love most about Christie, her ability to draw a character in just a few words, might be part of the reason those who prefer difficult novels find her unbearable. They’re almost too clear, too easy to picture or to know – minor characters as well as major ones. That’s also part of the reason her books adapt so well for the stage. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, there was ‘an individual who made up for insignificance of stature by a large quantity of gold lace and uniform.’ Most readers can instantly picture this individual, the way he would stand and move and his facial expression, just from that phrase. And his words and later gestures conform to the picture. He plays a very small part, but he is perfectly clear. Primary characters become even clearer, often with just as few words. And they remain perfectly clear throughout the novel. And there are so many of them! Christie loved people – she loved their variety, their foibles, their capacity for good and evil and kindness and love. And so she portrayed them in her novels. And in her autobiographical works, for that matter!
So, anyway, that’s why I think that in about a hundred years, Christie’s novels will supply the place in literature that in our day is supplied by Dickens. Written for the masses, best sellers, but enduring. And difficult in about a hundred years!
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