Alan Jacobs: “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.”
He had a talent for satire and parody and was a particularly gifted essayist:
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.)
(I would also add that Lewis’s dialogues can be rather stilted–particularly in The Great Divorce and the Narnia series.)
In fact, what we have in Lewis, Jacobs suggests, are not so much novels as “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.”
You know who else seems to have been more of a Menippean satirist than novelist (though he had more storytelling gifts than Lewis)? Walker Percy.
Read the rest of Jacobs’s excellent post.