On C.S. Lewis, Humility, and Marketing

the-great-divorceThe 1973 MacMillan edition of C.S. The Great Divorce quotes Lewis in large font on the back cover of the book as claiming:

“Blake wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell. . . . I have written of their Divorce.”

This sounds like a bold claim, a challenge to the great poet William Blake—and its not hard to imagine how such a tagline could be advantageous from the publisher’s standpoint for marketing purposes. But the publishers take Lewis’ statement out of context. What Lewis actually wrote (in the preface) was this:

“Blake wrote of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I am at all sure I know what he meant.”

By omitting the word “if” and the main bulk of the second sentence, the publishers invert the meaning of Lewis’ statement. It was intended as an admission, a clarification, a protest; they made it into a subtle assertion of importance. The tone is also reversed: originally it was courteous, magnanimous, ingratiating; they made it blunt and assertive.

I find something beautiful about the fact that C.S. Lewis was humble to the point of non-marketability. He consistently protests his unworthiness to a degree that his publishers probably would not be comfortable with—all the while writing classics! He cannot allude to Blake admitting his own uncertainty in even understanding him (The Great Divorce); he cannot write a book on pain without insisting upon his own inadequacy and inexperience of the subject (The Problem of Pain); he cannot write on Christian doctrine without reminding his readers that he is only a lay person and asking for clergy feedback (Mere Christianity); he cannot slight H.G. Wells’ fantasy novels without clarifying that he owes them a great debt (Out of the Silent Planet). On and on we could go. And I wonder how many influential writers today would make time to hand write so many letters to children?

I wonder if we in the world of Christian writing/blogging/publishing might learn something from Lewis on this point. I know there is there a balance needed here. In the world of publishing, marketing is an important tool, and not all promotion of our writing is bad. It is certainly too simple to see MacMillan as the big, bad, worldly publisher, corrupting an innocent Lewis. (In fact, I wouldn’t even uphold Lewis’ specific behavior and wording in the episode with MacMillan as universally exemplary: I worry about people being overly self-deprecating and then priding themselves on their humility. Pride is ever subtle.)

Nevertheless, in a world full of blatant self-promotion and self-importance, in which a football player cannot so much as make an open field tackle without conducting a celebration dance, we are probably in trouble if we never find ourselves feeling—like Lewis—out of place with contemporary marketing strategies. I’m still trying to figure out myself what this looks like. I don’t always know. But if we are going to err, my gut tells me its better—for the sake of our own souls, if nothing else—to err on the side of being too cautious, too quiet, too timid. After all, in the parable of the wedding feast, Jesus did not say, “when you are invited to a wedding feast, don’t take the best seat; instead, go and sit in exactly the seat you think you deserve.” No, he said, “go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher'” (Luke 14:10, italics mine). Surely “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, whoever humbles himself will be exalted” has some relevance for our writing.

Yes, lets take every effort to “get our message out there”—but lets also remember that in kingdom writing, kingdom publishing, our methods matter as well as our message.

By the way, Lewis’ books sell between 1.5 and 2 millions copies per year.

5 Comments

  1. […] Gavin Ortlund. On C. S. Lewis, Humility, and Marketing. […]

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  2. Jani Ortlund

    love this. thank you–very helpful

    mom

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  3. […] will lead to success, Feedback, Humility, and the Sword of Truth, The Hidden Power of Humility, On C.S. Lewis, Humility, and Marketing, Humility is Needed as a Writer, Humility is Sexy (disclaimer is great), A little humility is good […]

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  4. Bob Ver Burg

    This reminds me of Mark Dever’s comment about underselling yourself and giving people more than they expect.

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    1. Good thought, Bob, I had not thought of that connection before.

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