Wednesday, October 2, 2013

5 Things I Like about the Inklings

My recent journey through The Inklings of Oxford made me think about the role of literary friendships in my own life.

The Inklings were a group of academics associated with the university at Oxford, England. From the early 1930s to 1949 they met together on Thursday evenings in C. S. Lewis's rooms at Magdalen College, where they'd read and discuss their works in progress. Some of the members were also in the habit of gathering on Tuesday afternoons at the "Eagle and Child" and other pubs in and around Oxford. From what I understand, the pub meetings were even more informal than the Thursday meetings, meant for fellowship and camaraderie, not the reading of manuscripts. Products of their time, all of the Inklings were male (although Dorothy Sayers was closely associated with them, she never attended meetings), and several of them--but not all--were Christian.

Warren Lewis (C. S.'s brother and one of the group) wrote, "Properly speaking, [the Inklings] was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections.”

Of course this is pure conjecture, but when I imagine a gathering of the Inklings, I picture a warm room, perhaps with a cozy fire, the persistent English rain beating against leaded-glass windows, and the pungent scent of pipe tobacco. A number of off-duty professor types lounge about on shabby-genteel sofas and chairs. Several of them hold manuscript pages, and the conversation ebbs and flows: now reading aloud, now commenting, now questioning or offering a word of encouragement in plummy British accents. Doubtless there were some heated arguments as well, which--this being my daydream--I'll overlook for now.

In short, the scene looks not all that different from reading and critique groups I've known and loved--minus the leaded glass and pipe tobacco and plummy accents.

From the perspective of a critique group member, here's what I appreciate most about the Inklings:

*They met regularly. I'm sure that not every member made it to every meeting, and the group that met at the pub overlapped, but was not identical to, the Thursday evening group. Nonetheless the group had a certain consistency and commitment, which fosters familiarity and trust. If you're going to open up your writing to critique, it's good to be acquainted with your critics and know something about their individual backgrounds, writing expertise, personalities, and quirks.

*They were focused. The Inklings gathered to discuss their own and each others' writing as well as other literary and publishing concerns. They were busy academics, choosing to commit their Thursday evenings discussing literature. Their discussions didn't wander all over the place--or if they did, someone would steer the conversation back on course. They made good use of their time.

*They had fun. The fact that the members enjoyed spending time in each others' company apart from the weekly critique meeting shows that they took themselves seriously, but not too seriously. They were a compatible bunch.

*They were flexible. In addition to a core group, there were other Inklings that came and went as employment and other circumstances changed. While there were limitations as to who could be an Inkling, membership wasn't unnecessarily rigid. They also did not gum up the works with a lot of rules and procedures.

*They were encouraging. Beneath its polished exterior, university life can be a rough-and-tumble world filled with competitiveness, backbiting, and petty jealousies. I imagine the Inklings' meetings were a pleasant respite from the workaday world, as well as a kind of laboratory for producing their very best work. Who knows what beloved literature might never have seen the light of day--or might have appeared in some very different form--were it not for the influence of the Inklings?

Your turn: Do you participate in an Inklings-like critique group or book group? If so, tell us about it!

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