Chesterton is a force to be reckoned with, no matter whether you are reading his mystery stories, his more overtly philosophical fiction, or his theology.
He is one the most prolific and most witty, joyful writers of the 20th century. His best known fiction (which I’m actually not familiar with) is the Fr. Brown mysteries, in which he has a priest named Fr. Brown who is a sleuth and solves mysteries/ crimes. As C.S. Lewis describes his first encounters with Chesterton’s nonfiction:
His humour was of the kind I like best – not “jokes” imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness.
So, what can we writers today learn from Chesterton? Lewis hits on the major points, but I want to break them apart after giving some suggestions as to where to start reading Chesterton.
If you’re interested in his fiction, I would read:
- The Club of Queer Trades is about a club of people who have crafted odd and strange jobs for themselves. It’s a collection of short stories, all of which involve a mystery or strange question of some kind.
- The Man Who Knew Too Much is a collection of mystery short stories. They’re fantastic.
- Manalive is very Quixotic. It really is Chesterton’s reinvention and interpretation of Cervantes’s masterpiece. It’s a lot of fun and very odd, realistic in its very absurdity.
- The Ball and the Cross is heavily philosophical. If you enjoy philosophical fiction it’s worth a read. This book and The Man Who Knew Too Much display Chesterton’s penchant (and talent) to weave huge, apocalyptic, tumultuous endings that leave you shaken and asking cool questions about life.
If you are interested in his nonfiction and/or how his worldview developed, I’d recommend:
- Orthodoxy. His chapter on “The Ethics of Elfland” is one of my favorite essays of all time.
- The Everlasting Man is one of the most influential and interesting works of Christian apologetics I’ve ever read.
So, what has reading Chesterton taught me about writing?
- The writing process should be an amazing, engaging adventure. Chesterton’s joy and pure love of life just jump off the page in everything he writes, so it’s not surprising to find out that he once wrote, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” So let your writing process and the journey involved be filled with adventures.
- There is no one (except maybe Douglas Adams) who taught me as much about humor in writing than Chesterton. Lewis’s quote talks about how Chesterton uses humor. He’s just an amazing humorist. He combines wit and absurdity and…. just so much awesomeness.
- Chesterton proves that philosophical fiction (or nonfiction, even) doesn’t have to be dull. Lewis hits on this when he says reading Chesterton is like watching a man fighting for his life in a duel. It’s a brilliant description of what it means to experience Chesterton. His pace, his examples, his use of imagery are just so fast and vibrant…. Yet he never loses you and never makes it hard to follow him.
- The prince of paradox. Chesterton is really the prince of paradox. It is his nonfiction where his use of paradox reigns supreme, but it will come out to a lesser degree in his fiction as well. He loves paradox and has an eye for it (and a talent for explaining and profiting from it) that is incredible.
- Chesterton has an incredible gift for describing landscapes and giving detailed images of precise actions important to the plot. Of course, he’s not the only author who can show us how to describe nature. But read the first chapter in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or the description of the inn at the start of “Manalive,” the moment when the main character first appears. Chesterton is a master of description. Sometimes he gives more description than explicitly necessary for comprehension, but the details enhance tone and fix pacing and give you a precise image that he as author feels is important for his themes and his purposes.