A Common Reader

I am taking Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader as a model for my new writing project. I am studying her way of writing, her method. You all know she is unattainable, belonging to a different sphere, so she will be more like my leading star. Nevertheless,  I will try very hard to make my texts readable for the general public – the common reader – people who read essays for personal enjoyment (if such an audience is still to be found).

To get in the right mood, here is Virginia Woolf in her own words:

How it Strikes a Contemporary (excerpt)

from The Common Reader, by Virginia Woolf

(…) To sum up, then — if indeed any conclusion is possible when everybody is talking at once and it is time to be going — it seems that it would be wise for the writers of the present to renounce the hope of creating masterpieces. Their poems, plays, biographies, novels are not books but notebooks, and Time, like a good schoolmaster, will take them in his hands, point to their blots and scrawls and erasions, and tear them across; but he will not throw them into the waste-paper basket. He will keep them because other students will find them very useful. It is from the notebooks of the present that the masterpieces of the future are made. Literature, as the critics were saying just now, has lasted long, has undergone many changes, and it is only a short sight and a parochial mind that will exaggerate the importance of these squalls, however they may agitate the little boats now tossing out at sea. The storm and the drenching are on the surface; continuity and calm are in the depths.

As for the critics whose task it is to pass judgment upon the books of the moment, whose work, let us admit, is difficult, dangerous, and often distasteful, let us ask them to be generous of encouragement, but sparing of those wreaths and coronets which are so apt to get awry, and fade, and make the wearers, in six months time, look a little ridiculous. Let them take a wider, a less personal view of modern literature, and look indeed upon the writers as if they were engaged upon some vast building, which being built by common effort, the separate workmen may well remain anonymous. Let them slam the door upon the cosy company where sugar is cheap and butter plentiful, give over, for a time at least, the discussion of that fascinating topic — whether Byron married his sister — and, withdrawing, perhaps, a handsbreadth from the table where we sit chattering, say something interesting about literature itself. Let us buttonhole them as they leave, and recall to their memory that gaunt aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope, who kept a milk-white horse in her stable in readiness for the Messiah and was for ever scanning the mountain tops, impatiently but with confidence, for signs of his approach, and ask them to follow her example; scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.

Roger Fry:  Portrait of Virginia Woolf


 

The Common Reader, collection of essays by Virginia Woolf, was published in two series, the first in 1925 and the second in 1932. Most of the essays appeared originally in such publications as the Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, Athenæum, New Statesman, Life and Letters, Dial, Vogue, and The Yale Review. The title indicates Woolf’s intentions that her essays be read by the “common reader” who reads books for personal enjoyment. Virginia Woolf’s essays reveals a marked merging of the strong expression of personality with a dialogue with the reader, a technique that becomes more evident in these pieces than in her novels, her biographical or autobiographical writing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s