Theoretically Speaking

by | Feb 1, 2007 | Literature, Writers

My extended tour of early 20th century English writing continues to be both amusing and instructive.  I don’t know of any other time and place in which writers were thinking and talking and writing so extensively about writing.  In London you had the Bloomsberries and the anti-Bloomsberries duking it out in magazines, newspapers, lecture halls, and salons.  Over in Paris was James Joyce, whose name you didn’t mention across town at Gertrude Stein’s, and then there was Hemingway and the mot juste crew.  As Gertrude Stein says, the only things that change are ways of seeing and of being seen, and the changes happening in the early 20th century were seismic.  Everybody had a theory about what art was and how to produce it.

Virginia Woolf was never shy about joining the fray.  She was not only a novelist, but also an extremely prolific literary critic and book reviewer.  She probably spent even more time thinking about literature than I do.  It’s always instructive to hear what she has to say, even when she contradicts herself or simply changes her mind, which, over the course of thirty-some years of writing, happens frequently and should be no surprise.  Making definitive statements about art can be like nailing Jello to the wall.  Art is a moving target; Woolf was aware of this, and aware too that she was part of a major artistic shift.

She seems to have thought that she was living through a transitional phase, an awkward period of experimentation: For my own part I wish we could skip a generation – skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia and come out in the open again, when everything has been restarted, and runs full tilt, instead of trickling and teasing in this irritating way.

            How could she have failed to understand that it was all the ‘trickling and teasing’ that made things interesting?  Too close to it, is what she may have been, and, given her book reviewing and her work for Hogarth Press, she would have been more than usually aware of what a small percentage of writing is worth reading.  Also, being a writer herself, she was at times a miserable judge of her contemporaries.  She complains over and over again about the state of the novel, while it is clear, looking back, that she was writing in what was, for the novel, one of the very best of times.

What did she think?  That one theory of writing would emerge victorious, and all novels would henceforth cleave to the new order?  I would get tired of the same flavor of Jello after a while.

Do you know why disputes in the world of academia are so bitter?  Because the stakes are so small.

In 1934 Woolf wrote to George Rylands, trying to say something about the use of dialogue in fiction.  The Jello will not stay still, will not stay in place, and she concludes: This is all rather incoherent, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite.