Thursday, March 17, 2016

Virginia Woolf takes criticism from E. M. Forster

I've read a lot of Virginia Woolf's letters and essays, but until this week I'd not spent any time with her diary. Now, having done so even to the smallest extent, I see that I'll have to make time to read through those many volumes eventually, too. Woolf is such an astute thinker and clear writer that almost any topic becomes interesting when it crosses her attention; merely flipping through what's available on Google Book Search (drawing on my typical keywords for that activity: lost, bookshelves, nonsense, drunk, hungover, party, forgotten) brought up a number of memorable passages.

The one I'll share today is from the end of October, 1919, right after the publication of her second novel, Night and Day. On October 30, she writes a bit about the response from friends and relatives:
If I could treat myself professionally as a subject for analysis I could make an interesting story of the past few days, of my vicissitudes about N. and D. After Clive’s letter came Nessa’s--unstinted praise; on top of that Lytton’s: enthusiastic praise; a grand triumph, a classic; and so on. Violet’s sentence of eulogy followed; and then, yesterday morning, this line from Morgan [Forster] “I like it less than The Voyage Out.” Though he spoke also of great admiration nand had read in haste and proposed re-reading, this rubbed out all the pleasure of the rest. Yes, but to continue. About 3 in the afternoon I felt happier and easier on account of his blame than on account of the others’ praise--as if one were in the human atmosphere again, after a blissful roll among elastic clouds and cushiony downs. Yet I suppose I value Morgan’s opinion as much as any.
I'm interested by her turn to a metaphor when she talks of taking Forster's criticism on board: it brought her down to earth, where we belong, but she won't pretend that being in the clouds hadn't been "blissful."

By the next day, she had already come to terms with it:
The doubt about Morgan and N. and D. Is removed; I understand why he likes it less than V.O.; and, in understanding, see that it is not a criticism to discourage. Perhaps intelligent criticism never is.
She goes on to lay out her understanding of his criticism: Night and Day is too formal for him, and "none of the characters . . . is lovable." Forster, she writes, "requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters." It's a need that a reader can sense animating Forster's own work--he generally seems to want us not just to care about, but to like his characters.

In coming to terms with his criticism, Woolf acknowledges both its validity and its fundamental inappropriateness: Forster had looked for a different book than what she'd written. But, a critic herself and an incredibly perceptive reader, Woolf refuses to let herself dismiss Forster wholly; you sense that this thought will stay lodged somewhere in her creative brain, the grain of sand that might later help form a pearl. She concludes the entry, not with condemnation, but with praise:
Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.
Few writers have ever read as well as Woolf; I wonder how many took criticism like as well as this?

1 comment:

  1. i've just read a few novels and the "common reader" series, but it sounds like her diaries convey the same impression i got from those: a truly brilliant mind, with an ability to use logic and understanding to discover truth, in spite of her gut reactions. rare qualities, but even rarer in one so greatly gifted...