Reading like Woolf – across the Great Divide?
By MICHAEL CAINES
"Found on the Shelves": you may have already spotted this pocket-friendly series of little books in the bookshops. A collaboration between the ever-elegant Pushkin Press and the London Library, it includes a volume called On Reading, Writing and Living with Books that celebrates the prestigious literary history of the London Library itself by offering a selection of short pieces by former members: Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Leigh Hunt and E. M. Forster. But also: Virginia Woolf's essay "How Should One Read a Book?". It's described here as simply "published in 1932", although its earliest version is a talk Woolf delivered at a school in the mid-1920s. It gives the impression, in any case, of the maturest consideration, so that the title's simple-sounding question – how should you read a book? you pick it up, open it, turn to the first page etc, answers every smart alec or alice, first time round – actually gives on to a prospect of deep critical wisdom . . . .
It begins with an impression of freedom: "what laws can be laid down about books?" The reader in the library mixes with a "heterogeneous company", and mustn't make unreasonable demands that every book must conform to one standard or another; "rubbish-reading", picking out whatever catches the eye in inartistically devised memoirs and the like, has its satisfactions. Eventually, though, Woolf observes, we have to admit that "facts are a very inferior form of fiction", and it's time to seek out the "varied art of the poet" and the equally abstracted pleasures of fiction. Quoting and comparing various verses leads to an unexpected turn in the path:
"'We have only to compare' – with those words the cat is out of the bag, and the true complexity of reading is admitted. The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle . . . . we are no longer the friends of the writer, but his judges; and just as we cannot be too sympathetic as friends, so as judges we cannot be too severe. Are they not criminals, books that have wasted our time and sympathy; are they not the most insidious enemies of society, corrupters, defilers, the writers of false books, faked books, books that fill the air with decay and disease? Let us then be severe in our judgments; let us compare each book with the greatest of its kind. There they hang in the mind the shapes of the books we have read solidified by the judgments we have passed on them – Robinson Crusoe, Emma, The Return of the Native. Compare the novels with these – even the latest and least of novels has a right to be judged with the best . . . . we may be sure that the newness of new poetry and fiction is its most superficial quality and that we have only to alter slightly, not to recast, the standards by which we have judged the old."
A dichotomy then emerges, between the judgements that arise out of this freely explored world and the judgements of the "gowned and furred authorities of the library". Those authorities would seem to "decide the question of the book’s absolute value for us", only "there is always a demon in us who whispers, 'I hate, I love', and we cannot silence him": "we cannot suppress our own idiosyncrasy without impoverishing it". The true critic may require the "rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment", but the rest of us can still chip in. "The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work. An influence is created which tells upon them even if it never finds its way into print. And that influence, if it were well instructed, vigorous and individual and sincere, might be of great value now when criticism is necessarily in abeyance; when books pass in review like the procession of animals in a shooting gallery, and the critic has only one second in which to load and aim and shoot and may well be pardoned if he mistakes rabbits for tigers, eagles for barndoor fowls, or misses altogether and wastes his shot upon some peaceful cow grazing in a further field."
Unfortunately, I failed to quote any of this essay in the course of my contribution to a recent and otherwise superbly informative, insight-rich symposium in Cambridge called Books in the Making, hosted by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH to you and me). The symposium's subject was "contemporary literary production", from Creation (represented here by the novelist Ben Markovits and the agent Rachel Calder, among others) to Publication (John Oakes of OR Books, Antonia Hodgson of Little, Brown et al) to the part where I came in, Reception (represented most ably on this day by Stephen Burn). Woolf's library, lawless yet inevitably inviting judgement, belongs to the world of Reception.
Creation and Publication have a complicated relationship with Reception's endless empire; I tried to describe it as circular. Book reviews don't necessarily translate into book sales – book prizes are more likely to do that, in their direct and hysterical way. Perhaps that's because book reviewing is in a bad way at the moment, as one publisher suggested, much as Woolf did in her time. (As Punch was never as funny as it used to be, so, apparently, is reviewing never as incisive as it once was. Fatuously sure of himself, the publisher nonetheless failed to reinforce his point with a single example.) Or perhaps, regardless of the state of current criticism, we should rather say that the most elusive aspect of the cycle through which books are made is that invaluable process described by Woolf – a process of judgements not so much mandarin as commonplace stealing into the air, and never going near print at all. Or even Goodreads.
Reception is as lawless as Woolf's library. While authors and publishers conventionally work to a deadline, readers have none. A book can go on the rubbish heap, and be all but forgotten until a common reader happens to fancy redeeming it. Influence can also be first-hand or not; you can catch a Jamesian chill from a ghost story by one of his imitators. Nobody can read everything, of course, and few are gifted with all three of those three "rarest qualities" in equal measure – but changes in the literary atmosphere occur all the same, and those changes change in turn what gets written and what gets published. Ben Markovits touched on this subject while talking about Creative Writing as a university course and, in particular, about the dilemmas of an admissions tutor. A certain number of candidates, he observed, would offer samples of their work that confessed their immersion in the world of, say, Harry Potter; another lot would have vampires on the mind; he described the ones whose realism, if that's not too bald a way of putting it, he would find intriguing and most rare (that word again). Yet all could have potential, merely having reached his office by different routes.
"Nobody can read everything" – I've let the cat out of the bag myself. While Woolf's essay addresses the individual reader, Books in the Making concluded with Professor James English's lecture "Revisiting the 'Great Divide': The past, the future and the contemporary novel", as embedded above. After our various attempts to address large topics as individual witnesses, here was a machine-inflected view of fiction, as it is, on the one hand, "seized upon with positive attention by critics" and literary prize committees, and as it is, on the other, seized upon by "ordinary" readers. This "Great Divide" is so firmly established a part of literary history that even a computer, given a chance to analyze merely the vocabulary of 50,000 volumes of digitized poetry spanning one out-of-copyright century, can sort out the "prestigious, high-status volumes" from "everything else" with a success rate of 80 per cent.
There are other distinguishing features on both sides of the Divide. Among several fine examples of how data sets far beyond the scope of a single reader can be used to reveal the "hidden laws governing the distribution of social prestige", Professor English showed how significant a presence historical novels have become on prize shortlists; long before Wolf Hall, the (Man) Booker Prize started gravitating towards the past. Skip on to the forty-minute mark to see how bestsellers have remained predominantly contemporary in setting over the same period. And the key point is that this is not airily intuited but confirmed by mass analysis.
I wonder what any of this Reception talk meant to the novelists and publishers in the room. To an all-too-common reader, it was fascinating, but suggested that we're not quite so free to wander around the library as we'd like to think.