Posts Tagged ‘ways of reading’


November 17, 2010

Barrier – photograph by Liz Mathews

Why all this criticism of other people?  Why not some system that includes the good?  What a discovery that would be – a system that did not shut out.

Virginia Woolf, Diary Oct 2nd 1932

Written nearly eighty years ago, in the autumn of 1932, this question of Virginia Woolf’s is still only too valid.  She used the word ‘criticism’ not in the (good) sense of analysis or constructive debate, but of an attack intended to relegate the work under discussion to an inferior position within – or perhaps even outside – a hierarchical structure.  Such criticism is, as she shrewdly remarked, ‘so barren, so easy’.

(When I read this, I was reminded of hearing an American poet in a radio talk, vehemently insisting that ‘95% of poetry isn’t worth reading’ – as though, if true, that would make his own work somehow better – and of Adrienne Rich, including only unknown poets in an anthology she edited, to present the work of writers who’d been left outside.)

Systems grade, measure, reduce to conformity, remove the need for independent thought.  They are anti-enthusiasm, but risk-free.  As such, their existence is perhaps inevitable, but there are degrees of use or misuse of these established judgements and hierarchies.  Later in the same passage Woolf deprecates attempts to fit writers into pre-existing systems, which she describes as ‘blasphemy’, when they should be reverenced for their very qualities of differentness.

This dislike of categorising writers, fitting them in or shutting them out, doesn’t imply an uncritical acceptance of every kind or quality of writing.  Woolf makes strong demands of art; ‘I want to be made free of another world. This Proust does.’  She dislikes the didactic strain, the attempt to impose a philosophy and insist on proving it.  ‘Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful: multitudinous seas: daffodils that come before the swallow dares…’

It’s still, in the contemporary world, difficult to imagine ‘a system that includes the good’, but maybe it has become more possible for us to read without the automatic measure-and-grade response, and to avoid cramming recalcitrant books into pre-existing hierarchical systems.  But what the intervening time has also shown, is that it’s less problematic to circumvent conventional literary ‘systems’ altogether, than to invent new ones which are not equally excluding.

Perhaps the best way forward in this quixotic endeavour is – like visualising world peace – to imagine a system that includes the good, and until then at least try not to ‘shut out.’