Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Virginia and me

The Indigo Girls' "Rites of Passage" is one of those rare albums that I like to listen to all the way through. I know this is an alien concept to the iPod generation, but in the olden days when you wanted to buy a recording of a song you liked, you had to buy it in a package of about 20 songs by the same artist and listen to them in the order the artist chose for you (unless you're fond of programming your C.D. player and/or constantly changing the disc). So I found myself occasionally listening to the Indigo Girls' song about Virginia Woolf.

The published your diary
and that's how I got to know you
a key to the room of your own
and a mind without end.

It wasn't my favorite song on the album, but it's not bad, and it presents a fascinating perspective on one's death and legacy, so I spent time contemplating it. I posted the results of my musings here: Death II: Deal with it!

One day I was listening to this song and thought to myself "Maybe I should actually read this Room of One's Own book -- after all, it's short and my husband has a copy of it sitting right here on the bookshelf."

Obviously I was hoping to like the book. I'd heard it was an essay in favor of giving women the time, resources, and privacy to write. I'm totally down with that. In fact, I could hardly be more in favor of this position. It was the execution I had a problem with.

As I was reading along, I kept hoping the author would explain her position and present her arguments. Instead I found page after page of rambling and irrelevant poetic descriptive passages. I know her fans are probably saying "The poetry isn't irrelevant -- it's an essay about being a writer!" Right, but I was hoping that she'd show her mastery of the writer's craft by demonstrating that she knows how and when to make a point clearly and concisely.

I think it was the part where she was listing off the elaborate menu of some male scholars' club when I finally said, "Okay, that's it, I'm not slogging through any more of this." There are a lot of narratives that make the British caste system interesting with its grand institutions of nobility and snobbery. Orwell's essays come to mind. Not this.

Now I'm sure the problem isn't Virginia Woolf, it's me. I know, I have no poetry in my heart; I think that brevity is the soul of wit; I'm too much like Mr. Spock (see here and here). And keep in mind that I hold a work up to a higher standard if someone tells me it's great, as I explained when comparing The Da Vinci Code to His Dark Materials. In this case, however, if I'd been given this as an amateur work to give feedback on, I would have read it all the way to the end, but I would be even more adamant in my belief that it requires major editing rather than assuming that I need to work harder to figure out why I'm supposed to like it.

Actually this whole discussion breaks my usual book review policy that if I can't say something nice about a work then I don't review it at all. If this style suits other people, I don't mind. I'd rather steer people towards works I like than away from ones I don't like (but maybe they will). Thus I wouldn't have bothered to write about this work if it hadn't been the selection of the nonbelieving literati.


The Exterminator said...

Although I disagree with you completely about the book, I'm thrilled that you wrote a post about your not liking it.

That's what Nonbelieving Literati is about. We each write our impressions of that month's pick. How dull it would be if everybody agreed all the time.

Anyway, I'm glad that for once I wasn't the sourpuss.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Exterminator!!!

Yeah, you know it was just your white male guilt that pressured you into liking it, whereas I've written about more female authors than male ones so I can write whatever I like. J/K ;^)

So who gets to pick the next one?

Aerin said...

I too am glad that you wrote a post sharing your observations about the book. If everything was positive all the time - life would be pretty boring!

I've read "A Room of One's Own", but I don't remember it very well. I like poetic license and disjointed narratives, so I think I liked it originally. I can't remember if it was revolutionary at the time. Or, considering Virginia's life, if the "room" was an allegory for living your life how YOU/ a woman wanted to, and not how society defined your/women's life/lives.

But I have found that some quote - classic - unquote books and novels are actually hard to understand for me (hard to understand why they were so groundbreaking and seen as icons.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

Actually, according to The Chaplain's review it was indeed revolutionary at the time. So really it's a bit of a success story when your (once original) ideas turn into "So what's the big deal about that? Everybody knows that," as you see in my review as well as in Ordinary Girl's.

Still, I'm serious when I say I found her style rambling and kind of dull. OTOH, maybe I'd have found her description of Oxbridge interesting if I'd been there, like Lynet...

Alejandro said...

I'm going to chime in here and say I actually shared C.L.'s feelings with regards to the first section of the book. I almost put it down right then and there, but "white male guilt" carried the day.

That being said, I did not find the rest of the book to be as unreadable, although I'm still not so sure I'd recommend it to someone.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Well, I feel sorta guilty about this, but I agree with you. I found the book to be exceedingly boring. Two many allusions to matters, people, locations etc I was totally unfamiliar with. Rambling on and on to the point where I kept thinking, "What the fuck is she talking about?" And that was just the first chapter.

I imagine that if it was read around the time it was written, it would have been enjoyed more, at least by me.

Fortunately, it did get a little better, but not much, and I knew in advance her thesis by reading the back cover. It's the main reason I didn't write an essay or critique, and went for light fiction instead.

This isn't to say that there weren't points I liked, and passages I found intriguing. But her point could have been made in a paragraph, or two.

Although, come to think of it, maybe that was her point.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lifeguard!!!

Good, it's not just me. ;)

Hey S.I.!!!

I think there are kinds of writing where more is better. But my own aesthetic preference is that -- in a persuasive essay -- explaining your position in a handful of crystal-clear paragraphs is far better than spreading the same points over two hundred pages.

John Evo said...

Interesting that you, of all people, wouldn't like it. Not just that you are a female (we have several in the Nonbelieving Literati) but also a writer!

I'm guessing that this book might mean more to some of us older folks. As I pointed out in my post, I can remember a time when I didn't see women in many jobs which were "a man's job".

Still, we are far from a completely egalitarian society even now. So maybe it is just about style. I guess I can see the complaints that you, Lifey and SI mention but, for whatever reason, I didn't find it difficult to follow her logic through it's twists and turns.

And I agree with Ex 100%. I wouldn't want the Nonbelieving Literati to be about unanimity.

Unknown said...

Her writing style is sort of the way I think sometimes, so it as kind of neat to read it, in that context anyway. Towards the end I wanted everything to tie together though and I'm not sure it did.

I stayed at Balliol in Oxford when I visited a few years ago, so I enjoyed here description of the area. I'm not familiar with Cambridge, but the first part did seem like the area around Oxford.

Rebecca said...

I've never read it, but I tend to agree with you: if it's supposed to be persuasive, or an argument -- get to the damn point! I had a professor (a really, really great professor) who told us that writing high-falutin' academic papers is easy; the hard thing is to write something that everyone will understand. Whether or not that's true, I do tend to put a black mark next to someone's work if it sounds like he/she is trying to be brilliant. And I get REALLY annoyed with people who are obviously enamored of their own "style" (I just gagged a little).

...Okay, this post may have just hit on something I've been thinking about - and annoyed with - lately. Rant rant rant.

I loved the Da Vinci Code. I love a book that will keep me turning the pages, even if it is crap.

On the non-crap spectrum, have you read Feynman's Rainbow? I read it last week and LOVED it. Oh, I just realized that I wrote "spectrum," and there's a rainbow...Anyway, if you haven't read it, it's mainly a short autobiography of a guy who spent a year as a fellow at CalTech, and what he learned from Richard Feynman in that time. A really, really enjoyable book.

AnnM said...

I read it when I was going through my feminist literature stage in college. I remember loving it, but I have no memory of the writing style. But I'm a little Spock-like myself.

Anonymous said...

As I read the book, I kept trying to imagine the text as being spoken aloud to an audience rather than read silently by an audience. I had fun imagining Woolf putting on an exaggerated expression and saying, very dramatically, perhaps even conspiratorially:

"I am sorry to break off so abruptly. Are there no men present?...Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these..."

Adding that sort of drama to the scene brought the text alive for me.

Lynet said...

She is very free with the obscure allusions, isn't she? Perhaps she prefers to let the reader supply things, but the things she wants the reader to be able to supply to seem to be rather specific!

I definitely think that knowing something of how the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge function makes a huge difference to the first chapter. I mean, as far as symbolism goes, an Oxbridge college really represents nearly everything that she is saying people need in order to write: a comfortable living, a space of your own, and a deep tradition to go with it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

I agree with her points about women and women's work, my only objection was stylistic. That's why I didn't really want to write about this one. (From now on, whenever I give any work a positive review, some commenter will say "so you didn't like Virginia Woolf and you like this?" lol)

But seriously, I can see why others would enjoy this work -- it just didn't suit my particular tastes.

Hey Ordinary Girl!!!

That's cool -- maybe more familiarity with England helps...

Hey Rebecca!!!

I agree it's hard to explain things that are complex in a way that makes them seem simple. I haven't read Feynman's Rainbow -- maybe I'll have a look.

Hey Sam-I-Am!!!

I wonder if I would have liked this book if I'd read it back when I was in college or grad school...

Hey Chaplain!!!

That's a good point -- reading it aloud might make it more fun. I think part of my problem is that it didn't meet my expectation of what a persuasive essay should be like, but perhaps I should have thought of it as a slightly different form...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Lynet!!!

Also a good point. It almost seemed like she was saying women need to be invited to enter Oxford or Cambridge in order to write (which is debatable), but thinking of it metaphorically (in terms of tradition and resources) it makes sense.

The Exterminator said...

Rebecca says:
I've never read it, but I tend to agree with you: if it's supposed to be persuasive, or an argument -- get to the damn point!

Ummm, you've gotten a long, introspective, impressionistic essay (Woolf's book) mixed up with a newspaper editorial. The book did make a "political" statement; but it was much more than that. Maybe you should stop debasing your taste with garbage like The Da Vinci Code and try something written by someone who respects the language.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Exterminator!!!

That was my own objection to it, so perhaps I'm the one confused about what genre it was supposed to be. Yeah, if she'd edited and re-worked this essay down to the few pages of its essence, it would have been a blog entry instead of a classic of literature. Yet I still would have liked it better that way. So sue me...

Rebecca said...

Thanks exterminator! I'm glad to know I'm way stupid to simply agree with a point about an argument in general- NOT ABOUT THE BOOK IN PARTICULAR, as I believe I said (in that quote you copied). Maybe you shouldn't assume you know what I read and have read based on the fact that I enjoyed one trashy book solely for its entertainment value. And you can go ahead and take your nose out of the air if you've ever enjoyed a book, movie, tv show, etc. that wasn't totally highbrow.

The Exterminator said...


Oh, I enjoy plenty of books, movies, TV shows -- even restaurants -- that aren't totally highbrow. But my point was that you were jumping to a conclusion in judging the book, which you hadn't read at all.

I know you qualified your statement with "if," but it's probably a good idea to at least look at a book before you make any comment about it. As a writer, I'd ask that courtesy. I'm sure C.L. would ask that courtesy. And I'm guessing you'd ask that courtesy, too.

Not that Virginia Woolf needs any defending from me. But I think sometimes here in the Atheosphere we're too quick to have opinions without anything on which to base them.

The Ridger, FCD said...

You need to know the venue and audience to really appreciate this book. Those of us who are older probably also have the advantage of remembering when women weren't allowed to do stuff. Okay, I'm not old enough to remember when women couldn't go to university, but my college roommate was asked pointblank why she should get one of the 17 slots in vet school when she was just going to get married and quit practicing.

These were lectures to university women in 1930s England. The style was of its time and for its delivery...

But then again, if it bores people today, I'd say Woolf would be happy. It means her position has won out to the point that it's obvious.

Rebecca said...

Yeah, alright exterminator, I see your point. And I was being too defensive when I responded last time. I agree that I should know something about a book before forming an opinion about it - but my intention wasn't at all to comment on the book. I can see how it looks that way, but I only meant that if something - ANYTHING - is meant to be an argument, I think it should just get to the point. Having not read the book, I don't know if it's meant to be an argument, nor do I know whether or not it succeeds - I only know that chanson thought it didn't, and I agree with her point that SOMETHING intended to make a point should just MAKE THE POINT. There - is that a better explanation of what I meant?

Next time, if you think my comment is erroneous, please don't feel the need to assume things about my taste and/or intelligence unless it relates directly to the point you're making, and unless you have better evidence that I'm "debasing your [my] taste" and that I'm not reading "something written by someone who respects the language." Besides The Da Vinci Code, you have no idea what I've read or enjoy (although I also mentioned, in that previous comment, that I just finished a fun book called Feynman's Rainbow. While it's not the pinnacle of great literature, I doubt anyone would call it trashy).

The Exterminator said...


Why would you care what I think? You don't even know me.

But I do think that one should make the assumption with a classic writer like Virginia Woolf that she's not just writing a polemic.

By the way, why don't you join Nonbelieving Literati? We'd love to have you, and you might find it to be right up your alley. We argue and disagree about all kinds of books. Take a look at the info in the sidebar of my blog.

Rebecca said...



You are so not getting my point, which is that I WAS NEVER TALKING ABOUT VIRGINIA WOOLF. Only the point about an argument in GENERAL. ANY (right here I'm refraining from writing a seven letter expletive that starts with f) ARGUMENT.

Also, I never said I cared what you think. I said there's no need to make erroneous assumptions about me. I am getting the feeling that you are not reading through the comments very carefully before replying.

Thanks for letting me know about the Nonbelieving Literati. I will check it out and think about it, although I tend to have a problem with arguing about things because I am so right and everyone else is so maddeningly wrong. It's a curse.

Hey, chanson...what's up? I apologize for hijacking your comments. Obviously I have a problem with letting things go (a fault that is unlikely to be rectified anytime soon).

C. L. Hanson said...

Yeah, I was kind of leery of this whole "people talking to each other here" thing -- isn't this blog all about me? ;^)

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I'm going to have to stop in more often so you all can talk about something more interesting and important.

Like me.

Gotta refocus.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey SI!!!

Glad to see you're ready to help out!!! :D

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Always ready to lend a helping hand.

If you want me to send a picture to get the discussion started, let me know.