Literary Criticism

The common reader: Leisure and idealism

Woolf’s attempt to validate a non-academic approach to literature is best exemplified by her championing of Samuel Johnson’s figure of the ‘Common Reader’. For Woolf, this figure ‘dignifies [the] aims’ of the ‘private people’ who read in rooms ‘too humble to be called libraries’, the mass of ordinary, non-academic readers.45 The common reader differs from ‘the critic and the scholar’ in that he is
worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others […] Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.46
The common reader is distinguished by qualities that set him in direct opposition to the professional literary critic: the new importance of atten- tion to detail is countered by his inaccuracy, and academic specialisation by his haphazard pursuit of his own tastes. Indeed, this last point allows Woolf to mount a further challenge to the values of disciplinary English, as she opposes the official hierarchy of the canon with a defence of the delight of ‘rubbish-reading’ – the letters, memoirs and biographies of uncan- onised authors, a common literary history that was able to accommodate all that had been left out of the new English Literature degrees.47 This sense of the value of an unstructured programme of reading is apparent in Woolf’s impressionistic technique (a very nineteenth-century habit), and in the emphasis that this technique places on the authorial persona, meaning that many of Woolf’s reviews actually say very little about the work she is ostensibly reviewing (a further reflection of nineteenth-century practice). A review of Ellis H. Chadwick’s biography Mrs. Gaskell, to take one example, says a lot about Woolf’s opinion of Gaskell, but nothing about Chadwick’s book.48 The effect of this is to recreate a sense of the personal authority of the man of letters Woolf wished to emulate, an authority that was sustained by a sense of the mystique of the critic rather than the critic’s possession of a certain body of knowledge. If Woolf portrays herself as having a privileged access to the ‘truth’ of a particular author, or a superior right to pass judgement on a text, then this is entirely the product of her own rhetoric: in aligning herself with the amateur, she consciously lays aside the sources of authority to which academics could lay claim. Yet the concept of the ‘common reader’ is a complex one, relating to a figure that is often confused with the notion of the mass of readers, and – particularly in Woolf’s case – with a certain condescension for the ordin- ary person. Both of these interpretations are problematic. Hermione Lee argues that far from having the elitist overtones that some readers have detected, the adjective ‘common’ refers to how Woolf saw herself as a reader: ‘non-specialist, adventurous, and open’.49 In addition, Woolf was careful to distinguish between her ideal ‘common reader’ and the public at large, reflecting Q. D. Leavis’s sense that ‘the general public – Dr. Johnson’s common reader’ had been seduced by the mass market and the availability of publications that appealed to more immediate tastes.50 The ‘rubbish-reading’ advocated by Woolf was very different from the newspapers, magazines and bestsellers made available for these readers by the advent of cheaper methods of publishing and distribu- tion: Woolf also stated that the common reader had read more than ‘could be expected of a working man, or any but a very exceptional bank clerk’.51 Moreover, the common reader is also identified with a different kind of reading. Woolf’s descriptions in both series of The Common Reader of idling in the warmth of the sun and waiting for the ‘dust of reasoning’ to settle represent a different kind of leisure to that which the ‘masses’ were popularly believed to enjoy, characterised by superficial distractions and mindless entertainment. Q. D. Leavis’s analysis of the pastimes of working people made the point that modern methods of production had changed the working day from ‘a sequence of interests to a repetition of mechanical movements of both body and mind’: while such work did leave time for leisure, the working day was so exhausting that leisure time was spent in recovery, rather in any meaningful pursuit.52 As a result,

the new mass market publications had to be ‘designed to be read in the face of lassitude and nervous fatigue’,53 read – in the words of one critic – ‘not with any artistic, spiritual, moral, or informative purpose, but simply in order to pass time’.54 Woolf’s ‘common reader’ may have been ‘hasty, inaccurate, and superficial’, but he was nevertheless ‘guided by an impulse to create […] some kind of whole’, an aim that distinguished his reading from the mere pastime of the masses.55 It is difficult, then, to align Woolf’s ‘common reader’ with the mass of readers, as the kind of reading with which the common reader is identified – despite Woolf’s references to ‘hastiness’ – is one that is based on having the time to engage with and think about texts, drawing from them a sense of the ‘wholes’ that Woolf saw as so important. Yet Woolf is often surprisingly reticent on the subject of the mass market, reserving her scorn for the class of readers she described as ‘middlebrow’. Indeed, in a letter written (but not sent) to the editor of the New Statesman, and later published as ‘Middlebrow’ in The Death of the Moth, she describes ‘lowbrows’ and ‘highbrows’ as sharing similar qualities: the former’s ‘thoroughbred vitality’ and the latter’s ‘thoroughbred intelligence’; the fact that the highbrow ‘rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea’ while the lowbrow ‘rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life’.56 This similarity brings Woolf to a definition of the two groups’ mutual dependence:
Lowbrows need highbrows and honour them just as much as high- brows need lowbrows and honour them. This too is not a matter that requires much demonstration. You only have to stroll along the Strand on a wet winter’s night and watch the crowds lining up to get into the movies. These lowbrows are waiting, after the day’s work, in the rain, sometimes for hours, to get into the cheap seats and sit in hot theatres in order to see that their lives look like. Since they are lowbrows, engaged magnificently and adventurously in riding full tilt from one end of life to the other in pursuit of a living, they cannot see themselves doing it. Yet nothing interests them more. Nothing matters to them more. It is one of the prime necessities of life to them – to be shown what life looks like. And the highbrows, of course, are the only people who can show them. Since they are the only people who do not do things, they are the only people who can see things being done.57
Neither are the two groups defined along the lines of social class: Woolf claims to have known ‘duchesses who were highbrows, also charwomen’,

the two linked by ‘that vigour of language which so often unites the aristocracy with the working classes’.58 Yet both are insistent in their distaste for the middlebrow, defined by Woolf as
the man, or woman, of middle-bred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistin- guishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.59
And while Woolf identifies the highbrows with both taste and leisure, stating rather archly that as she writes she is ‘breakfasting, as usual, in bed’, the middlebrows are associated with ‘sham antiques’, ‘first editions of dead writers – always the worst’ and a lack of leisure: ‘poor middle- brow [. ..] has to keep at it scribbling away, year in, year out, while we highbrows ring each other up, and are off for a day’s jaunt into the country’.60 The middlebrows so despised by Woolf bear certain similarities to Arnold’s ‘philistines’, a group almost coterminous with the middle classes.61 Their class also links them to the late nineteenth-century expansion of higher education, and to a group of people who Woolf viewed as possessing the outward appearance of culture with none of its spirit. The ‘middlebrows’ were associated with an attempt to be cultured that is also latent in Woolf’s description of the ready-made tie worn by the ‘ungentlemanly’ scholar at the British Museum:62 they are the owners of ‘Queen Anne furniture (faked, but nonetheless expensive)’ and ‘bound volumes of the classics behind plate glass’.63 Nevertheless, for Woolf, their lack of genuine taste and leisure time meant that they could never be identified with the common reader, an idealised figure who, like Arnold’s ‘alien’, was neither a scholar nor part of the ‘masses’. For the common reader, the acquisition of culture was a random and haphazard project, made possible by the availability of a certain amount of leisure: the middlebrow, like the scholar, simply had to work too hard.

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