Categories: Literary Criticism

The importance of difficulty

On one level, it is easy to see both Murry’s humanism and Woolf’s visions as a means of self-promotion, resting as they do on a personal engagement with the text rather than the detached, analytical methods of the newly professionalised humanities. This, of course, leaves both Woolf and Murry open to many of the charges levelled at literary criticism when its entry into university syllabuses was first mooted: that it was gossipy, subjective and required no intellectual skills other than those gained in the nursery. Certainly, Woolf herself was aware that her methods were haphazard, her only ‘training’ the sheer amount of reading in which she engaged. In her diary, commenting on her writing of The Common Reader, she asks herself ‘Shall I plunge into early Elizabethans, of whom I am appallingly ignorant? What happened between Chaucer & Shakespeare?’.70 An earlier entry records her enjoyment of ‘the exercise of my wits upon literature – reading it as literature. And I think I can do this the better for having read through such a lot of lives, criticism, every sort of thing.’71 However, while Woolf’s approach may make it all too easy to see ‘amateur’ criticism as unintellectual, both Woolf and Murry defined criticism as involving a particular kind of difficulty. For Murry, this was a difficulty that stemmed from his desire to draw on common experi- ences and concerns: the Arnoldian problem of negotiating a role for literature at a time of immense social and political change. For Woolf, the difficulty of criticism took the more Paterian form of the rigour of reading properly. Both authors were able to use these definitions of criticism to create an alternative form of critical authority for themselves: one that rested not on the structures and processes of academia, but on a different conception of the value of literary knowledge. An important dimension of this redefinition of critical authority is how it emphasises the intellectual demand of reading and how it draws on certain elements of Pater’s aesthetic philosophy in order to do this. In the late nineteenth century, the growing gap between professional academic practice and the artistic appreciation of the aesthete was exploited (as Ian Small has shown) by satirists such as George du Maurier, who depicted the aesthete as effete and solipsistic, judging art by entirely personal criteria.72 One way in which aesthetic critics responded to this was by defining artistic perception in a way that emphasised its difficulty, insisting that it was not simply a process that could be undertaken by anyone, but that it required a certain kind of temperament and a certain set of skills. We have already seen how Pater emphasised the need for the critic to be alert to the ‘challenge for minute consideration’ posed by the author, and his definition of the function of the aesthetic critic in The Renaissance involves a careful anatomising of the elements and feelings bound up in the act of criticism. Rather than being passive, Pater’s critic is an active participant who is required to discriminate carefully between different sets of impressions: to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced.

Ironically, Pater borrows the language of scholarship in order to assert this claim: the vocabulary used (here, ‘impression’, and elsewhere, ‘sensation’) is imported from the new discipline of psychology, lending a scientific tone to Pater’s description of perception which in turn gives it further validity.74 For Woolf, the demands of reading were slightly different, but no less stringent. ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ emphasises the need for the reader to play an active role in the creation of ‘meaning’, becoming the author’s ‘fellow-worker and accomplice’.75 Reading was not simply an act of decoding, but ‘a difficult and complex art’: ‘You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist – the great artist – gives you.’76 Such statements are undoubtedly fuelled by Woolf’s sense of herself as an author, by her desire to be understood and her hatred of unsympathetic or dismissive readings, the ‘crimes of criticism’ of which she was often all too aware. For Woolf, this need for understanding was also rooted in her awareness of herself as belonging to a particular – and very narrow – social group. She was conscious of the hostility towards ‘Bloomsbury’ and the public’s image of a self-serving, self-obsessed coterie, producing difficult books and difficult art for a small and equally self- absorbed audience. Yet as we saw earlier, Woolf also sought to distance her reading and writing from the activities of the ‘middlebrows’.77 Signifi- cantly, this class included literary scholars, whose profession – ‘teaching and […] writing books about Shakespeare’78 – is seen purely as a means of subsistence, in stark contrast to the leisured reading enjoyed by Woolf herself. Woolf’s depiction of reading as an act that was implicitly ‘amateur’ must also be balanced against her claim that a true engagement with the text was a rigorous process, requiring time and attention if it was to be accomplished properly. Even though reading was not necessarily ‘work’ (for this would associate it with the financial motives of both professional academia and mass market publishing) it was a pursuit that

involved a definite and advanced set of skills. These skills set it apart from the reading of the masses, to whom reading was a mere pastime, a temporary diversion from the exhaustion of working life. The spread of literacy hastened the need for reading to be defined in terms of a particular set of qualities. If reading was reduced to a simple matter of decoding words, then potentially anyone could do it, with mass educa- tion and its vision of universal literacy bringing this form of leisure within everyone’s grasp. Conversely, if a distinction was made between different levels of reading, then the claims to superiority of a cultural elite could be justified. Woolf’s criticism, then, can be characterised by a number of tensions and contradictions. First, it is built in opposition to a world that Woolf both scorned and felt excluded from. In addition to this, it defines reading as a leisured activity, yet also as an act that involves a certain amount of difficulty. Woolf’s identification with the ‘common reader’ is therefore ambiguous: this figure may have been untutored and undirected, but it was also difficult to reconcile with the actual ‘common readers’ who made up the mass reading public of the early twentieth century. In addition, while Woolf sought to define her criticism using Paterian terms, her sense of the difficulty of reading seems to be located in the act of engagement – the ‘fineness of perception’ and ‘boldness of imagination’ advocated in ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ – rather than in the rigorous and scholarly self-awareness that Pater recommends. It is clear that this act of engagement brought its own kind of insight and authority – an authority that enabled Woolf to speak confidently as a critic outside the world of the universities.

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