Woolf reads Woolf: can criticism hamper creativity?


You must now be quite familiar with my love for Virginia Woolf. I wish I had read all of her novels and yet her world fascinates me already. “The Voyage Out” was her first ever novel to be published. Out in 1915, when Woolf was 33, her first novel dealt with self-discovery and the depiction of the modern world and Edwardian life and drew positive reviews. The writer herself commented on her first work calling it “such a harlequinade as it is, such an assortment of patches, here simple and severe, here frivolous and shallow, here like God’s truth, here strong and free“. Re-reading her first novel was necessary for her, in order to see the comparisons between that and her newest release at the time: “Night and Day“, published in 1919. Critics and readers often brought up the comparison, forcing Woolf to go back to “The Voyage Out” after not reading it since the summer of 1913. She did quite see how she progressed from that stage in her evolution as a writer, yet she realised how people preferred it to ‘Night and Day‘ and clarified that she didn’t admire it more, but found it “a more gallant and inspiring spectacle“.

Night and Day” was highly praised by the critics. Woolf uses the four main characters to explore pivotal themes for society such as marriage, love and happiness and is based on a consistent depth that stands out in comparison to her first novel. According to her dear friend Morgan (E.M. Forster), “Night and Day” was “strictly formal and classical work” and that its characters are much more loveable than those of “The Voyage Out“, which is to be seen as a “vague and universal” work.
She was, of course, happy about all the positive reviews. Yet, the only unfavourable one was that of Forster and she was almost grateful about it. She called his opinion an “intelligent criticism” and was so overwhelmed by praises that his review was almost felt as a relief, describing her feelings “as if one were in the human atmosphere again, after a blissful roll among elastic clouds and cushiony downs“.

However, for Virginia Woolf it wasn’t a matter of good or bad criticism per se. She questioned the role of criticism in a writer’s life. Recalling George Eliot‘s statement that reviews can hamper the writing process, Woolf considered reviews to interrupt the creative flow, “cast one’s eyes backwards, make one wish to explain or investigate“, thus stealing time and wasting energy that could otherwise be implemented in the direction of the craft. Is art ever questionable? Shouldn’t the work of art come to the world as a coded element? One that, as an instrument, can be played in different ways according to who’s using it? I believe so.
Opinions can vary, and certainly critics have every right to come up with their study on a newly released novel. But should the writer ever pay attention to what they say? And doesn’t this alter the writer’s creating process?

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13 thoughts on “Woolf reads Woolf: can criticism hamper creativity?

  1. I have been reading Gerald Brenan ‘South from Granada’ who writes a chapter about VW. This has made me think about reading some of her work. What would your advice be on where to start?

  2. Great post. You’ve raised some really thought provoking questions. If the writer is a part of the work then by allowing others to influence works, the finished piece would be ingenuine. Yet postmodernists argue that the author is not part of the text, author intentions, author style etc. are not taken into consideration when judging a piece of work. I think you can’t please everyone, so write how you want to ;-)

    • Probably so! :)

      I believe the author should not compromise with others and probably not even with himself/herself. As I reported, Virginia Woolf felt a diverse range of emotions reading back her first novel after almost seven years. That is because, had she had the chance, she would have edited parts of it perhaps.

      “The Voyage Out” itself was changed several times between 1910 and 1913. Since we, as humans, progressively grow up, so does the writer in us. But by changing our works continuously we’re not really true to our past selves, right?

  3. I agree with that. Sometimes I read what I wrote when I was much younger and honestly, it’s embarrassing. But it was true to who I was at the time.

    I’ll have to read “The Voyage Out”. I have only read “To The Lighthouse” which I adored. It was the first proper stream of consciousness novel I read. I have bought a few more of her books but sadly I have not quite got around to them yet.

  4. I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf, I only heard of her when the movie with Elizabeth Taylor came out. Greetings from Sicily!

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