Tag Archives: Modern Fiction

Woolf and the Freedom of the Writer

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions – trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style…

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 150. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

 

Woolf Gets It!

“‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 154. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

I couldn’t agree more with this essay, and this summarizing quote. For me, this idea that fiction is what you make it and not what you’re told it is, is one that I struggle with. Not that I don’t stand behind it to the fullest, but, as I intend to teach creative writing classes someday, I’ve been finding it difficult to decide how I can teach a craft that comes from the heart and soul rather than a defined method or period of time. Of course there will never quite be an answer to my woes, but it’s great to know that my viewpoint is shared by so many I admire.

The Meaning

“If we tried to formulate our meaning in one word we should say that these three writers are materialists. It is because they are concerned not with the spirit but with the body that they have disappointed us, and left us with the feeling that the sooner English fiction turns its back upon them, as politely as may be, and marches, if only into the desert, the better for its soul”.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 149. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

Who knew that finding the meaning of a book could only be found through the soul of the book? And even so, the author themselves may not even know the true meaning.

The job of the writer

“The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life their coats in the fashion of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 149. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

The job of the writer is to write. There should not be a set of rules that an author has to follow. There are two possibilities when it comes to the ‘tyrant’ who Woolf is referring to. Perhaps the tyrant is all of the writers in the past who have stuck with the same structure and conventions throughout the years, leaving writers to feel obligated to follow suit. The reader is another possibility the tyrant. When reading a novel, people expect a plot, love interest, tragedy, etc. This puts a lot of pressure on the writer to fulfill certain expectations. Who are we to influence what the author wants to write about? All novels do not have to be the same; in fact the differences in structure are what make certain novels stand out from the rest.

Woolf: A Writer’s Relationship to Fiction

“‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumcised spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 150. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

The page should reflect the truth of life, in that it may be messy and uncoordinated, but still manages to be (somewhat) comprehensive. Good fiction is not so much defined by imitation, as it is by being able to look deeply within ourselves, and using our unique conscious to speak (and write) of the world as we live it and know it.

The vision of our minds

“Life escapes; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while. It is a confession of vagueness to have to make use of such a figure as this, but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality. Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of novels, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek. Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off, or on, and refuses to be contained any longer in such ill-fitting vestments as we provide. Nevertheless, we go on perseveringly, conscientiously, constructing our two and thirty chapters after a design which more and more ceases to resemble the vision of our minds.”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 149. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

At first, I did not know what Woolf was stating and I thought it was pretty dumb for her to state to obvious, but as I repeatedly read this passage, I found that what Woolf is stating is quite powerful. Despite the way we want life to turn out, life does not. What we control in life is limited, but writers persevere to write in ways that the vision they have in their minds cannot be portrayed within their books.  They cannot bring their vision to words because they are so constrained to a form of writing. What can writers do to express the visions of their minds? How can writers step away from the trending way of writing fiction? Isn’t that why modernism is a new way of approaching writing? They challenge to step away from the traditional and write in a way they can express their visions.

Free The Writers

“The writer seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest … The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 149. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

A writer should be able to write based on their own inspirations, experiences, and feelings’ however, instead the readers, the society, and the publishing company are restraining writers from the freedom of their own works. Instead writers are being constrained to write what will entertain the readers and to write what the society allows in literature. Why does writers have to follow a certain standard? Why does society determine what the writer’s can write in their novels? Aren’t writer’s supposed to be the ones with freedom in determining how they want their novel to turn out?

If a writer was not a slave

“…if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it…life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 150. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

Woolf has profound opinions concerning writers and restrictions that are placed on writing, in general. This statement is quite baffling, yet somewhat true. It seems as if a writer writes his ‘own feelings’ it would not be considered fiction. Therefore that is why it would not be ‘accepted’ as ‘modern fiction.’

Woolf’s Words on Modern Writers

“We do not come to write better; all that we can be said to do is keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle.  It need scarcely be said that we make no claim to stand, even momentarily, upon the vantage ground.  On the flat, in the crowd, half blind with dust, we look back with envy to those happier warriors, whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the fight was not so fierce for them as for us. ” (Woolf 146) Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.”  Web.  9 Sept 2014. To my understanding, during this time period, much of what existed of the industry was not a fan of fiction.  It was not considered an art form, and was often thoughts of as no more than a common drug of the youth. Here, Virginia Woolf, vocalizes her opinions of  writing as a whole; she sees it from it’s roots and traces it to her time, in her present, and claims that her and her contemporaries are as innovative as anyone has ever been in writing and are pushing in a general direction to further the development of literature, even with many against them.