Virginia Woolf began writing for the Times Literary Supplement in 1905 and continued throughout her adult life. “Genius and Ink” brings to new readers 14 of Woolf’s TLS reviews, some previously available in her two-volume collection, “The Common Reader.” Each essay in this collection circles a classic — or, “not so classic” — writer or literary form. Through these works, readers experience the development of Woolf as a critic and reader, and thus as a writer as well.
Each piece is dazzling and still relevant to today’s readers. “How It Strikes a Contemporary” covers the anxiety of reading works not already elevated by generations of critics, and the sense of danger that comes of reading within one’s own time. Woolf addresses Montaigne, George Eliot, John Evelyn, Joseph Conrad and also a sea captain named Frederick Marryatt who will send most Americans directly to Wikipedia.
Pegged to the 100th anniversary of her birth, she discusses Charlotte Bronte. Pegged to his passing, she discusses Thomas Hardy. She offers us “Fanny Burney’s Half Sister,” a gripping soap opera of a tale. She examines Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her “Aurora Leigh,” looking at the fairness of Barrett Browning’s legacy and, in an amusing example, the difference between prose and novelistic poetry.
She takes on reading specifically, and re-reading, and the age of reading, and the types of readers. She draws focus to the audience of the text, as when she dives into the letters of Henry James. And always present, no matter the topic, is Woolf’s incredible wit. Her “Notes on an Elizabethan Play” interrogates the genre beyond Shakespeare, and includes a line that simply must be reproduced in print as often as possible: “A dozen deaths of full-grown men and women move us less than the suffering of one of Tolstoy’s flies.”
Perhaps the best reviews of the book itself, and the ones most in keeping with the spirit of Woolf’s own reviews, are the preface by Ali Smith and the introduction by Francesca Wade. There are many collections of Woolf’s essays. Naturally, some trace the subject of reading. This opening sets the stage perfectly for this particular arrangement, both for enthusiasts and newcomers.
Reviewing a collection of essays from the Times Literary Supplement is a challenge. Reviewing the criticism of Virginia Woolf should be enough to shrivel the pen of even the most hardened of critics. Who could possibly apply a “five star” rating or “two thumbs way up” to the compassionate criticism of Woolf? And, whether high or low, what sense would that kind of value judgment make?
This book could be read for what it says about Woolf, for what it says about the authors she addresses, for what it says about reading, for what it says about The Novel, reverently title cased. There is too much to be valued here to compress our impressions into stars and thumbs.
And yet, that is precisely what many readers of this collection will do, formally on the Internet, or privately in a journal. We are all “reviewers” today, from Goodreads to Yelp. But, in many cases, we are not reviewing our reading or our experiences in the sense that Woolf was.
We are not reporting on our close reading, or the place of this text among the books we have read and the authors we know, the cross-pollination unique to our particular internal library. We often do not even take the time “to read with a pen & notebook, seriously,” the honor Woolf gave to those books she took on. We are rating them, and if anything, arguing our point.
While “Genius and Ink” will send any reader back to old loves and into the arms of new-to-us texts, perhaps its greater value lies in how it sends us off on our reading. This is, after all, Virginia Woolf on “How to Read,” not what to read. In “Genius and Ink,” we see what Woolf believes a reader is, what a novel could be and what a critic should be. It is a daring thing to actually review a book, not just rate it.
In her introduction, Ms. Wade highlights the liberation Woolf experienced when refusing to listen to the self-censoring voice that she named the “Angel in the House”: a ghost that demands women refrain from harsh criticism, an unfeminine trait. To criticize — as in, to offer an opinion, good or bad — is to demand to be treated as though one’s mind has value. It is to admit to having thought.
Today, this problem is perhaps more complicated: Famously, women frame their criticism with qualifying statements. “I felt that Woolf’s collection was excellent,” reads as feminine, “Woolf’s collection was excellent,” masculine.
Withdrawing those tempering words, daring to say what a book is, rather than what it made one humble and unqualified reader feel, is another exorcism of that Angel. Even women may freely apply a rating. A rating is how one feels. But the act of reading for a review, the way Woolf does, is a liberation all readers owe themselves.
• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).
• • •
GENIUS AND INK: VIRGINIA WOOLF ON HOW TO READ
By Virginia Woolf
TLS Books, $21.99, 256 pages