Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Insulting Your Audience

Frankly, I bought my copy of Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader for its title.  "Common reader" sounded like, well, me.  Not a scholar or a critic, just an ordinary reader, reading for pleasure and information.  I do a LOT of reading.  So I thought I might enjoy Woolf's essays on this subject.

Virginia Woolf - photo believed public domain

Start reading her Intro, written in that inimitable, mellow, English-literary way...

"There is a sentence in Dr Johnson's Life of Gray which might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people."

Lovely sentence.  That's my room - she's talking about me.  Woolf quotes Johnson saying that it is the "common reader" who decides the claim of authors to honor.  Common readers rule!  Then she goes on...

"The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously."


It's painful to quote the entire passage that spells out Virginia Woolf's opinion of "common readers" - anyone not a critic or scholar - so I'll just give you adjectives and phrases: "odds and ends, rickety, ramshackle, temporary, sufficiently like, hasty, inaccurate, superficial, snatching, scrap, without caring, deficiencies..."

It's a little unclear whether Ms. Woolf considers herself a common reader (on a third reading, I believe she does), but it's clear I'm one.  And that she holds a lower opinion of me than Dr Johnson's.

Having bought the book already, shall I read on past the insults?

I read on.  There's an essay on Jane Austen that makes the book worth buying.  And I persist in loving Woolf's A Room of One's Own, that feminist plea to give women true opportunity in writing and, by extension, in any of the arts.

(I can almost hear Woolf reacting to female-architect Jeanne Gang's MacArthur Grant with, "You go girl!"  No - too vulgar - but perhaps, "Oh, well done.")

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf indeed.

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