My friend Carra constantly sends me things she thinks I should read. I know she’s trying to educate me, and that’s all right. A few days ago, she linked me to Virginia Woolf’s review, “The Modern Essay.” I’ll admit, I scanned it. I had an initial response that was different from Carra’s. I’m not arguing here against Carra’s—that would be surprisingly stupid. But I am using this incident as a way of saying something about the teaching of writing.
What a lovely piece of writing. Perhaps a bit overwritten. I wonder whether other readers sensed just a bit too much time spent on getting the right word, image, phrase, and rhythm (a shade ironic, given her objects of disaffection)? But I was reading closely enough to catch that she marked Max Beerbohm, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Walter Pater, as writers who managed through their writing to diminish the distance between themselves and their readers. Admittedly, Woolf’s examples of meaningless paragraphs may have been overweighted to ridicule overly-distanced discourse; nevertheless, Woolf makes her point: good writing diminishes the space between writers and readers. Bad writing is distorted by intermediating personas.
I am thinking about what this notion of distance has to do with how we teach writing in required writing classes. The distance between writers and reader is possibly in indirect proportion to one’s pleasure in writing and consequently related to the kinds of writing situations we construct in required writing classes. It's not too difficult to imagine why when we read so much of our students' writing that we complain, a complaint that is perhaps misdirected.
I have had the good sense before publishing this post to reread Woolf's essay--and I have to thank Carra for sending me there--and wonder that I had never read it. The first link below is to Woolf's paragraphs on Beerbohm--I want all of my student to read this. The second is to the essay, which if you haven't read, take some time, give yourself pleasure and read it more slowly than I did at first. An essay like this makes you wish for all the time in the world only to read what gives you pleasure and as slowly as possibly and reread again. I told Carra, I would hate to be on the receiving end of V.Woolf's sword. I think Pope said something about true satire severing the head from the body and leaving the body standing. Woolf leaves with few exceptions most bodies standing.Links: Woolf on Beerbohm
Woolf, The Modern Essay
Beerbohm, A Cloud of Pinafores
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