On Taking the Woolf out of Novelist Virginia Woolf
Herman, Carol, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
On a recent snowbound afternoon, my two young children were watching cartoons when a bespectacled wallaby named Virginia Woolf appeared on the screen. At the time it seemed an eerie coincidence since I was reading "Virginia Woolf Icon" for this column, a book that begins with Dartmouth professor Brenda Silver's assertion that "Virginia Woolf is everywhere." Even, apparently on the Cartoon Network. The author goes on to note "that more picture postcards of Woolf are sold in the National Portrait Gallery in London than of anybody else." And as was recalled recently in a review here of Peter Dally's book about the writer's manic depression, Virginia Woolf's life, not the least for its darker corners, continues to fascinate.
Contemplating a consumer landscape of David Levine tee-shirts, billboards, fridge magnets, postcards, movies and books, Bass Ale commercials and an ad for the Communist party of Rome that bears the literary legend's famous profile, the author asks what are we to make of "this seemingly random proliferation of images." She then devotes the rest of this weighty, infuriating, compelling volume to answering that question, coming to the conclusion that the answer is fear - fear of an intellectual woman, a beautiful woman, a woman who, Brenda Silver herself, sees as part Sphinx and part Medusa. Honi soit qui mal y pense.
The author draws her battle lines early, announcing within the first chapters of her book that she is one of few women named on-air by Rush Limbaugh as a "feminazi." She then makes distinctions between those who hold conservative views about how Virginia Woolf's work should be read and those at home with gender studies, queer studies and a vocabulary of literary criticism that takes perfectly sturdy nouns and presses them into service as suffocating verbs. Thus, Virginia Woolf and her work here are "versioned" and "foregrounded" and "gendered" but rarely seen as is.
The pity is that off of the battlefield the author raises some brave and provocative questions. How has Virginia Woolf come to inhabit a conspicuous place in both popular culture and the academy? Why has her iconic stature put her at the center of the culture wars? Who gets to have the last say on the meaning of Woolf's work and words?
The book is organized straightforwardly enough, charting first the battles that raged in the academy over the inclusion of Virginia Woolf in the canon (at Columbia University); her treatment in the "intellectual" media (author's quotes), particularly in the New York Review of Books; her depiction in plays and on screen; her face, her fashion and what happens when her different properties are exploited for one reason or another.
Throughout the book, the author quotes sources that she finds objectionable, starting with David Denby, at the time a film critic for New York Magazine and the author of "Great Books." He is taken to task for conferring praise on Woolf that the author thinks "locks Woolf squarely into the private, feminine, world of emotion, sensibility and aesthetics that so much feminist criticism had to undo."
Here is what Mr. Denby had to say: "To reduce her immense, varied output to a variety of current-day feminist agendas, and to marshal her iridescent metaphors as dull-edged weapons in the struggles for turf within the university is to engage in exploitation, expropriation and slander."
And worse, even though Columbia has held Woolf in its canon since 1990 (it admitted women in 1983) the author writes that it "does not guarantee that English departments or universities will be more open to feminist issues." No wonder men do not know what women want.
Moving onto the intellectual press, the author states that the New York
Review of Books "epitomizes the pervasive discourse, that like Denby's demonizes academic feminism even as it legitimates Virginia Woolf. …