Fen Gao. towards Life Poetics: A Study of Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction

By Chen, Lizhen | Style, Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

Fen Gao. towards Life Poetics: A Study of Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction


Chen, Lizhen, Style


Fen Gao. Towards Life Poetics: A Study of Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction. Beijing: People's Publishing House, 2016. vii + 407 pp. ISBN: 978-70-10-16108-2. $8.70 (RBM [yen] 55).

As a major twentieth-century novelist, Virginia Woolf has always been in the forefront of critical attention. Apart from mainstream critical approaches such as Modernism, Feminism, New Historicism, and Postcolonialism, the method of comparative study is often adopted by scholars in many countries to interpret or revisit Woolf's works from a new perspective. Towards Life Poetics: A Study of Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction is such a book that addresses the important issue of Woolf's poetics from the perspective of a Chinese scholar. Funded by the National Social Science Foundation of China, this monograph is Fen Gao's latest academic accomplishment. Gao is a well-established researcher and the foremost Woolfian scholar in China who has been researching Virginia Woolf for more than two decades. In this book, she tries to revalue Woolf's theory of fiction from the perspective of Chinese and Western comparative poetics. Gao puts forward a new notion "life poetics," which is the pivotal idea of her book. In her theory, life poetics "refers to the poetics that ontologically regards life as the highest truth and existence" (28). Woolf takes life to be the highest truth for literature, demonstrated in her essay "Phases of Fiction" when she writes that "the novel is the only form of art which seeks to make us believe that it is giving a full and truthful record of the life of a real person" (Woolf, "Phases of Fiction" 141). According to Gao, life poetics is a literary idea that aims to record the natural state and spiritual essence of life. With a view to mapping out the dynamic process of the formation of Woolf's life poetics, her book deals with many important issues including the origins, the content, and the contributions of Woolf's life poetics. It is undoubtedly a bold and daring intellectual endeavor for Gao to summarize Woolf's theory of fiction using the conceptual framework of "life poetics" with the word "life" largely referring to the inner life (1).

Qiping Yin, author of "An Apologia of Culture": Cultural Criticism in the 19th Century Britain (Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 2013), observes in his foreword to Gao's book that her research is highly innovative in its choice of subjects, methodology, and arguments. He holds that this is the natural outcome of Gao's creative fusion of Chinese and Western comparative poetics as the theoretical approach to analyze Woolf's theory of fiction. With comprehensiveness and profundity, Chinese poetics is based on aesthetic perception. It can be employed to illuminate the connotations and values of western writers' theories, which are also based on aesthetic perception (ii). In her book, Gao addresses fundamental questions such as the origins of Woolf's theory of fiction, Woolf's interpretation and advancement in her illustrations of the essence of art, the principles of her writing, her unity of form with the spirit of art, her criticism of literature and art, and the ideal state of art. Taking aesthetic perception as the starting point, Woolf is thought to have built her life poetics around these key notions.

With the exception of the introduction, conclusion, and appendixes, Gao's book is divided into two parts. The first part is entitled "Aesthetic Perception" consisting of six chapters that deal separately with Woolf's apprehension of British, Greek, Russian, French, American, and Chinese literatures. Placing Woolf's writings in a global context, Gao analyzes Woolf's texts that involve Occidental and Oriental cultures. Gao believes that Woolf's aesthetic perceptions have their origin in three major sources: her family, the Bloomsbury Group, and the Hogarth Press (35). Woolf takes the position of a common reader and forms her own ideas on literature and criticism by reading widely. …

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