Ambiguous Discourse: Feminist Narratology & British Women Writers

By Kathy Mezei | Go to book overview
more conventionally written essay "Women and Fiction," which Woolf published in the New York review Forum, may be "probably as close as we can now come to what Woolf said at Cambridge" ( Woolf, Women and Fiction, xxi). However, the publication history of another important talk, "How Should One Read a Book?" suggests otherwise. As originally presented at Hayes Court, a private girls' school, the talk directly addresses and engages its audience; when Woolf developed this talk into an essay for the Yale Review ( 1926), she shifted to an impersonal assertive prose. In the last version, written for The Common Reader: Second Series ( 1932), she returned, though in a different way, to the immediate and dialogic rhetoric of conversation. The implications are that Woolf varied her style according to her audience, using a conversational style when she had a stronger sense of the collaborative potential of her audience. However, whether or not she used conversational twists in her Cambridge talks, what is significant is that she encoded a dialogic audience in A Room of One's Own from the very first word.
17.
Perhaps the best genre for using conversation as critical discourse is the collaborative volume. In Kauffman's 1989 collection Gender and Theory, for example, each essay is written to "provoke controversy" and to "liberate dialogue" (4). Furthermore, "each essay is 'dialogic' in another sense; it is followed by a response which demonstrates that another logic has been put into play, one that displaces and unsettles the initial argument, and reveals its unconscious resistances" (5). Virginia and Leonard Woolf anticipated this form in their 1939 pamphlet "Reviewing," which juxtaposed Virginia's attack on reviewers of contemporary fiction with a counterargument written by Leonard. Both arguments emphasized the interactive nature of the presentation, Virginia's beginning, "The purpose of this paper is to arouse discussion," and Leonard's opening with, "This Pamphlet raises questions."
18.
In her recent study of Woolf and Samuel Johnson, Beth Rosenberg approaches the dialogic elements in Woolf's writing through an exploration of Woolf's (re)reading of the conversational element in Johnson's prose. Rosenberg is quick to indicate, however, that she is not proffering a definitive study of influence: numerous factors contribute to Woolf's use of conversation, just as a variety of critical and theoretical approaches will illuminate Woolf's dialogic style. My own study can thus be taken to stand in dialogic relation to Rosenberg's, participating in the kind of "greater conversation" among Woolf's critics that Rosenberg herself invokes. I end here, for example, by happily acknowledging the many "conversations" I have already had about this paper, especially with Sally Greene, Linda Hutcheon, Kathy Mezei, Richard Pearce, and Karlheinz Theil.

WORKS CITED

Ackerman, Robert. The Myth and Ritual School: J. G. Frazer and the Cambridge Ritualists. New York: Garland, 1991.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse Typology in Prose." Readings in Russian Poetics. Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1978. 176-96.

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