The Writer vs. Their Work
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
This post is going to be a little different because I'm writing about Virginia Woolf, who actually does have a spot in Bloom's canon! Woolf is held in high regard when it comes to literary academia, so much so that I'm taking an entire class devoted to her work this semester. I've only been in the class for two weeks, but it's inspired me to blog about her, even though I tend to focus on non-canon authors.
I was already a fan of Woolf before taking this class, but learning more about her and reading her work in a guided way is giving me a whole new appreciation for the beauty of her writing. Take for instance this line from Jacob's Room (1922):
"In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish."
I mean...come on. You can't tell me you don't feel goosebumps. It takes a minute to get used to Woolf's stream of consciousness, but when you do, there's a power to the style that's simply indescribable. Her prose reads like poetry and cuts me straight to my core.
Although I could write a whole post on that single line, what I really want to write about is the concept of separating a writer from their work. I began considering this idea over the summer when J.K. Rowling made several transphobic comments. I didn't want Harry Potter to be ruined for me, but it was hard to read the books without being reminded of the author. I've been thinking about this idea once more, although for different reasons, while reading Virginia Woolf.
Part of what makes Woolf such an interesting literary figure is her personal history. She lost both her parents at a young age, which led her to form a strong bond with her sister Vanessa and brother Thoby (who also died, when he was only 26). She was a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group (which honestly deserves its own post). She was married to a man, but had multiple affairs with women, including her sustained relationship with Vita Sackville-West. And, she struggled with mental illness her whole life and ultimately killed herself in 1941. Woolf's mental illness and queerness are the focus of countless academic works, and I can understand why. It's hard not to see the undercurrent of depression in her meditations on life (see above). Woolf had a rich personal life that's easy to get lost in, but she deserves better than to be remembered for her tragic death. She wrote 9 novels, several short story collections, and more critical essays than one would think possible. She was one of most prolific pioneers of the Modernist Era, and she wasn't afraid to break all the rules. She created a new vision of what a novel could be. She was a writer, and that's what she should be remembered for.
It can feel impossible to separate a writer from their work, and honestly, I'm still not convinced that we should try to, but I do think it's important to take a moment to revel in Woolf's words alone. Yes, her work is impressive given that she was a woman in the 1920s and self-educated. And yes, her accomplishments are impressive given her mental illness. But, her writing is also just impressive. No caveats.
I can't recommend Woolf enough. And while I do think reading about her life is fascinating and worthwhile, try to appreciate her work for what it is, rather than get lost in the tragic figure behind it.
If you still aren't convinced that Woolf is worth reading, here's an extra bonus. All of her work is in the public domain and available for free online.