Happy Birthday, Virginia Woolf

“They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own and a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end comes like a long lost friend”
– “Virginia Woolf,” by the Indigo Girls

I confess I was not a fan of Virginia Woolf as a young person. I first encountered her in the form of being assigned to read Mrs. Dalloway as a freshman in college. I was a baby feminist who had read Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem in high school and was in the middle of finding out that attending a women’s college was not the glorious experience I had led myself to expect; you might be excused for thinking that I would be an easy mark. But no. It might have had something to do with my professor, who later gave me a D for being a Cleopatra apologist, but in any case I can’t remember one single thing about the book except a general feeling of frustration and that the eponymous character was trying to throw a party.

Some years later however, I read “A Room of One’s Own” and was charmed. I read “Professions for Women” and laughed out loud (“What could be easier than to write articles and to buy Persian cats with the profits?”) She was droll, she was clever, she was interesting. She advocated independence for women writers, both intellectual and practical; to be honest I could have used some of her advice earlier in my life.

And then I read Orlando, the story of a four hundred year old gender-shapeshifting noble who has adventures including sword fights, lost loves, traveling with gypsies, and writing a masterpiece which takes centuries to finally complete. But wait, there’s more:  It was partially based on the life of her lover, Vita Sackville-West, who sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Orlando is alternately dreamlike and funny, often both at once, and is a book every writer should read…for many reasons, not least of which is this:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Any time I feel like a complete idiot, or despair of ever actually finishing one of the multiple absurd writing projects I have going at any given time (including a completed fantasy novel which needs to be rewritten because it stinks, and one-third of a science fiction novel which is only slightly smelly, plus a variable number of half-written short stories and non-fiction articles which threaten to grow into books I have no time to write), I reread this and think to myself, “Virginia Woolf is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. And yet she absolutely knew what it was like to flail.” Not that the reverse is implied; flailing does not prove merit. But as comfort it will suffice.

She also wrote a historical fantasy novel. I mean, there’s no other way to describe it honestly. There’s a historical setting, a fictional character who interacts in various ways with real historical figures including Elizabeth I and Alexander Pope, and fantastic elements. You could call it magical realism but that’s just quibbling; such definitions are sometimes useful to marketing executives and literature professors but rarely are to writers. I attended a panel on magical realism at an Association of Writing Programs conference a few years ago in Chicago. As one of the panelists said, “I thought I was a realist, and then things got weird.” Virginia Woolf was not afraid to get weird.

I think those of us who write speculative fiction…and those of us who are women or members of any other marginalized group…need to remember that. Writing from the margins is always a struggle, but it’s an essential struggle, and any phantasms which appear and tell you that you aren’t worthy deserve an ink-pot to the head. Roaming about in the world one sometimes encounters the attitude that there’s such a thing as “genre fiction,” which includes everything from romance (but not the Romantics…or Jane Austen, for some reason) to “Sci Fi” and is generally seen as commercial, crass, and of little artistic or intellectual value; and also such a thing as “literary fiction” which is serious, artistic, and of course realistic, though not necessarily Realist. This attitude doesn’t bear much examination but it does exist, mostly in the form of a weak laugh in response when I tell people what I write. It’s worth remembering that this scoff, which can seem tolerably reasonable on the surface, even a charge with some weight behind it, is simply a new and more insidious form of the kind of disheartening belittlement that kept women off the shelves for so long…and still sometimes does.

I have never actually had the presence of mind to do this, but next time I hear that weak little laugh I plan to add “….you know, like Virginia Woolf.”

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