“The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world.”
…Okay, maybe not. Maybe I’m stretching it, but today I started reading her 1925 piece titled “The Modern Essay” and couldn’t help but think, maybe she does have something relevant to say about our 21st-century ways of communicating. Her essay is actually a review of a five-volume collection of essays first published in 1920 and in it, she traces the evolution of the essay at the beginning of the 20th century. It was her first work of non-fiction I’ve read and I was just as blown away by it (okay, not quite but almost) as I was by the death of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.
Essentially she says that the essayist’s “most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool” is, well, himself. The essayist has “brought personality into literature” by making his own ideas, thoughts and opinions as the subject of his writing. But the key point Woolf drives home is that this can only happen if the essayist actually knows how to write – this ability is the underlying prequisite:
“For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always–that is the problem. Some of the essayists in Mr. Rhys’ collection, to be frank, have not altogether succeeded in solving it. We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print. As talk, no doubt, it was charming, and certainly the writer is a good fellow to meet over a bottle of beer. But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition–to know how to write.”
The funny thing about this passage was that after reading through it for the first time, my thoughts went immediately to the culture of blogs that has taken over the world (along with ten thousand other social media outlets…). When it comes to blogging these days, everyone is doing it. Reading, writing, following and subscribing – these new platforms for personal thought and opinion are proliferating almost faster than that cute little bluebird over at Twitter.
But are they all adhering to Woolf’s tenets of good writing? As I read the essay, I thought of how important it is to constantly remind ourselves of her admonition – know how to write. It’s a challenge I’m keen to put in front of myself before I go to post each time – write well. Make sure what I am about to write is worth others’ time.
Another thing Woolf addresses is the changes that have occurred (at the time of writing) in the frequency of this kind of publication. Personal essays at one time were crafted only for the drawing room, the table of the drawing room being like “an altar where, once upon a time, people deposited offerings – fruit from their own orchards, gifts carved with their own hands.” But the widened circulation of essays in public hands changed the nature of the essay – for both the writer and the reader:
“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin. And so, if one reads Mr. Lucas, Mr. Lynd, or Mr. Squire in the bulk, one feels that a common greyness silvers everything. They are as far removed from the extravagant beauty of Walter Pater as they are from the intemperate candour of Leslie Stephen. Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half; and thought, like a brown paper parcel in a waistcoat pocket, has a way of spoiling the symmetry of an article. It is a kind, tired, apathetic world for which they write, and the marvel is that they never cease to attempt, at least, to write well.”
Can you imagine a more piercing thought? “Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half…” and yet bloggers are cautioned to keep posts under 1,000 words, preferably split neatly into eight paragraphs, and on and on, and experts are beginning to wonder if our new magical habits of social media-multitasking aren’t more detrimental in the long run to our ability to focus and perform in general. What (if anything) are we losing in this shift to the “column and a half”?
Whatever the verdict, it’s always good to hear an old hero’s thoughts on today’s concerns…