The Common Reader

Virginia Woolf in The Yale Review

Claire Messud

Over the years, The Yale Review published ten pieces of Virginia Woolf’s nonfiction. Portrait of Virginia Woolf from October 1929. Courtesy Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Annotating the Archives is a new column in which an author reflects on work from our 200-year-old archive.

The publication of Mrs. Dalloway in spring 1925—just shy of a century ago—established Virginia Woolf as a novelist of innovative interiority. To the Lighthouse (1927) was published two years later and Orlando (1928) the year after that. The Waves, the book in which she believed she reached new heights (“my first work in my own style!”), appeared in 1931, when she was forty-nine. In the fifth decade of her life, Woolf experienced flourishing literary productivity, romance (her passionate affair with Vita Sackville-West), and optimism, as her fame and income increased. During these years, she recorded in her diary an ever-greater ease, even urgency, in her fiction writing. In November 1931, she wrote, “Oh yes, between 50 & 60 I think I shall write out some very sin­gular books, if I live. I mean I think I am about to embody, at last, the exact shapes my brain holds. What a long toil to reach this beginning.” In 1926, embarking on the second section of To the Lighthouse (“Time Passes”), she remarked in her diary: “Is it non­sense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words, & apparently free to do exactly what I like? . . . Compare this dashing fluency with the excruciating hard wrung battles I had with Mrs Dalloway (save the end).”

1925, though, also saw the publication of Woolf’s influential book of essays, The Common Reader, which gathered previously published literary journalism. Between 1919 and 1924, at the height of her productivity as a journalist, she produced at least 136 articles, many of them short reviews. By the 1930s, having greater financial stability, Woolf wrote less journalism and approached it differently. The easy urgency of her fiction-writing stood in contrast with the slower labor of her essay-writing. Several of the long, substantial essays she produced in this period appeared in The Yale Review, which over the years published ten pieces of Woolf’s nonfiction. "How Should One Read a Book?" (1926), the earliest of these, is perhaps the most comprehensive statement of Woolf’s project for what she called the common reader, and ultimately became the concluding essay in The Common Reader—Second Series (1932). In 1932, on finishing her "Letter to A Young Poet," in which Woolf exhorts the addressee to throw off fashionable self-involvement and write about the external world, she noted in her diary that “Writing becomes harder & harder. Things I dashed off I now com­press & re-state.”

The marvelous archive of Woolf’s pieces for TYR makes clear that each essay forms part of a cohesive whole: a radical vision of the literary process. In Woolf’s conception, all parties—writer, reader, and critic—are engaged in acts of selfless creativity. In "Byron & Mr. Briggs," published posthumously by TYR in 1979, she writes, “To make a whole—it is that which we have in common.” Woolf’s essays are stylistically conversational, digressive, and open-ended. They ask us to imagine scenarios, to listen to conversations, and to understand multiple perspectives. Her approach is the more authoritative for never being authoritarian.

the writer’s challenge, according to Woolf, is to create work to which the common reader may respond. “Common reader,” which was a widely familiar term at the time, comes from Samuel Johnson, who had written in 1781, “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poet­ical honours.” Adapting Johnson, Woolf puts it more succinctly: “Literature both past and present must rest in the hands of the peo­ple who continue to read it.” Writers, then, who would wish to be read, must consider what this possession by common readers might entail for their work, a matter she addresses in her lovely meditation on the novels of Turgenev, published in the Winter 1934 issue of TYR. Here, she asks why Turgenev, despite his flaws, remains relevant in the twentieth century (as she herself remains relevant in the twenty-first), noting that his books “are curiously of our own time, undecayed, and complete in themselves.” She observes, “A novelist, of course, lives so much deeper down than a critic that his statements are apt to be contradictory and confusing; they seem to break in process of coming to the surface, and not to hold together in the light of reason.” And yet, she goes on, sev­eral of Turgenev’s aperçus about his art prove enduringly germane: “He lays the greatest emphasis upon the need of observation. The novelist must observe everything exactly, in himself and in oth­ers . . . And he must observe as impartially, as objectively as possi­ble.” As Woolf understands Turgenev, dispassion and curiosity are essential both in the making of the fiction and in the characters’ personalities. She notes that “Turgenev’s people are profoundly conscious of what is outside themselves.”

The marvelous archive of Woolf’s pieces for The Yale Review makes clear that each essay forms part of a cohesive whole: a radical vision of the literary process.

For himself, Turgenev insisted upon simply stating the facts of a character or scene, without explanation or expatiation, allow­ing readers to decide for themselves (“Que le lecteur le discute et le comprenne lui-même” [Let the reader discuss it and understand it himself]). Turgenev wrote from “the self which is so rid of super­fluities that it is almost impersonal,” so that “no hot and personal feeling has made the emotion [in his fiction] local and transitory; the man who speaks is not a prophet clothed with thunder but a seer who tries to understand.”

The urgency of looking outward, beyond the self, of endeavor­ing to understand others, is at the heart of Woolf’s exhortation to John Lehmann, twenty-five years her junior, in “Letter to a Young Poet” (TYR, Summer 1932). Lehmann had complained that the genre was in a parlous state. Woolf, in reply, laments that the poetry of their time is mired in the self, “a self that sits alone in a room at night with the blinds drawn . . . the poet is much less interested in what we have in common than in what he has apart: in myself than in himself.” She asks of poetry, “Why should it not once more open its eyes, look out of the window and write about other people?” And further, she insists, “Summon all your courage, exert all your vigilance, invoke all the gifts that nature has been induced to bestow. Then let your rhythmical sense wind itself in and out among men and women, omnibuses, sparrows—whatever comes along the street—until it has strung them together in one harmonious whole.”

It is impossible, reading these lines, not to recall the opening pages of Mrs. Dalloway, in which Woolf’s floating perspective drifts away from Clarissa and out through central London, as it indeed “wind[s] . . . in and out among men and women, omnibuses, sparrows”: Woolf herself has practiced what she preaches, which may be in no small part why her work remains powerful today.

for woolf, it is essential that an aspiring writer master the vibrant English language and its rhythms: “the art of having at one’s beck and call every word in the language, of knowing their weights, colors, sounds, associations” so they “suggest more than they can state.” Achieving this mastery, Woolf proposes, is not simply a matter of extensive reading, but, again, of turning out­ward, beyond the limited self, “imagining that one is not oneself but somebody different. How can you learn to write if you write only about yourself?” Shakespeare is her prime example, capable of inhabiting the grammar and syntax of “Hamlet, Falstaff, and Cleopatra” as well as “the lords, officers, dependents, murderers, and common soldiers”: “It was they who taught him to write, not the begetter of the Sonnets.”

Finally, she insists that the aspiring poet should “publish noth­ing before you are thirty,” allowing for freedom to experiment and, precisely, to learn. “Be silly, be sentimental . . . give the rein to every impulse; commit every fault of style, grammar, taste, and syntax; pour out; tumble over.” If the young poet publishes too soon, “Your freedom will be checked; you will be thinking what people will say; you will write for others when you ought only to be writing for yourself.”

what, then, of the role of the common reader in the literary enter­prise? This question Woolf addresses in multiple essays, including two of the pieces from TYR’s archives, “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926) and “Byron & Mr. Briggs.”

In the former, she suggests that “To read a book well, one should read it as if one were writing it,” a formulation that evokes Nabokov’s 1948 essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” in which he proposes that it is both parties together that create a literary work: “Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The pant­ing and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever.” In Woolf’s view, if the writer is climbing her side of the mountain in a selfless spirit, so too is the reader: “We have to remind ourselves that it is necessary to approach every writer differently in order to get from him all he cangive us.” In other words, great writers inevitably have an “uncom­promising idiosyncrasy” that may “require us to make heroic efforts in order to read them rightly.” She continues: “They bend and break us,” which hardly sounds like Nabokov’s spontaneous embrace, though it offers a usefully stringent vision of the reader’s experience.

Surely Woolf is right that we should not read only what feels immediately attuned to our individual temperament or back­ground. But she is also clear that the reader’s effort to engage with the unfamiliar is merely a first step. After reading, the reader “must cease to be the [author’s] friend [and] must become the judge.” The reader must step back and form an impression: “Now one can think of the book as a whole, and the book as a whole is different . . . from the book received currently in several different parts.”

This is not only a reprise of Woolf’s recurring insistence on “the whole” (in literature as in life), but it is also an account of the balance of constraint and freedom that constitutes the power of the common reader, to whom she grants significant agency in the creation of a literary work. As she notes, again in “Byron & Mr. Briggs,” there is both effort and pleasure involved, because “in the first place reading a great book is always an effort, often a disap­pointment, and sometimes a drudgery,” yet the rewards are consid­erable: “One must gather in beauty, subtlety, the various changes of sound and yet must subdue it, as the poet subdued [them], to some larger design, to art itself; for that perhaps is the circle round the whole. So it seems that the emotions of poetry are not our private emotions.”

in this long essay, Woolf allies the reviewer (herself, in this instance, confronted by a fictitious debut novel, E. K. Sanders’s The Flame of Youth) with the ordinary reader. Both sides are com­mitted to a deliberate effort to understand a book and, crucially, to enjoy its pleasures: “The truth is that reading is kept up because peo­ple like reading. The common reader is formidable and respectable and even has power over great critics and great masterpieces in the long run because he likes reading [italics mine].”

Prescient, rebellious in its time, this perspective is for us now all but unquestioned: common readers, with the tools of social media and the internet, are aware of the power of our opinions.

Her perspective seems deeply Protestant: “It is I who have read the play. I hold it in my brain. I am directly in touch with Shakespeare. No third person can explain or alter or even throw much light upon our relationship.” Just as Protestants require no papal intermedi­ary for their religious experience, Woolf’s common readers need no critic to endorse or justify their literary one. In fact, she questions the authority of great critics, scoffing at “some man of genius who was so convinced of the truth of what he saw that he imposed his conviction upon others.” She imagines a common reader of the early nineteenth century, Mr. Briggs, a “spectacle maker of Cornhill,” and his many disparate descendants, each with their predilections and distastes: “They read then for pleasure; they read now for pleasure,” once again (!) “with a view to forming a whole.”

As Ursula K. Le Guin noted in a 1989 review of Woolf’s essays, “Virginia Woolf was the most awful democrat” (awful as in “tre­mendous”). “Her identification of, and with, the common reader, and her attack on literary theory, is radical; she is as subversive now as she was 60 years ago.” Thirty-five years later, this claim remains true: had Amazon, Goodreads, and BookTok existed in her time, Woolf the apparent aristocrat would have endorsed the cumulative force of ordinary readers shaping our literary landscape.

Woolf’s radicalism—the product in part of being a woman in an era when she was not granted a formal education or the right to vote, which women did not have in the United Kingdom until 1928—seeks to assure the freedom and agency of writers and read­ers alike. Prescient, rebellious in its time, this perspective is for us now all but unquestioned: common readers, with the tools of social media and the internet, are aware of the power of our opinions. We would be wise to listen to Woolf’s lessons in their entirety, as Le Guin suggests. Woolf, she writes, “asks . . . discipline of us, the com­mon readers, and so lifts us to the artist’s level, honoring us with the belief that we are capable of an understanding more valuable than the intellections of theorists and the reductions of moralizers.”

Just as citizenship is comprised of both privilege and responsibil­ity, Woolf’s vision of the compact between writer and reader involves the opposing qualities of indulgence and effort. She advocates this not for moralistic or pedagogical purposes but rather so that each of us might experience life to the fullest and have the capacity to recognize our experience. Invoking Shakespeare’s ability to illumi­nate our own emotions through the lives of others, Woolf observes, “how much indeed, that would die unexpressed [and unshared and] thus not fully felt in the privacy of our minds becomes bolder, more rational, and infinitely more profound in poetry.” Writer and reader together make experience and vision whole.

Claire Messud is the author of a memoir in essays and numerous novels, including This Strange Eventful History, forthcoming in May 2024. She teaches creative writing at Harvard University.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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