Helpful Men: Defending Philip Roth, Dismissing Virginia Woolf

Helpful Men: Defending Philip Roth, Dismissing Virginia Woolf

Helpful Men: Defending Philip Roth, Dismissing Virginia Woolf

Like most women who write, I live my life according to the firmly stated judgments of literary men.


I first met Mrs. Dalloway in a class called Great Novels of the Twentieth Century. The year was 1990. I was 19. And though she had been going to get the flowers herself for 65 years, Clarissa shimmered on the page. My paperback copy had a bright yellow cover and when I think of it my mind fills with dappled sunlight and joy in spite of the novel’s streak of darkness and unease—death in the middle of a party. Back home in Idaho after college I read all the Woolf I could find in the Boise Public Library, ecstatic over Orlando on the porch of a downtown coffee shop, pulled under by the tidal, elegiac cross currents of To The Lighthouse. Twenty years later, I read the novels again over a summer, shocked and delighted to see them wholly anew.

You can imagine then, that it was a surprise to learn, while listening to an otherwise unremarkable interview with André Aciman, that Woolf’s novels are not very good, and are unlikely to stand the test of time. Mr. Aciman has been trying to get our attention on this point for some time. “Mrs. Dalloway is an overrated novel that I don’t find particularly gripping or interesting. I’m not even sure it’s well written,” he told readers of The New York Times “By the Book” column in 2019. Since then he has done some research. “I always ask people if they understood To the Lighthouse,” he told his London Review Bookshop podcast interviewer, Brian Dillon, “and everyone says yes of course they do. Then I ask them a couple of questions and they say, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I guess it doesn’t make sense.’”

Like most women who write, I live my life according to the firmly stated judgments of literary men. Sadly, but without hesitation, I gathered my Woolf books into a pile destined for the used bookstore. Mr. Aciman had said the journals—he called them “the diary”—and A Room of One’s Own were OK (everyone knows women only really write about their own lives), but it seemed best to be on the safe side. After all, it was impossible to deny that when I read To the Lighthouse in my 40s, it appeared to be a completely different book from the one I read in my 20s. Clearly I too had been fooling myself into thinking Woolf’s novel was coherent—even complex! Who knows how wrong I might be about the rest of her work?

Once my books were off the shelves, however, I ran into trouble. Every time I got them together in a stack, a cat would run into the room and knock them over, and when the books fell they opened in the most interesting places. At least, I thought they were interesting at the time. It is possible I was trying to distract myself from the most recent story about a predatory male writer—a biographer this time—or having some kind of mild hallucination induced by the smell of old paper.

In any case, once the books were open I couldn’t help reading them anymore than I can help reading my shampoo bottles in the shower. I rescued Moments of Being from underneath the littlest tabby who sat preening on “Am I Snob?” (spoiler alert: yes.) and there was Woolf, running into one Mr. Bennett, who had given Orlando a bad review the previous evening.

He was a kind man; he took his own reviews seriously[.…]
“I am sorry, Mrs. Woolf,” he began, “that I slanged your book last night…”
He stammered. And I blurted out, quite sincerely, “If I choose to publish books, that’s my own look out. I must take the consequences.”
“Right—right”, he stammered. I think he approved. “I didn’t like your book,” he went on. “I thought it a very bad…book…” He stammered again.
“You can’t hate my books more than I hate yours, Mr. Bennett,” I said. I don’t know if he altogether approved of that[…]

I picked up Orlando itself to put it back on the pile and found Woolf in a more grateful mood. “Finally,” she wrote, “I would thank, had I not lost his name and address, a gentleman in America, who has generously and gratuitously corrected the punctuation, the botany, the entomology, the geography, and the chronology of previous works of mine and will, I hope, not spare his services on the present occasion.”

I was taking a moment to reflect on the long history of such helpful men, still very busy in the present day thanks to the Internet—if only we had their names and addresses!—when my ginger Maine Coon swiped at To the Lighthouse and it slid across the floor to my feet and opened to Lily Briscoe trying to get through dinner with Mr. Tansley.

He was really, Lily Briscoe thought, in spite of his eyes, but then look at his nose, look at his hands, the most uncharming human being she had ever met. Then why did she mind what he said? Women can’t write, women can’t paint—what did that matter coming from him, since clearly it was not true to him but for some reason helpful to him, and that was why he said it?

Lily tells herself to think of her painting, how she must move the tree to the middle. “Could she not hold fast to that, she asked herself, and not lose her temper, and not argue, and if she wanted revenge take it by laughing at him?” The clarity of this exchange unnerved me. I opened the book at random to another spot, hoping to confirm Mr. Aciman’s judgment. “It was astonishing,” I read, “that a man of his intellect could stoop so low as he did—but that was too harsh a phrase—could depend so much as he did upon people’s praise.”

Probably it was wishful thinking, but it seemed like these completely random passages were trying to tell me something. It was almost as though Woolf’s books as a whole were expounding on some kind of theme or circumstance I couldn’t quite put my finger on…

But here our half-feral alley cat leapt from the top of the bookshelf onto the latest version of my Woolf stack and Mrs. Dalloway came flying into my lap along with a London high street on a perfect, fragile, barely postwar day, everyone still jumping at the loud noise that is not a bomb but a car backfiring; everyone looking up at the airplane that is spelling out an advertisement instead of dropping death from the sky. And Septimus, whose wife has heard him say he will kill himself, and Clarissa, who is feeling “very young; at the same time unspeakably aged,” and who “sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on,” with her “perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far to sea and alone”; for “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

And forgive me dear reader—forgive me Mr. Aciman. Perhaps it was an aftereffect of the second dose of Moderna after a year of lockdown, mass death, and genocidal leaders but it all made so much sense to me that I stayed there on the floor with my scattered stack reading Mrs. Dalloway, and I am reading it still.

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