Since everybody wants to see some dissing (well, maybe only Mark), and Terry’s been accused of “joining the ranks of other conservative authors and commentators who have recently been expressing their disdain for ‘modern art’ and literature,” I thought I’d weigh in.
Terry has been called “conservative” for expressing his dislike for Virginia Woolf, who he dared to call “marginally readable.” But how precisely is this conservative? Is Terry conservative because he writes for Commentary and The Wall Street Journal? Is Terry conservative because he expressed disfavor towards a woman? (And if that were the case, why then did he also praise the Algonquin Round Table, led by Dorothy Parker, in the same post?) What precisely is it, in Robert Green’s mind, that makes Terry the literary equivalent of a gun-toting right-to-lifer?
Point of Order: “One would think that conservatives would value an approach to literature that keeps the emphasis on its literary qualities, on its capacity to reinvigorate the aesthetic impulse, to exemplify imaginative ‘human accomplishment,’ to use Murray’s phrase. In my mind a truly conservative approach to art would seek to preserve the Western tradition of artistic skill and innovation to which writers like Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf decidedly belong.”
Beyond the extremely conflicting manner in which Daniel “I Came Off the MFA Assembly Line” Green lays down his terms, what this basically boils down to is another literary vs. popular snobfest. I can imagine literary champions shoving such terrible misfires as Faulkner’s Sanctuary and Woolf’s The Voyage Out down throats like plastic polymer vitamins we have to enjoy, that we must not admonish, and that we must hole up with, a glass of claret in our hands, killing all doubts, extolling the literary qualities in the same shameful way that an unemployed steel worker stands in the dole line. The Grand Literary Author, it would seem, can do no wrong.
And how reactionary is that?
The conservative critic is the one who falls into line, who likes everything handed to him from the canon, and who regurgitates the same tired arguments. The conservative critic is the one who stands against snarky fun, setting forth the “play nice” dogma into a bullshit manifesto for a fledgling magazine. The conservative critic is sometimes like Heidi Julavits, Dale Peck, Laura Miller, and (in this case) Scott Green: replacing valid criticism and the joys of reading with a stunning need for attention.
Terry may not have elucidated his reasons for disliking Woolf, but I can give you a one sentence exemplar, res ipsa loquitur really, that might express why:
She thought of three different scenes; she thought of Mary sitting upright and saying, ‘I’m in love — I’m in love’; she thought of Rodney losing his self-consciousness among the dead leaves, and speaking with the abandonment of a child; she thought of Denham leaning upon the stone parapet and talking to the distant sky, so that she thought him mad.
That’s from Night and Day. And if you think that convulted attempt to get at consciousness is even remotely readable, then I shudder at your sensibilities. Woolf may have been among the first authors to describe every nicety of existence under the sun, but that doesn’t mean that she should have.
Excluding A Room of One’s Own and Mrs. Dalloway (from what I’ve read of Woolf — and I started, unfortunately, at the beginning), I’m in Terry’s camp. But then I whole-heartedly confess that I am bored by ponderous and humorless prose.