A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.

The Nix

By Nathan Hill

All Posts Contain Spoilers

“So banks and governments are cleaning up their ledgers after years of abuse. Everyone owes too much, is the consensus, and we’re in for a few years of pain. But Faye thinks: Okay. That’s probably the way it ought to be. That’s the natural way of things. That’s how we find our way back. This is what she’ll tell her son, if he asks. Eventually, all debts must be repaid.” (p. 732)

As you may have noticed by now, I don’t love contemporary fiction.  I read a fair amount of it, and I even like some of it, but I rarely love it.

I’m not sure exactly why this is.  The answer that I tell myself is that I rarely shine to contemporary novels because most of them, to put it plainly, are bad.

Now, of course, most novels of any time period are bad: most books are bad.  But if we are still reading and recommending a book that was written two hundred years ago, then we are reading it because generations of readers before us have identified it as good, vouched for it and passed it forward.  Each generation that a book survives is a finer and finer filter of taste through which it must pass, making it more and more likely that the book is good*.  Previous generations have done much of the work of selecting out the bad books of their own time for us.  And we will do the same for the books of our own generation.

*There is a wrinkle here, though, and don’t think I don’t know it: once books achieve the status of “great”, once they become venerated, people becomes less likely to notice that they are, in fact, bad, and less willing to say so if they do notice, and so some bad books get kind of grandfathered past the normal critical filters.  It’s a real problem (ahem, I’m looking at you, Edgar Allan Poe, looking right at you).

But, since we are the first filter through which contemporary novels will pass, contemporary novels are, therefore, the novels most likely to be bad.  They are unfiltered.  And I, personally, think it shows.

So I have developed a mild aversion to them, a slight generalized contempt for books which are overly demotic, or casual.  Which are grounded too much in my own time.  Maybe I am less compelled by problems of modernity, by plot lines which heavily involve the internet, or television, or video games.  They might be fun (they usually are), but they never seem to have any artistic weight.  Somehow, if a writer mentions tweeting, I automatically assume that his book is Beach Reading, that it cannot be Great Art.

All of which is, I understand, a prejudice.  I am prejudiced.  Which is why I hope that you will believe me in particular when I say that, despite the fact that it is ultra-modern, that it involves the internet AND television AND video games, ‘The Nix‘ is a really great book.

I’m obviously not the first person to notice this (it was a bestseller) but I may be the most reluctant.  I had ‘The Nix‘ slated as Beach Reading for sure, and was irritated when it showed up on all those curated tables in all my favorite bookstores, and was absolutely not going to read it.  However, one day my best friend and I were wandering through one of those bookstores and he pointed to it and said, ‘That’s a great book.  You would love that book’.  And because he is my top-ranked #1 Book Recommender, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to read ‘The Nix’.

(By the way, to offer some measure of how much I didn’t want to read ‘The Nix‘, how much I would rather have been reading ‘Ivanhoe’ and Graham Greene and other snobby shit, I will also mention that that was two years ago.  ‘The Nix’ has been sitting on my To Read Shelf, complete with a recommendation from the person whose opinion on books I trust above literally anyone else’s, for two years.)

Which, shame on me, because I adored it.  My best friend was right (he always is): it is a phenomenal book, and I crashed through it in about two days, loving every minute of it.

The Nix‘ is the story of Samuel Andreson-Anderson.  Samuel is failed writer who makes his living as a mediocre professor of Literature at a mediocre liberal arts college, but who spends most of his time online playing World of Elfscape.  Samuel’s sadness, his essential passive loserdom, his failure as a writer and as a romantic figure, were all locked in place on the day when he was eleven and his mother Faye abandoned him, utterly and without warning.  Samuel has had no news of his mother for twenty years when, one day, she resurfaces. She resurfaces when she is arrested for throwing rocks at a conservative Presidential candidate.

The Nix‘ manages to do the thing which so few contemporary novels actually do: to use the trappings of modernity to explore the genuine existential crises of modernity.  Most contemporary novels wear their modernity on the surface, referencing the cultural soup we’re all bathing in without really utilizing it.  They seem so desperate to prove that they are culturally fluent that they spend all their time showing off all the culture that they know, making jokes and allusions that won’t last five years, without exploring what any of those cultural artifacts really mean for the people who use them.

Nathan Hill

The Nix‘ doesn’t make that mistake.  Nathan Hill uses his character’s context – it is a tool with which he interrogates the peculiar human problems which modern humans have.  He isn’t just being funny about video games – he’s trying to figure out why people get lost in them.  He’s trying to figure out why people get lost at all.

“And since beginning with an Elf warrior named Pwnage he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly and Pwnalicious and Pwner and EdgarAllanPwn, and he made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent and a very strong and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled enemy in what he came to regard as a being a conductor in a battle-symphony-ballet type of thing, and he rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this…because he believed that if he was going to do something he was going to do it right, he would give one hundred and ten percent, a work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation and novel-writing and new-diet plans, but which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.” (p. 411)

Hill also avoids another easy pitfall of the contemporary novel: depiction of the dreariness of life as the point of the art. There is a school of art which eschews grand events, seeks instead to act like a mirror to everyday life, to explore the depth and nuance of a totally ordinary life in all its putative depth, all its normal beauty and sadness (the seminal, original novel of this kind is ‘Mrs Dalloway’. I hate novels like this – I find them boring, and drab, and I understand that that is sort of the point of them, but knowing that I was meant to be bored does not actually alleviate my boredom.

The Nix‘ isn’t drab, or dreary, or ordinary at all. It is colorful, and plotty, and exciting. Things happen which would never happen to you, or to me, which would never happen to anyone, really, but because they are well-drawn and funny, the novel works tremendously well as a whole.

I loved this book.  I thought it was funny, and moving, and clever, and wise.  It contained the right mix of correct, quotidian details and outlandish, unlikely plot elements so that I was able both to relate to it and stay hooked into the story.  This wasn’t a novel about my modern life – it’s a novel about a crazy, sad, unlikely modern life, a much more entertaining modern life than mine will ever be.

I thought that I didn’t like reading novels about my own cultural moment – as it turns out, I only like reading them when they are written by a master, and then I love reading them. This book was so good, I ordered it for about three different people right away, and called my best friend for more recommendations. I have no pithy ending line, no great lesson here. ‘The Nix‘ was a joyful, funny read. I think it is a great book. I’m so glad I read it. I wish I could read it again, for the first time, all over again.