Reflections on Spouse as Critical Reader of Novel in Progress: Leonard & Virginia Woolf

BOOKDOCTOR FILE NOTES: 2007 (Text: To The Lighthouse)

Leonard did the right thing because one has to congratulate a person for making a serious effort at a complex work of art like a novel. He had no doubt about Virginia’s heartfelt gutsy effort. At times a novel can be terrifying because the author is the center of so many characters, thoughts and actions; it’s a bit like being a director in a film, which has been described by veterans of the film industry as being the group handler of an odd lot of asylum patients. Novels that are hard labor in being born, versus the quick birth texts, can beat up a writer. You lose your way, the plot, the characters, the themes, the language shifts, dialogues and voices…so many things that can slip a cog. Novels are particularly demanding because of the typical number of characters and their complex arcs through a long tale. As Updike recently noted in his latest tome of criticism (Due Considerations), a literary biography of a poet is the body of poems by the poet; but the literary biography of a serious novelist is almost unknowable because a novelist is so many other “characters” we’ll never really know. So apart from the flaws in this novel Virginia was showing to Leonard, he had every moral right to praise her for her effort in working and re-working what some might call a “brilliant failure.” It’s brilliant nevertheless in its potential. Good editors or first or second readers can often help a novelist resolve a number of serious flaws in composition because they don’t have the blind spots of the composer. After all, serious literary novelists write books that are an adventure of the mind, heart, guts and soul…to explore issues unknown to them through the complex pathways of the novel’s movements, exterior and interior to ordinary reality. That’s the thrill for the writer and it can be quite dangerous psychologically, so it’s not unusual for a first or second draft to have these blind spots where the writer has blinked at a crucial juncture of idea, feeling, image, introspection…Indeed, it would be the rare novelist at this early draft level not to have some major issues, which a kindly editor will not solve outright for the novelist but gently nod (often interrogatively) in the direction of the issue…letting the writer discover and consider solutions. This is particularly true of the advanced veteran writer like a Virginia Woolf. Leonard did the right thing in holding back his specific reservations and in honoring Virginia’s intellectual courage and abilities in sharing the battles she had endured to this point with the novel.

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