Jia Tolentino recently wrote for the New Yorker about the waning of the personal essay fad. This sparked a piece by Lorraine Berry in Literary Hub about Virginia Woolf’s intolerance for a certain kind of personal essay. Berry points out that Woolf’s anti-essay essay probably played a part in inspiring the personal essay genre that we have today: contemporary women who write harrowing confessional essays are obeying her call to “confront…the terrible spectre of themselves.”
If the essays on the internet today are part of a reactionary literary movement, what is the form to which they are reacting? In Night and Day, a couple of Woolf’s characters have a typically pedantic Woolfian dialogue about the essays of her day.
“…but I forget, you in your generation, with all your activity and enlightenment,…do not read De Quincey. You have your Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw–why should you read De Quincey?”
“But I do read De Quincey,” Ralph protested, “more than Belloc and Chesterton anyhow.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief mingled. “You are then, a ‘rara avis’ in your generation. I am delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey.”
I haven’t read Belloc’s essays, but I think that both Shaw’s and Chesterton’s styles mostly fit as the targets of Woolf’s deprecatory essay:
And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity. And those who do not sacrifice their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox think it beneath the dignity of the printed word to say simply what it means; in print they must pretend to an oracular and infallible nature.
She certainly has a point–both Shaw and Chesterton engage in shamelessly ridiculous trolling (although I think that they both have valuable critical insights as well, and are enjoyable to read even when they are extremely insincere). In The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders sniffs at G.K. Chesterton’s “presumptuous” essays: they certainly are that, and he might have added that Shaw, even more so, “pretends to an oracular and infallible nature.” However, maybe Woolf and Sanders have missed the point as long as they do not acknowledge that the oracular style is all part of one big self-deprecating joke, as distasteful as some may (understandably) find that joke to be.
The part of Woolf’s essay which remains inexplicable to me is her suggestion that “if men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed,” and that people should write only of themselves. It is true that she puts a great deal of herself into her literary essays, but also true that those essays are primarily about art and literature. Since, presumably, Woolf was a person who succeeded in the cardinal virtue of sincerity, what can this literary limitation possibly mean?