Virginia Woolf on journalism

“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin. And so, if one reads Mr. Lucas, Mr. Lynd, or Mr. Squire in the bulk, one feels that a common greyness silvers everything. They are as far removed from the extravagant beauty of Walter Pater as they are from the intemperate candour of Leslie Stephen. Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half; and thought, like a brown paper parcel in a waistcoat pocket, has a way of spoiling the symmetry of an article. It is a kind, tired, apathetic world for which they write, and the marvel is that they never cease to attempt, at least, to write well.”—Virginia Woolf, “The Modern Essay”

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7 Comments

Filed under aesthetics, audience, essay-classical, journalism, NOTED

7 responses to “Virginia Woolf on journalism

  1. Brian Spadora

    Another interesting post, Richard. News writing is often soulless for the reader and soul-crushing for the writer. There are some exceptions, of course. (Goucher’s Tom French, whose newspaper writing reads as well as any book, is one of the best examples.) But Woolf’s words still apply. They reminded me of Hemingway’s comment to George Plimpton: “…journalism, after a point has been reached, can be a daily self-destruction for a serious creative writer.” You can find the whole interview here:
    http://www.parisreview.com/media/4825_HEMINGWAY4.pdf

  2. Thank you. Her statement was kind of snobby but one could not help but agree. On the other hand, to a degree it seems one must choose between art and commerce: few artistic writers make a living directly from their words; their writing is wonderful in journals no one reads but a few other writers. A great newspaper columnist reaches more people in one issue than they do in their entire careers.

    And that is a great interview with Hemingway. I loved: “The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.”

    When I was a kid I came across this quote by him that I can’t find but haven’t really looked for: “If you stay in newspapers long enough you will only see words.”

    I’d forgotten that he basically hand wrote his first drafts, too.

  3. P.S.—It’s interesting that the book Woolf collected this essay in, The Common Reader, is cited in the Hemingway piece as being one of the books beside his typewriter . . .

  4. theexile

    When I first read this quote, I was hit by Woolf’s snobbishness, too, an attitude so prevalent in her work that it’s hard to read Woolf, except in short bursts.

    But then I started thinking about my own snobbish attitude toward journalism, one I held particularly in grad school: Journalism was barely literate; and scholars were much more cutting edge. Why, we could deconstruct things, couldn’t we?

    It was an attitude that quickly disappeared when I went to work for a daily newspaper. Where I worked with people who were very literate, and turned me on to literary journalism (I had never heard of John McPhee, for instance, until I worked at the paper.) Where I worked with people who could hack out daily AP style book approved news stories, and at the same time beautifully crafted feature stories as literary as they come. Where I learned to write features, and learned to l0ve nonfiction as much as fiction.

    At the same time I can see how daily news writing can be detrimental to creative writing. It’s restrictive. Which is so unfortunate. I always felt fortunate that most of my newspaper writing was features. I wonder if TV has something to do with the decline of vivid news writing? Why write news vividly if one can see it immediately at 6 and 10 p.m.?

    And Hemingway kept writing journalism into the mid ’50s, even though financially he didn’t have to do so. But much of what he wrote after World War II was personal essay/review, stuff that would likely today show up in literary journals, and not get to a general audience. Which is the fate of so much good creative nonfiction — the ever-dwindling general reading audience rarely gets to see it, unless they subscribe to literary journals.

    Also, wanted to include this link to a review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. I meant to share it with you regarding your earlier post on politics, writing and food:

    http://www.doublex.com/section/arts/jonathan-safran-foers-annoying-argument-against-eating-meat?page=0,0

    • Thanks, Todd. I was aware of the Foer book and had read some reviews, but not that one. I started to mention his book but felt that blog post was long enough and perhaps self-indulgent enough already! It is interesting that he seemingly is going up against Michael Pollan, whose stance is to eat meat but to abjure factory farms, kind of where I am. Foer’s book should help further clarify our society on this issue.

  5. My editors, and I know Richard’s, because for several years they were one and the same, made sure there was precious little beauty or courage or thought that made its way into the paper. We chafed at that and, on occasion, wrote pieces that were so irresistible they didn’t have the heart to cut them. I remember once writing a column that the copy desk said was one of my best, about how I missed an appointment with the Commander of the Eastern Missile and Test Range or some such peraonage, because I lost track of time dandling my first born upon my knee. The M.E., of course, killed it.
    Now that attempts at expressing beauty, courage and thought have become so commonplace in newspapers, and so often ill expressed, I long for the days when editors resisted them.