A faded pink and blue marbled journal cover with label reading "Modern Novels (Joyce)" and additional handwritten title "Modern Novels."

Holograph notebook labeled “Modern Novels (Joyce)“

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Francesca Wade: This made me think about Woolf as a critic, particularly because she got a lot of… Particularly her early income was from writing book reviews, and I think she really developed a kind of style or a sort of aesthetic of criticism kind of alongside her fiction, and the kind of vantage point she takes in her criticism, I think, is really fascinating to read along with her writing…her pursuit of kind of essence or of a sort of meandering towards… I mean her essay “Modern Fiction,” which I think the notes for this turned into, she takes the point that novelists should pursue whatever is of interest to them and, you know, not feel constrained by what she calls the materialists like Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. And she actually praises Joyce for being more of a spiritualist like her and pursuing something less tangible but perhaps more powerful.

Brandon Taylor: I love thinking about Virginia Woolf reading Ulysses bit by bit and taking these notes and self-excoriating herself and trying to figure out like, “What do I think about this, what does this mean, what is he doing?” And it can be really challenging as a novelist to watch another novelist who’s working in a similar vein toward a similar set of aesthetic principles race out ahead of you and figure some stuff out. And the fact that she reads him so carefully and so deeply, and she asks these probing questions, not only of him but of herself and of all writing, and that she gets to what feel like, you know, very particular ideas about what a novel or a modern novel can do and should do. I find that really inspiring, and it’s fun watching her mind at work, reason through these things. That’s almost more illustrative than or more helpful than her conclusions is—watching her mind at work and watching her change her mind and vacillate and ultimately land where she does. And I find that like… I always love it when writers think on the page.

Francesca Wade: Yeah, and she totally does that as a critic, her kind of critical essays… Often you see her thinking on the page and changing her mind and process and following the thoughts that come to her, and she builds towards a conclusion, or sometimes she has an argument that you can see she’s keen to make. But she’s a very kind of generative thinker, I think, in that respect, and she’s always questioning herself as well as others. I mean, I don’t think she’s ever stuck in a fixed position—she’s always interested in kind of delving beneath the surface. And difficult with Ulysses… I think a lot of people were jealous of Joyce, but it came out in 1922, the same year as Jacob’s Room, so she was very much at a transitional moment in her own kind of practice.

Brandon Taylor: Virginia Woolf is like, as a critic, I think that she gets this reputation for being, you know, waspish or mean or ungenerous, but when I read her nonfiction, I find a really, of course, astute and sharp observer, but someone who is playful and receptive and really generous and who thinks very deeply about things and in a really openhearted way. And I think that her nonfiction, you know, is, like a lot of her work, quite openhearted, and I think that that’s an underrated element of Woolf. 

Francesca Wade: Yeah, and I think it comes from a deep-seated conviction that literature is important as well and worth thinking about on its own terms and for what it says more broadly about the world.

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