Walking into the 19th annual Woolf and the City conference as a non-academic fan of Virginia Woolf can be intimidating. I was in the midst of close to 250 Woolf scholars and fans from across the globe, most of whom were wavy-haired, intellectual, modern-day Virginias with silk scarves and thick-rimmed glasses. Virginia Woolf, novelist, critic, publisher, and preeminent modernist, has fascinated readers over the last century with her experimental fiction, progressive feminism, involvement in the controversial Bloomsbury Group, and finally, her suicide in the River Ouse in 1941.
Loving Woolf as a common reader today requires a certain defensiveness. In addition to intimidation, I experienced nostalgia passing through the rooms of my college literature professors and near embodiments of Woolf herself, jarred occasionally by a student or a man. I felt protective of the group. In a society that considers academia—with its pursuit of the production, rather than consumption, of knowledge—as increasingly inapplicable to the “real world,” some might question the value of such specialized gatherings. I worried that attending the conference would mean facing the irrelevancy of my literary idol. I was also concerned that the conference would attempt to justify Woolf’s significance by uprooting her and dumping her into our current context, with awkward questions like, “What would Virginia think about iPods?” “Would she be on Prozac or Zoloft?” Or, “How would Woolf solve the economic crisis?”
This didn’t happen. The scholarly papers—theoretical, critical, or creative—presented in each of the fifty panel sessions were grouped to examine a specific topic, such as “Queer City/Feminist Geography,” and “Bloomsbury and Fashion,” generating a dialogue between presenters and audience. Sessions ranged from dizzyingly academic to the more accessible. In sessions demanding less referential knowledge, creative writers read stories and poems inspired by Woolf, undergraduate students proposed comparisons between the novels of Woolf and Toni Morrison, and editor Carole DeSanti, of Viking/Penguin Group, reflected on today’s women writers and the publishing industry, eighty years after Woolf’s provocative A Room of One’s Own, on the same subject. DeSanti proposed that while women writers and readers fund the commercial side of books, they are still struggling to create freely without the proper foundations and structures to support them. She offered the insight, “Women have the rooms, but they may have mortgaged them with subprime lenders.”
Days were closed with entertainment such as the collaborative performance of the L.A.-based shoegaze, pop rock band Princeton and the Stephen Pelton Dance Theater. While Princeton played lyrical portraits of Bloomsbury group members from their album Bloomsbury, the choreography of the Stephen Pelton company focused on the punctuation in a single paragraph from To the Lighthouse. It sounds a bit cheesy, but the contrast of Princeton’s upbeat, playful music with the somber and nuanced dancers created an interesting expression of opposing sides of Woolf.
Another memorable moment was 97-year-old Dr. Ruth Gruber’s account of visiting Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the 1930s. She remembered Virginia as lounging on the floor, dressed all in grey, chain smoking—literally lighting her next cigarette with the stub of the current. Gruber also described finding her own name, along with some unsavory comments, in Virginia’s diary in the Berg Collection in the 42nd Street public library recently, and how she came to terms with Virginia’s occasional cattiness and snobbishness—accepted her humanity.
By the last day, I realized that a Woolf conference is not for everyone. However, the opportunity to appreciate Woolf’s brilliance and complications, and to reconsider creativity, uncertainty, language, identity, and depressions, both personal and societal, is still valuable—and vitally so.
In a welcome departure from the criticism and certainty that dominates literary studies (i.e. the language of illumination) and our culture at large, journalist and essayist Rebecca Solnit’s talk “Woolf’s Darkness” recalled the importance of mysteries in Woolf’s worldview and fiction. Inspired by Woolf’s “uncertainty principle” that advises questions over answers, Solnit expressed her own revolutionary art and philosophy. She reminded the audience of the tyranny of the quantifiable, our culture’s desperation to provide definitions, truth, and immediate response. With BookExpo America barely wrapped up, and editors and writers scrambling to find a quick solution to the economic crisis, Solnit’s words offered an alternative that accepts vulnerability and looks forward to the creative possibilities when we don’t know what will happen or what is right: “Depression is in itself a form of certainty; it can’t be surprised out of its existence.”