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The New York Times reports that about half the world is in lockdown, due to COVID-19. So is now the time to read Proust? Some say yes. Others say no.

Drew Shannon’s Modern Library set of Proust

One naysayer is Suzanne Moore of The Guardian. She writes, “I never managed Proust in pre-virus days, so don’t saddle me with him now, for God’s sake.”

Others say yes. In fact, a Facebook group formed by Elisa Kay Sparks and dubbed “The Woolf Pack Reads Proust” has taken on Proust as a pandemic reading project. It has 29 members from around the globe.

Woolf on Proust

Woolf herself read Proust. Here’s what she had to say about him:

Last night I started on Vol 2 [Jeunes Filles en Fleurs] of him (the novel) and propose to sink myself in it all day. [. . . ] But Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures?theres something sexual in it?that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession. But I must return to Swann” – Letter to Roger Fry, 6 May 1922 (Letters II 525)

My great adventure is really Proust. Well–what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses. – Letter to Roger Fry, 3 October 1922 (Letters II 565-6)

Resources for reading Proust

Founding member Benjamin Hagen, who is also heading up the 30th Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf: Profession and Performance, which has been postponed until 2021, has added a number of resources to the group page.

They include:

Hagen, assistant professor of 20th-Century British and Anglophone literature at the University of South Dakota, also posted this drawing and comment to the group page on April 6. He is also blogging about his experience.

Me [Ben Hagen] trying (with not too much success) to map out connections between topics / themes from last week’s reading.

Focusing — or not — on Proust

Hagen has made much more progress than I have, bless him. I must confess that the farthest I have gotten with reading Proust is locating the first volume on my bookshelf and dropping it on my desk. There it sits, unopened and unread.

The inability to focus on the task at hand is common at this time, no matter what we are doing. Here’s a quote shared to the group Facebook page by Gill Lowe, who said of her own reading of Proust: “I started. But I just can’t concentrate…”.

Proust on illness

It is illness that makes us recognise that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body. – The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

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What Would Virginia Woolf Do? That’s the name of a Facebook group and a book. And I have to wonder what Woolf would do if she saw either one. 

Would she be flattered? Would she be horrified? Would she be angry? Would she be disgusted?

Critic Daphne Merkin, a memoirist and cultural critic who is a non-posting member of the group, told The New York Times that Woolf would be mortified.

I know I’m mortified for her. Let me explain why.

The Facebook group that misses Woolf

First came the Facebook group started by Nina Lorez Collins, a former literary agent, writer and mother of four grown children, while she was going through a self-admitted midlife crisis.

She saw the group as a safe and private space for women to talk about their problems and propose solutions with which Woolf might agree. She describes it on Facebook as:

“A closed, confidential, forum for women over 40 with a bent toward the literary, witty, and feminist. A place to discuss, support, and share things that we may not care to share with the men and children in our lives.”

According to a March 28 story in the “Style” section of the New York Times, the group has more than 7,600 followers across the country.

A Woolfian lurking among the Woolfers

Members of Collins’ Facebook group call themselves Woolfers. I became one of them this week so I could see for myself what the group was all about. I had to attest to the fact that I was over 40, submit a list of books I had recently read, and give my email address in order to submit my name for membership.

Once approved, I was able to view the group’s members — numbering 8,419 as of today — its posts, photos, videos, book lists, etc.

Only two of the posts I scrolled through mentioned Woolf and a few unidentified photos pictured her books or her home at 29 Fitzroy Square. Of the two book lists I skimmed, one included To the Lighthouse and another recommended that novel, along with A Room of One’s Own, Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando.

The posts I scanned were about sunscreen, teenagers, college tours, vaginal dryness, fasting, colonoscopies, tinted eyebrows, traveling to Hawaii, poetry, a writing contest, Mary Magdalene, furry slippers and wearing bejeweled sandals with a chipped pedicure.

Recommendations on the site included such things as restaurants, hotels, spas, shops, universities and museums, but I saw nothing connected to Woolf.

I also noticed that the instructions to group members mentioned Woolf only once: “For the Love of God, Please spell Woolf Correctly!” I would also say: For the love of Woolf, please punctuate and capitalize correctly, particularly in an admonition invoking her name.

Collins herself mentions Woolf in a couple of her posts — one noting the anniversary of her death and another including two phrases from “On Being Ill,” although she doesn’t cite the source.

Note: Within a few hours of this post going live, Collins or one of her administrators kicked me out of her Facebook group. Thank you for the honor, Ms. Collins.

The book title without a punchline

Now Collins has parlayed the private Facebook group into a book, coming out in hardcover this month, whose official title is What Would Virginia Woolf Do?: And Other Questions I Ask Myself as I Attempt to Age Without Apology.

The book, said to include personal essays, is billed as “Part memoir and part resource on everything from fashion and skincare to sex and surviving the empty nest” and “a frank and intimate conversation mixed with anecdotes and honesty, wrapped up in a literary joke.” The website describes its title as “ironic.”

But where’s the irony and what’s the joke? If it’s connected to Woolf’s suicide, I consider that an obvious cheap shot. If it’s connected to something else, that connection is not apparent or explained.

Where’s the Woolf?

The book’s title sends the message that Collins consults Woolf’s writing and life for answers to questions raised by group members. But that isn’t the case.

If the book’s content reflects the Facebook group, it will be focused on the kinds of things a frank women’s magazine for women over 40 that is supported by advertising would discuss — skincare, diet, weight loss, fashion, and relationships — all centered on aging. I don’t see Woolf in this.

The New York Times agrees. It described the book as “a sometimes wince-inducing primer on fashion, sex, marriage, divorce, money and health.” Nevertheless, the book and the group have grabbed headlines. News of both has spread to the UK and Australia.

Wince-inducing Woolfers

The NYT winced at the book, but I am wincing at more than that. The Times says some (insert wince here) “Woolfers” do more than complain and kvetch. They have also formed subgroups that focus on philanthropy, activism, business networking and writing.

That’s nice. But take a look at Collins’ website and you’ll find more to wince at. It includes the wince-inducing word “Woolfer” so frequently that I could barely continue reading, and it has a blog rife with predictable alliterative topic headings such as “Woolfer Wins” and “Woolfer Wisdom.”

There’s a “Shop” tab on the site with this sales pitch: “From t-shirts to tote bags to vibrator necklaces, we’ve got what you need to get decked out like a true Woolfer.”

The “Resources” tab on the site includes a long list of recommended books by women, but only one — To the Lighthouse — by Woolf.

Collins’ characterization of Woolf? “[A] brilliant feminist I admire, a woman who chose to end it all in her late 50s.”

Collins links us to her own published writing, including her tale of how she was arrested three times in connection with domestic abuse against her ex-husband.

Would Woolf use cheap alliteration, hawk vibrator necklaces, exploit the suicide of another writer, and abuse her husband? I think not.

Just read the real deal

Virginia Woolf was an intelligent and thoughtful writer who valued her readers, as well as the importance of language and history and literature. Her thinking, along with her writing, was brilliant and precise, groundbreaking and timeless.

There are self-help books that do a wonderful job of invoking Woolf to give advice about writing and about life. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf by Ilana Simons and The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing by Danell Jones, come to mind.

Collins’ book is not in the same league. Not by a long shot.

And although I am not embarrassed by vaginas — indeed, I celebrate them — it pains me to see Woolf’s name in the middle of a hot pink vagina graphic on the cover of a cheesy self-help book that exploits her iconic status.

While Collins has every right to age without apology and write whatever she wants without apology, too, she owes Woolf a huge apology for using her name to sell this cheap work. Why? Because it reflects the sad shallowness of pop culture, not Woolf.

The website calls it “A must-have handbook for modern-day women aged 40-100.”

I say the must-have handbook for women of any age is anything by Woolf, starting with A Room of One’s Own.

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IVWS Logo

IVWS Logo

I told you that people who attended Woolf and the City were buzzed.

Madelyn Detloff, vice president of the International Virginia Woolf Society, barely stepped off the Fordham University campus after the conference before creating a Facebook page for the society. And one day after her announcement of the IVWS page, it already had 60 fans. Talk about high-flying energy!

If you already have a Facebook account, you can become a fan of the IVWS on Facebook. If not, create an account now.

If you are concerned about privacy, don’t worry. You can control the people who see your own Facebook page, and you can determine exactly what they see as well.

As a member of the IVWS group, you can be part of the society’s ongoing conversation about Woolf, view and post photos, share links and news and hook up with other Woolfians around the world.

Remember that you can be part of the conversation here on Blogging Woolf as well. Please feel free to post your thoughts. Just scroll down to the comments link below each post and go at it.

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