Now that I’m no longer applying for jobs in academia, I feel free to say this: I don’t like what the Virginia Woolf industry has done to the scholarly study of women writers. I should also say that, while I don’t much like her novels, Woolf’s essays have influenced me, and I reread them for pleasure. I’ve also used things that she has written to support my own arguments in scholarly writing, but (and again, I feel free to say this now I’m no longer in the marketplace) I did this deliberately because, in my field, attaching one’s arguments to the name of Woolf is an effective way to have them taken seriously. Woolf sells. Adding Woolf to your CV will help your career. Linking a bit of Woolf to what you’re writing on an author of the same sex or period or theme or nationality or shoe size: this is a standard academic tactic. Look at the MLA bibliography of scholarly work published in the humanities, and marvel at how often Woolf’s name (not necessarily her arguments, or her writing) appears. It is ridiculous. It is statistically improbable. It is also damaging.
I’m pretty sure the same could be said of Shakespeare in Early Modern studies, or Charlotte Bronte in work on the Victorian novel. Every scholarly field has its big names whose work towers over the rest, and are truly influential, and there are undoubtedly other examples of figures whose work has been made over-influential. For scholars working on anglophone literature of the twentieth century (and probably some areas outwith that), ‘Virginia Woolf’ has become that name. I’m not disputing the worth of her novels, short stories, essays, reviews, or her letters and diaries (whether she wrote these for posterity or not, they’re treated as canon, just like her fiction), or whether these should or should not be studied. My problem is with the industry, the collective worship at the shrine of Woolf that is a self-sustaining academic construct.
I’ve published an article on this, which began with research I did in early 2016 for a conference at Oxford on women and the canon, and another in Hull on British women writers active in the period 1930 and 1960. My research looked at the publishing figures, at how many of these women authors were the subjects of academic publication. The results have been published by UCL Press as an online Open Access article, along with many others on The Academic Book of the Future. My main findings are:
- that teaching anthologies reprinting literary essays for study don’t publish as many by women as by men
- that, in these anthologies, Virginia Woolf’s work appears to use up the space allowed for women’s writing
- that the books by male authors, published by academic publishers about authors active 1930-1960, are mostly about male subjects
- in the same field, books by women authors are, roughly, equally about male and female subjects
- but if you take all the books away that are about Virginia Woolf, barely any books about women subjects working in this period are published at all.
Virginia Woolf’s shadow has shrivelled the opportunities to publish research on other women writing in her lifetime. It’s not her fault, and it is not a competition. But the opportunities have been reduced artificially by the academic publishing industry’s insistence that they will only accept a limited number of women as subjects because only some women subjects will sell (spot the circular argument). Other women novelists of the same period are, as a representative of Cambridge University Press told me, not far enough up the food chain to be published. (CUP is the worst offender in my survey; other, smaller presses, are much more open-minded). Palgrave Macmillan told me that, for this period of literary activity, they receive far more proposals for books on male authors than on women, so perhaps we, the researchers working on non-Woolf female literary subjects, ought to be more persistent.
This suggests that the academy is also at fault, the ecosystem that makes some authors more worthy of funding than others, and prevents doctoral students from researching non-Woolf women authors, because the publication treadmill, and funding opportunities, funnel them away from most other women subjects of the period. It’s a generational issue as well. If your PhD supervisor is a Woolfian, you will be expected to be Woolfian too, even though you might prefer (if you were given the chance to investigate) to be Richardsonian, Buttsian, or even Macaulayan. And thus you are shunted away from the chance to try a road less travelled, that might suit you better, that might extend the scholarly field outwards, rather than perpetually inwards.
If interested, you can look at the data and read the article here.
I’m a Visiting Fellow in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading, and taught and published my research for over ten years. Having returned to publishing by setting up Handheld Press, the sense of relief that I feel, now that I no longer have to pretend to be interested in fashionable academic subjects or texts, for the furtherance of my career, is absolutely wonderful. I continue to research publishing history, and teach when asked.