The Story about the Story, D’Ambrosio and Woolf

So I’ve begun reading The Story about the Story, and although I’ve only read the introduction and the first two essays, those first two essays are really wonderful, and I suspect the rest of the book will be too. The idea behind the book is to gather essays that discuss literature from a personal perspective (it’s subtitled “Great Writers Explore Great Literature”), and as I read through the first two essays, I was reminded of how much I love this form of writing. I love any kind of good writing about literature, whether it’s criticism, theory, book reviews, or blog posts — as long as it’s really good — but writing that combines intelligence about literature with a personal perspective and tone is really the best.

The first essay is by Charles D’Ambrosio, and it’s about how his experience of reading Salinger was shaped by the circumstances of his life. One of D’Ambrosio’s brothers committed suicide and another brother attempted it, and so when he came to read Salinger, he was acutely sensitive to everything Salinger had to say on the subject. The essay combines a number of strands beautifully — D’Ambrosio’s personal experience, academic theories of suicide, how suicide functions in Salinger’s fiction, and Salinger’s mysterious reclusiveness and silence. It’s a very smart, very moving essay.

The second essay is by Virginia Woolf, and in it she tells us what she thinks of Hemingway, and, even more interestingly, she takes a look at her own prejudices and biases along the way. She makes the argument that knowing a critic’s biases may make his or her conclusions seem less conclusive, but also more truthful. She starts off by describing what it’s like to read a piece of criticism. Surely we can all recognize the feelings she describes?

But what reason there is for believing in critics it is impossible to say … They differ in no way from other people if one sees them in the flesh. Yet these insignificant fellow creatures have only to shut themselves up in a room, dip a pen in the ink, and call themselves ‘we’, for the rest of us to believe that they are somehow exalted, inspired, infallible. Wigs grow on their heads. Robes cover their limbs. No greater miracle was ever performed by the power of human credulity. And, like most miracles, this one, too, has had a weakening effect upon the mind of the believer. He begins to think that critics, because they call themselves so, must be right. He begins to suppose that something actually happens to a book when it has been praised or denounced in print. He begins to doubt and conceal his own sensitive, hesitating apprehensions when they conflict with the critics’ decrees.

But, she goes on to argue, critics — at least those who review recently-published books — aren’t necessarily the best readers of literature. They have to review new books without much time to think about them, and they have to deliver a verdict about them, which requires hiding uncertainties they may be feeling and questions that may linger. The rest of us are allowed to have a more complicated response and to let some of our questions go fruitfully unanswered.

And so she will conduct an experiment: she will write about Hemingway and talk about her hesitations, questions, and biases along the way, so we can get a glimpse of the thought process that goes into producing a review, rather than, as usually happens, being left with only the conclusions.

This is really what I love about criticism that is personal — it gives us a chance to see how readers come to their conclusions. Probably it’s only an illusion that we can get into Virginia Woolf’s mind as she decides that Hemingway doesn’t do character very well, but still, I can’t help but trust that Woolf is trying to be honest, and I wish that her openness and honesty (even the illusion of it) were more common.


Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

16 responses to “The Story about the Story, D’Ambrosio and Woolf

  1. Ann

    I haven’t heard of this, but it is a must as far as I’m concerned. I love anything about story and this sounds ideal. Thank you so much for writing about it. I’m off to look for a copy now.


  2. What a good book this sounds! And I like the idea of including the personal in literary criticism. How very enlivening as well as enlightening that must be!


  3. I especially like Woolf’s approach and feel that reading her essay would be an experience and an education. Not that her opinions would always be ones I’d share (although I do agree about Hemingway’s characters), but that the essay would make me think further about my own opinions and judgments and would give me more ideas to ponder.

    Eager to hear more about these essays. Right now, I’m thinking about my first exposure to Salinger and discovering that a 14-year-old friend of my brother was not only beautiful, but an intelligent reader. He set me off to discover Salinger for which I’m still grateful.


  4. I just read the Woolf essay last night and loved it. I have a cold and some of it is a bit fuzzy so I happily plan to re-read it. The D’Ambrosio essay was fascinating, wasn’t it? So very intimate yet not in some ways. I especially like how he probed the meaning of silence. If all the essays continue like these two, we are in for a treat!


  5. That sounds like an interesting and thought provoking book, and I’m going to add it to my list. I think that criticism generally would be more interesting if it were more personal because all reading is personal.


  6. I’m not so sure that Woolf’s review of the Hemingway book would have been any different without that opening. Once she’s on to Hemingway, this piece looks, to me, pretty much like her other reviews. Woolf is one of the all-time great reviewers, so that’s not a complaint. But that intro may not be much more than a hook into the story, and another way to dig at Hemingway.

    “Let us give the mind a new book, as one drops a lump of fish into a cage of fringed and eager sea anemones, and watch it pausing, pondering, considering its attacks.” I mean, that’s hilarious, but it’s mock-scientific. I don’t know that it means she’s not “honest,” but she’s certainly ironizing.

    By the way, a note in Volume IV of the Hogarth Press The Essays of Virginia Woolf (p. 456) says: “when [Hemingway] read the review in Sylvia Beach’s bookshop – Shakespeare and Company – he was so furious that he punched a lamp and broke it. Sylvia billed him for the lamp.” Macho jackass!


  7. Ann — it really is a great book. It’s not about story directly, more about how writers respond to literature more generally, which involves stories, of course. That said, it’s highly recommended (so far, at least).

    Litlove — I like the idea of including the personal too — I agree with Woolf’s complaint that the impersonal “we” can be intimidating (although she uses it herself, actually). It seems more honest to me for writers to say how they come to their conclusions, rather than to just state them outright as though they were facts.

    Jenclair — I didn’t agree with Woolf’s conclusions about Hemingway, actually — I like him better than she does, and I’m not sure she gets what he’s doing with character. But that doesn’t really matter, I think, because the essay does have so much else that is interesting to think about. How great to have had someone to introduce you to an author you came to value so much.

    Stefanie — yes, we are! I like what you say about the D’Ambrosio — he’s very revealing about himself and his family, but he’s revealing in a distanced, analytical way, which I think works well. And really, is there anybody with a better essayistic style than Woolf? I don’t think so!

    Lilian — exactly — reading is personal, and I love the idea of highlighting that rather than trying to hide it. We all have very idiosyncratic ways of coming to our conclusions about things, so why not acknowledge that?

    Amateur Reader — oh, that’s a great story. It’s perfect about both of them — Woolf being calm and cool and analytical and poised, and Hemingway being a jackass. I’m fond of Hemingway, though. I’m not entirely sure I agree with your argument about Woolf’s essay. Well, the review may be like her other ones, but it does seem that she makes a point of following her own advice by acknowledging her biases. She admits she prefers more modernist approaches to character, and also that she is going to be sensitive about gender issues. Probably she could do even more of this, but she does do at least some of it.


  8. I like Lilian’s comment — it is much more interesting when reading a review if you know where a critic’s biases and interests lie. As a former editor, I was always curious when a review of one of my books didn’t quite ring true, and wanted to ask the reviewer where they were coming from. I bet the answers might surprise us.


  9. Hi,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this exchange — and very much hope all the pieces in “The Story About the Story” generate this kind of attention.

    What I liked about the Woolf piece was what it did in its subtext — and what it did with personal pronouns. It seems to me that the essay goes out of its way to refer to the author of the essay, Woolf, as an abstract reviewer, a default “he.” In this way, all the criticisms that Woolf levels against Hemingway, that he’s too macho, reflect back on the the ironically emotionally emasculated world of criticism…her passion, and her position, really, are all in the subtext. Very clever, I thought — and resonant.


  10. Jenny

    I, too, shamelessly love books about books (even better if they are by authors I know and love) and so this sounds like a collection I’d love. Thank you so much for the tip!


  11. Oh, I am going to have to read this – I love both D’Ambrosio and Woolf and these essays sound fascinating! This is definitely one for the tbr list! Thanks for the review.


  12. Good post, Dorothy. I haven’t read this book, but I like what Woolf said about critics in the excerpt. I admit that I tend to pick up a book that has received positive critical reviews – I get diappointed a lot, however, and Woolf’s words resonate.


  13. Debby — I’ll bet you’re right that hearing where a reviewer is coming from would sometimes interest and surprise us. It’s that pose of objectivity that can be intimidating or perhaps annoying, and it’s fascinating when we can see behind the pose.

    J.C. Hallman — thanks for stopping by! It looks like I’ll be reading through the book slowly, but I am looking forward to seeing if the upcoming pieces match the quality of the first two. Interesting reading of the pronouns. I’d noticed that in spite of talking about revealing her personal biases, Woolf still uses very impersonal pronouns. I’d thought she did it because it was convention to do so, and I like the idea that she’s using convention to further her point about Hemingway.

    Jenny — looking over the table of contents, I am impressed at the variety of authors, including some very canonical ones and some lesser-known ones. It seems like a very good mix.

    Courtney — I’m not familiar with D’Ambrosio but would like to read more, although I have to say this kind of book makes me want to read more of the authors’ nonfiction rather than their fiction. I’m always on the lookout for good essay collections.

    Grad — thank you! I find it very hard not to pay attention to reviews, at least reviews by people whose writing I don’t really know, but sometimes I think that may be the best way to go — reviews can be so unreliable!


  14. Dorothy,

    You might check out D’Ambrosio’s essay collection, “Orphans,” though this Salinger essay is not in it. It’s a flat out fantastic book — many great pieces — including one about a Hugo poem that I just about included in “The Story About the Story” instead of the Salinger piece. Very much worth checking out.



  15. You always find the most interesting books about books! Another one to note down and look for.


  16. J.C. Hallman — I saw Orphans in the author bio in your book, and I’m glad to hear you like it so much. On the TBR list it goes.

    Danielle — this book pretty much found me 🙂 Books about books is one of my favorite genres ever, is what it comes down to.


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