Blog #168: Virginia Woolf and Genetic Criticism

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Even if my field of vision is slightly blurry, genetic criticism has just swum into my ken. Supposedly genetic criticism focuses on the reconstruction and analysis of the writing process. Its concerns seem to be primarily textual, insofar as it looks at all the documents and texts which lead to a particular version of a printed work, yet genetic criticism also looks to situate the work within the context of its time. It takes account of the social and psychological forces at play when the writing occurred. Genetic criticism, as I understand it, looks at the text as a manifestation or incarnation of a fluid process involving personal, social, economic, historic, and philosophic dimensions. Though genetic criticism often starts with texts, with drafts and with revisions, its goals are to investigate the writing process itself. Genetic criticism tries to understand the choices available, the choices made, and the reasons for favoring one choice over another.

Who knew? Genetic critics, obviously, but in my sleeping beauty state I was blissfully unaware that such activity was going on in a formalized fashion. I didn’t know that what I have been doing for the last year or so has a name. My To the Lighthouse “tunneling” is really “genetic criticism.” Discovering Sorrel behind Ibsen or Tansey behind Tansley, locating a reproduction of the 1912 Army and Navy Stores catalogue, looking up old copies of The Times, looking at on line versions of the “Time Passes” typescripts, thinking about why Virginia chose a name or referenced a text or altered a word, or why a hand should be shoved up and a blade flashed, all this is genetic criticism; and there is probably no writer who lends herself so well to genetic criticism as Virginia. She saw her own work as genetic criticism of a sort, except that rather than look at the genetics of a single text she attempted to sequence the genes of culture itself.

Genetic criticism as a discipline is primarily French in origin, growing out of the work of Barthes and Derrida, and my sense is that its potential is only starting to be appreciated by English critics and scholars. Not surprisingly, James Joyce seems to be a popular subject for genetic analysis, but Virginia scholars, too, are now starting to use genetic criticism as a tool to deepen their understanding Virginia’s writing practices. For instance, Virginia Woolf’s Late Cultural Criticism by Alice Wood apparently use genetic criticism principles and practices to try to track Virginia’s thinking and writing processes.

Genetic criticism seems to validate my “all is grist to the mill” approach, and in the future I may try to learn more about it. There may be new techniques or approaches which may prove useful. For now, though, I’ll just keep up my amateur spelunking methods. For one thing, I don’t have time to learn about and to train myself to use formal methods of genetic criticism. For another, I don’t want to lose the freedom which goes with being a common tunneler. As an amateur, I can bumble on as I please. In my enthusiasm, I may make some mistakes, I may overlook obvious treasures or misinterpret others, but I think those risks are outweighed by the freedom I have to speculate and to voice imaginative theories. Submitting to the formalities of genetic criticism might sap my sapping skills. Professionals are often straitjacketed by their need to build sober professional reputations. I have no such restraints and am free to roam where I choose. Virginia would approve. She did approve. She did more than approve. She invited. She dug the caves and the tunnels.

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