Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up on some contemporary female authors, last time focusing on Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Now I am turning to an author I have wanted to read for some time: Virginia Woolf and what is generally considered her greatest work, Mrs. Dalloway.
This was without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read, and holds up quite comparably with other male authors of the era such as Faulkner and Joyce. In the introduction to the version I read, it was pointed out that this story is almost a counterpoint to Ulysses (takes place in one day, multiple characters, many interpretations), but I felt it was more readable. I’m not going to spend time on the story itself, in favor of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of perspective/character. This is Woolf’s overwhelming strength, and it shows on every page. The narrative sweeps among character points of view, then goes abroad over the city to find other characters who are doing other things at the same moment and gives their thoughts and hopes and concerns about life. Woolf does an amazing job showing how internal conflict can resonate within outer relationships. She also uses these techniques to show us the various complications of mental illness as it affects those who struggle with it.
Sentence construction. Almost as well known as the first lesson, this novel is also considered a masterwork in how to create powerful prose structure. Some sentences are actual paragraphs, using chained semicolons, parentheses and other flourishes to spin a narrative either from an omniscient perspective or from within the character’s mind. While this is not a technique that will work for every writer, it’s worth paying close attention to how the sentences wind together, as each one was obviously labored over for some time.
I would highly recommend this book for any writer looking for a phenomenal example of how to hone their craft. Whether you are pondering a use of a different perspective or how to show your character's’ internal thoughts, you can hardly find a better source of material. I would go so far as to say one can get a much deeper and rewarding experience from this novel than other stream-of-consciousness tales that were becoming popular in that era. I know I will continue reading more of Woolf’s fiction as well as her essays over the years.
Next up, I’m going to take on another author I have known of for years but never read: Don DeLillo and his first great masterpiece White Noise. I have another critical edition of this work so I hope to sample some of that material after I finish the text, and plan on getting a post about it done by the end of this month. And stay tuned for some more essays on the book process and writing itself. Thanks for reading!
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John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.