Virginia Woolf & Friends Name Their Favorite and Least Favorite Writers in a Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

Celebri­ty Twit­ter can be fun… some­times…. Tabloids still have mass appeal, albeit main­ly on the web. But for those who want to see the intro­vert­ed and book­ish caught off-guard and off the cuff, times are a lit­tle tough. Writ­ers can more eas­i­ly con­trol their image than actors or pop stars, nat­u­ral­ly. Most aren’t near­ly as rec­og­niz­able and sub­ject to con­stant pop cul­ture sur­veil­lance. Lit­er­ary scan­dals rarely go beyond pla­gia­rism or pol­i­tics. Some­times one might wish—as in the days of mean drunks like Nor­man Mail­er, Ernest Hem­ing­way, or Hunter S. Thompson—for a good old-fash­ioned lit­er­ary brawl….

Or maybe not. After all, there’s that thing about pens and swords. The sharpest weapons, the tools that cut the deep­est, are wield­ed by wit, whether it’s the flash­ing of rhetor­i­cal steel or the fine needling of ele­vat­ed pet­ti­ness. No clum­sy vio­lence can stand up to the lit­er­ary put-downs we find in the cor­re­spon­dence of, say Flan­nery O’Connor—who wrote that Ayn Rand “makes Mick­ey Spillane look like Dostoevsky”—or Vir­ginia Woolf, who found Joyce “a bore… ulti­mate­ly nau­se­at­ing. When one can have cooked flesh, why have the raw?”

This is won­der­ful­ly nasty stuff: gut-lev­el low blows from the high road of a well-turned phrase. If it’s the kind of thing you enjoy, you’ll love the “bitchy lit­er­ary burn book,” reports Vox, “fea­tur­ing the unvar­nished opin­ions of Vir­ginia Woof, Mar­garet Kennedy, and oth­ers” which has recent­ly come to light. A col­lec­tion of answers to 39-ques­tions, “its yel­low and curl­ing title page” announces it as “’Real­ly and Tru­ly: A Book of Lit­er­ary Con­fes­sions,” notes William Mack­esy, grand­son and lit­er­ary execu­tor of nov­el­ist Kennedy.

It was passed around and filled in by hand by a group of ten writ­ers total, also includ­ing Rose Macaulay, Rebec­ca West, Hilaire Bel­loc, and Stel­la Ben­son, between 1923 and 1927. “Each con­tri­bu­tion was sealed up,” Mack­esy writes, “pre­sum­ably to await a dis­tant thriller-open­ing, which gave safe space for barbs and jokes at con­tem­po­raries’ expense.” With their sim­i­lar­i­ties to our own quick-take cul­tur­al prod­ucts, the ques­tion­naires are sure to be a hit on the inter­net.

These secret lit­er­ary con­fes­sions get prick­ly, thanks to “waspish” ques­tions like “the most over­rat­ed Eng­lish writer liv­ing” and “a deceased writer whose char­ac­ter you most dis­like.” Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Woolf’s answers are some of the sharpest. In answer to the lat­ter ques­tion, she wrote “I like all dead men of let­ters.” As for the liv­ing, one unnamed respon­dent “called T.S. Eliot the worst liv­ing Eng­lish poet as well as the worst liv­ing lit­er­ary crit­ic.”

Rebec­ca West dis­missed the whole thing as “sil­ly… it’s like being asked to select the best sun­set.” Nonethe­less, in answer to a ques­tion about which writer would still be read in 25 years, she sim­ply answered, “me.” Bel­loc did the same. Kennedy called Woolf the most over­rat­ed writer (but great­est liv­ing crit­ic), Woolf and West named Bel­loc most over­rat­ed. Joyce appears more than once in that cat­e­go­ry, as does D.H. Lawrence.

It’s all great fun, but maybe the “bitchy” head­line over­sells this aspect a lit­tle and under­sells the less sen­sa­tion­al but more infor­ma­tive parts of the exer­cise. For instance, all of the writ­ers except one (with one write-in for “I don’t know”) cast the same vote for great­est lit­er­ary genius (spoil­er: it’s Shake­speare). They revered James Boswell, Thomas Hardy, Max Beer­bohm, Pla­to, Jane Austen, Homer, Cat­ul­lus. They ignored many oth­ers. “There is no men­tion any­where,” Mack­esy points out, “of Vir­gil or Donne, and only one of Chaucer, Dick­ens, George Eliot and Hen­ry James.”

No mat­ter how for­ward-look­ing some of their work turned out to be, they were writ­ers of their time, with typ­i­cal atti­tudes, beliefs, and opin­ions when it came to lit­er­a­ture. That said, the casu­al nar­cis­sism and snark some of the ques­tions elic­it are time­less qual­i­ties. Learn more about the book, includ­ing its like ori­gins and mys­te­ri­ous prove­nance, from Mack­esy at the Inde­pen­dent.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Proust Fills Out a Ques­tion­naire in 1890: The Man­u­script of the ‘Proust Ques­tion­naire’

Flan­nery O’Connor Ren­ders Her Ver­dict on Ayn Rand’s Fic­tion: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

Vir­ginia Woolf on James Joyce’s Ulysses, “Nev­er Did Any Book So Bore Me.” Shen Then Quit at Page 200

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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