Greene versus Woolf

Graham Greene

I like Graham Greene. He found himself writing realist fiction in an age when the intelligentsia, if not the actual reading public, had moved on to Modernism.

Virginia Woolf rather looked down on Greene and similar writers, as though they hadn’t quite developed the modern sensibility yet. For her, these reactionaries were still churning out their outmoded realism (ha ha!), seemingly oblivious to the fact that others had pioneered new and supposedly more convincing ways of portraying consciousness.

To Woolf, Greene looked like a dinosaur, a creature from another age who simply didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to understand that things had moved on and that, in terms of sensibility, he had been left behind. That in her writing she might have been describing the consciousness of a self-obsessed individual while Greene portrayed characters who were less self-absorbed probably never crossed her mind.

Yet the truth is that it was Woolf who didn’t get it. Greene had looked at the new style of writing, found it all rather solipsistic, hard to read and dull, and chose to stick with what he preferred. He was probably no less of an intellectual than Woolf, if knowing things and thinking deeply about them is what an intellectual does. He was just less of an intellectual snob than she was.

What Woolf failed to realise is that change doesn’t necessarily equal progress. A progressive society or a progressive art movement is just as likely to be inferior as superior to what has gone before it. In this she was a true liberal, for whom new equals better.

In fact the argument between these two writers rather mirrors the argument between liberals and conservatives, with Woolf being the former and Greene the latter.


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