115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

"Amazingly Interesting": Students Seeing Contemporary Women Writers through the Lens of Woolf's A Room of One's Own

Genevieve Brassard, University of Portland

Framing a British Women Writers course with Woolf's A Room of One's Own foregrounds the essay's feminist rhetorical strategies and invites students to engage in "speculative literary criticism" in an assignment designed to read authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith through Woolf's hopes, dreams, and ideas about future female authors. The assignment encourages students to read Woolf's essay for its own insights, as well as to test the rhetorical validity of its claims about somen and fiction.


The survey course I teach on British Women Writers, ranging roughly from Austen to Zadie Smith, begins perhaps counter-intuitively with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Framing the survey with Woolf’s essay foregrounds its rhetorical strategies as feminist literary criticism, and encourages students to read and ‘see’ subsequent women writers through Woolf’s ideas, hopes, and dreams about women and fiction. Woolf’s essay is a foundational text of feminist literary criticism, with a profound and continuing impact on past and current feminist theorists. Moreover, A Room of One’s Own not only presents a sometimes contentious and highly selective overview of past women writers, but it also imagines and anticipates the potentially imaginative freedom of future generations of women writers, who might, Woolf hopes, “Be truthful…and the result is bound to be amazingly interesting” (89). And perhaps more crucially, Woolf models an idiosyncratic and fluid engagement with literature, one filled with questions encouraging responses, and polemical interpretations inviting thoughtful debates. As such, A Room of One’s Own is an ideal text to foreground voice and style as concerns central to women’s fiction and feminist criticism.

My paper includes both theoretical and practical components, with the first section explaining the rationale for this pedagogical approach to teaching British Women Writers, and the second section analyzing students’ responses to the course’s final assignment, an exercise in “speculative” literary criticism. This assignment asks students to imagine how Woolf would read and critique texts by some of her literary “daughters,” including Penelope Lively, Jeanette Winterson, and Zadie Smith.  The paper ultimately argues for the usefulness of encouraging students to read A Room of One’s Own for its own feminist-literary insights, as well as to test the rhetorical validity of its claims about women’s writing.