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Hey, 'Admission': Quit using Virginia Woolf as a punchline!

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(Read caption) Virginia Woolf is too often portrayed as an author only women care about.

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Thanks to “Admission,” a new film comedy starring Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, Virginia Woolf is getting a renewed profile –  although not necessarily the kind of attention that promises to win Woolf new readers.

Among the comic elements in the story is a love triangle involving Portia, her English professor boyfriend (Michael Sheen),  and a Virginia Woolf scholar played for laughs by Sonya Walger.

“That the phrase ‘Virginia Woolf scholar’ is used several times as an epithet and a punch line is evidence of the film’s unusually acute interest in academic life and, also, its ambivalence about feminism,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote in his review.

Woolf is a favorite among many feminist literary scholars, and “Admission” seems to reinforce the notion of Woolf as a writer of interest only to women.

That was a widespread misconception before “Admission” ever hit the screen, but one I’d like to dispel. I’ve enjoyed Woolf’s writing for years, and I wince a little each time she’s pigeonholed as a “women’s writer.”

Woolf, a giant of English letters who lived between 1882 to 1941, certainly never aspired to that kind of narrow appeal. In the title essay of her famous collection of essays, “The Common Reader,” Woolf celebrated the universal ideal of the person who “reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing.”

Pleasure is an abiding gift of Woolf’s writing, and that quality doesn’t always seem evident when she’s promoted as a “women’s writer.” The term tends to reduce her work to a political gesture, something to be tolerated out of civic obligation rather than embraced for its promise of joy.

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