Jacob's Room (1922)
by Virginia Woolf
Probably the most important single thing for a lay person to know about Virginia Woolf is that she is the favorite Author of every single professor in every creative writing program in American and the United Kingdom. Virginia Woolf is the modernist novel. You could argue that Joyce and Proust are more formally innovative, but Woolf is loved. What does the popularity of Virginia Woolf in graduate level creative writing programs tell you about the state of the novel in America?
I'm not really sure, though I was thinking about that very question as I strolled through the "New Fiction" section at the Central San Diego Public Library. Mostly it looks like mystery novels (which have their own designation within fiction), romance novels, crime novels...genre stuff. People don't buy many books where the writers are significantly influenced by Virginia Woolf in terms of form or content. Her experiments with stream of consciousness duration and abrupt, non-denominated switches between points in time and narrator perspective signal the disorienting arrival of Modernism, and her novels must be read together to get a full sense of where she was coming from.
I think also reading Lawrence, Joyce and Proust helps as well. None of these books are particularly "fun" to read, and it is fair to say that a serious consideration of 1920s literature is what separates the literary kids from the literary adults. Considering the present popularity of young adult genre fiction, such an observation is hardly in jest.