The Relative Popularity of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
The Waves (1931)
by Virginia Woolf
That chart above tells you all you need to know about who the boss modernist novelist be. Virginia Woolf is tops over Gertrude Stein and James Joyce according to that there Ngram. It wasn't always the case- as late as 1960, Stein was writing a decade long hot streak that started in the late 50s, while Woolf was in a slump after her own period of popularity in the earlier 1950s.
If we drill down to the period between 1930 and 1950, we see a sharp spike for Gertrude Stein between 1942 and 1944, while Woolf and Joyce both appear to be on a slower but still upward trajectory.
Further along, the period between 1950 and 1980 is a crucial one for Virginia Woolf, with a take off point in 1970.
Finally, between 1980 and 2000, nothing much changes, with all three writers maintaining their relative popularity in comparison to each other and absolute popularity.
What do these graphs tell you about the Audience for each of the three authors: Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. First, that as far as the popularity of each of the Authors in terms of mentions in the English language, the rise of all three is related to the expansion of university level English departments in the United States and England. The period of growth and flux trickled off as the generation of students who preferred Virginia Woolf to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce moved into teaching positions and were able to select their own, Woolf heavy syllabus. This is also a time when Woolf gained popularity with graduate level writing programs, creating a steady stream of Woolf fans who made their living writing book reviews, magazine articles and other works of fiction.
What is clear is that all three Authors continued to gain new Audience members after they either stopped writing, died or both. It is also clear that the immediate audience for the work of all three authors was dwarfed by the Audience they obtained in the decades after they finished writing. This probably points to the role of American undergraduate education in generating Audiences for "serious" Modernist writers, since the popular appeal of all three combined is essentially limited to Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Other than that one book you would be hard pressed to find anyone who casually reads Joyce, Stein or Woolf without some prior academic connection.
I'm doing this bit about Modernists and their relative and absolute popularity because The Waves is a kind of high modernist apotheosis, both technically challenging AND "teachable" at fewer than 300 pages, making it a kind of Holy Grail for anyone trying to TEACH Virginia Woolf. And I can certainly see where this one of those books that would make a big impression if it was the centerpiece of an undergraduate class on "Modern Literature." But personally, all of Woolf's novels are a struggle, even the ones that don't have six characters doing simultaneous stream of consciousness and conversational dialogue across the span of their entire lives without any "guiding" text whatever.
The first couple Woolf novels I read I tried to take with me to Court and Jail in an attempt to read them casually, as I have done for many, many, many books in the 1001 Books Project. That was a disaster, so now when I read a Virginia Woolf I have to be sitting down in a quiet room with NO distractions in order to "follow" the text. The copy I read also contained fifty pages of end notes that basically explained all the allusions in the text, which you are liable to miss unless you are a classicist, a hundred year old English citizen or both. There is also a twenty page introduction for which I am thankful, for without it, I greatly fear I would have been lost entirely.
But yeah, unless you are a student, teacher, writer or professional narrative crafter in film, theater or what have you, how and why would you ever read The Waves, which is almost literally impossible to follow without foreknowledge of what happens- AND NOTHING HAPPENS.