Tuesday, August 20, 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow of Books: Reflections on George Gissing's New Grub Street

“Just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me,” says Jasper Milvain of his novelist friend in George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street. “He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. I—well, you may say that at present I do nothing; but that’s a great mistake, I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skillful tradesmen. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetizing.”

For all of us trying to “make it” as writers today, diligently building our “platforms,” accruing followers on Twitter and on our blogs, carefully networking at summer workshops and writers conferences, weighing whether to self-publish and make money directly or go the traditional route and gain more credibility with the establishment—for us, the “literary man of 1882” does not sound so different from the “literary person of 2013.” And I have to tell you, it’s both a consolation and a frightful thing, because as much as novelists today might try to go about their work without thinking about the marketplace (and this is especially true of MFA writers; at least in the program I went through we were encouraged to focus on the manuscript and worry about selling it later), in the end, a manuscript sells or it doesn’t. A book does well sales-wise or becomes a black mark on the author’s record. And, as New Grub Street poignantly illustrates, even a novelist of the highest ideals is ultimately human and under the same need of money and of career success as anyone else in modern society. The consolation, I suppose, is that where the contemporary literary world tends to see itself as uniquely hard-pressed by economic forces, New Grub Street serves as a reminder that, though the details may have changed, the overall picture has long been the same.


In terms of the prose itself, the structure, and even much of the characterization, New Grub Street is not a brilliant novel. But if you’re a writer or somehow involved in the publishing world, New Grub Street is a must-read, guilty pleasure kind of book. Who among us will not sympathize with Reardon suffering a series of bad writing days and lamenting, “I am at the mercy of my brain; it is dry and powerless. How I envy those clerks who go by to their offices in the morning! There’s the day’s work cut out for them; no question of mood and feeling; they have just to work at something, and when the evening comes, they have earned their wages, they are free to rest and enjoy themselves”? Even when the most melodramatic scene arrives—in which the novelist Biffen plunges into a burning building to save the novel manuscript he has just that day finished—even if it’s eye-rollingly sensational, if you have written a novel, I guarantee you will nevertheless feel an awful suspense and desire for the hapless Biffen to be successful in his ridiculous rescue attempt.

The fun doesn’t stop there; the brilliance of New Grub Street lies in how many views of both literature itself and the business of literature it presents. There’s Milvain, the enterprising writer of the markets; Reardon, the “midlist” (if I may borrow a contemporary term) novelist; Yule, the man whose unfulfilled literary ambitions embitter his life; Marian, the woman of substance with a look about her as if she hails from “the valley of the shadow of books”; Amy, the beautiful, materialistic woman who ultimately likes authors because of their shot at reputation and fame; Biffen, the Realist writer whose work will never sell but who nonetheless gives his all to his masterwork; Quarmby and Fadge, the warring critics with sharp tongues; and—get ready to laugh—Whelpdale, perhaps the very first literary agent. Aside from his Dickensian name (whelp=carnivorous mammal), Whelpdale is described as “a man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books [but] makes a living by telling other people how to write!” Hm, sounds like Gissing had some beef.
George Gissing

In fact, Gissing has a beef that’s not strikingly original but one that always takes courage to represent: the sobering truth that those who pursue an ideal with honest effort aren’t always rewarded and that more likely than not, considerations of money and influence will win out over the purer of heart. New Grub Street ultimately succeeds because although its message is relatively transparent at the end, the key to it—Jasper Milvain—is ambiguous throughout the story. I couldn’t decide for much of the book whether he was “likable” or not; whether to sympathize him or, as he outright claimed anyone should, to abhor his shallow principles. Without giving too much of a plot spoiler, let me just say that the final image of him unequivocally answers the question in a way you won’t soon forget.