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Phillip Routh


Writer Beware

In New Grub Street we get a cautionary tale for the writer.

The message is simple: Don’t. Don’t be a writer.

In George Gissing’s 1891 novel about London literary life, his two main characters are Edwin Reardon, a talented but blocked writer who is trying to churn out hack work that will earn him an income; and Jasper Milvain, a cynical up-and-comer who will do what is necessary to succeed — in other words, the ultimate networker.

Though these men represent opposing sensibilities, Gissing does not serve up simplistic Good versus Bad scenarios. Not only Edwin and Jasper, but all characters in this book are replete with faults and virtues. The aging literary man, Alfred Yule, whose lack of success has hardened him into brutishness, is multi-dimensional and true to life; because he is human, he can arouse both abhorrence and pity.

Money plays a crucial part — in a sense, this novel is about money (or the destruction and suffering caused by lack of it). It may seem antithetical to write a book about the literary life and have money as the main element; the following quote from Jasper explains one connection:

"To have money is becoming of more and more importance in a literary career; principally because to have money is to have friends. Year by year, such influence grows of more account. A lucky man will still occasionally succeed by dint of his own honest perseverance, but the chances are dead against anyone who can’t make private interest with influential people; his work is simply overwhelmed by that of the men who have better opportunities."

Since the writers in this novel write as a profession, failure means destitution. Starving in a garret is not glamorized in New Grub Street. Even love is tied to money — it cannot survive poverty. Thus Jasper’s observations — his whole approach to life, including the literary life — seem honest. He is referred to as "the practical man." Here he appraises his future:

"Never in my life will I do anything of solid literary value; I shall always despise the people I write for. But my path will be that of success."

In this world darkness prevails. The British Museum Reading-room, where Marian Yule does her research, is described as the "valley of the shadow of books." Some characters love literature, and for some there is pleasure in the act of creation. But those elements are overcome by the negative aspects. Here’s a quote from Marian:

"I don’t know how it is in other professions, but I hope there is less envy, hatred and malice than in this of ours. The name of literature is often made hateful to me by the things I read and hear."

Marian is eminently decent (but not a cloyingly sweet Victorian female), and through her perceptions Gissing expresses much. At one point she is driven to think of literature as "a morbid excrescence upon human life."

Why did Gissing present such a picture? And do it with such angry passion?

Research shows what is obvious: The book is autobiographical. Gissing had been writing for twelve years when New Grub Street came out; he had existed all the while on the brink of total literary failure. Money was often a dire problem; his health was undermined by living for many years without adequate food and warmth (he developed lung problems; the cause of his death, at age forty-six, was double pneumonia). Though he believed in the highest literary ideals, he saw writing as a commodity and the successful writer a maneuverer of a system. As Bernard Bergonzi points out in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, New Grub Street is not a novel of protest; it is a novel of resentment. The book’s final image has the manipulative Jasper lying back in "dreamy bliss." Edwin Reardon is dead and forgotten.

Edwin is portrayed as weak, not equipped to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. His early work was lost in a flood of inferior novels because he had not made the influential friends that Jasper recognized as so important. Edwin has become emotionally incapable of good writing, but he is also incapable of producing crassly commercial novels. His failure, because it is both creative and monetary, destroys his spirit. It is in this portrayal that the book takes on a strident tone. The fault derives from the fact that this character is Gissing himself. In trying to explore the painful truth of his own life, he loses the steadying influence of detachment. Yet what he does retain is his honesty — Edwin is a man of many flaws (one of which is self-pity — a weakness, like loneliness or fear, common to all humans). Even his talent is limited — his good work was of value and was done with dedication, but it was not work of genius.

The depth and complexity of all the male characters could derive from their being an aspect of Gissing. Jasper, in "dreamy bliss," may represent Gissing’s doubts about the path he has taken; Alfred Yule may be Gissing’s fears about what years of embitterment can do.

Although Gissing undoubtedly wrote from the heart, a major question is whether the picture he draws has more than a purely subjective truth. We are to a large extent the products of our experiences; those with brighter ones than Gissing’s may incline to a different view. Some will not only disagree but will be offended, even repelled by this book. A London reviewer of New Grub Street scornfully dismissed those writers who think of themselves as neglected and underestimated; that viewpoint, the critic wrote, is "the besetting sorrow or besetting sin of artists. From this embittering error may we all be delivered."

Others will not only find truths but will see a literary situation today not unlike the one Gissing portrays; after all, human nature stays the same. For these readers the book will be a bracing antidote to the hypocrisy of cheery platitudes. Whatever your perspective, one fact is clear. In turn of the century London there was a thriving market for fiction (even for what is termed "literary" fiction). One could be published and paid. Today the entertainment dollar goes elsewhere. If New Grub Street does present an authentic picture, the situation can only be worse now, due to the shrinking of demand for the commodity of words. The result will be to emphasize the negatives Gissing depicted. The Jaspers will dominate.

In David Gryll’s 1986 book, The Paradox of Gissing, he writes that "Schopenhauer once said that someone should write a ‘tragic history of literature,’ showing how the truly enlightened authors passed their lives in poverty and misery ‘while fame, honour and wealth went to the unworthy.’"

Gryll’s adds these words: "In New Grub Street Gissing wrote it."

But it would be simplistic and dishonest — things that Gissing’s novel was not — to nod self-righteously without examining what Schopenhauer says. He uses the words "truly enlightened." What does a "truly enlightened" author write — what are its hallmarks? What is "unworthy"? What are modern-day examples of both? Does it matter to society that people read and reward the one and not the other? And why do they do it?