In New Grub Street we get a cautionary tale for the writer.
The message is simple: Dont. Dont be a writer.
In George Gissings 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 cant 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 Jaspers 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. Heres a quote
"I dont 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 books 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
Gissings doubts about the path he has taken; Alfred Yule may be Gissings 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 Gissings 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 Grylls 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."
Grylls adds these words: "In New Grub Street Gissing
But it would be simplistic and dishonest things that Gissings
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?