New Grub Street by George Gissing

My overall impression to New Grub Street to George Gissing is one of surprise. First off, I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of either this book or George Gissing. Given all the books I’ve talked to people about and read about, let alone read, I just can’t believe I wasn’t at least aware that this one was out there. However, I wasn’t. Hadn’t heard a single word that I can recall.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for Jonathan Lethem.)

The next surprise is how modern this book is. It’s modern in tone as well as style. Most surprisingly, I think you could almost lift the literary situation focused on in the novel to present day. There would be relatively few changes necessary to make this convincing. Keep in mind, this book is from 1891.

To actually describe the book a bit, though, New Grub Street focuses a great deal on poverty. More specifically, it focuses on poverty in the literary world. We have a number of authors. Some are believe literature as an end to itself while trying not to starve, some believe the same about literature but don’t care as much about starving, and some acknowledge that they will never contribute anything useful to literature and instead mercenarily seek advantage and position as if literature was only a business:

‘To be sure! To be sure!’ exclaimed their brother. ‘You have no faith. But just understand the difference between a man like Reardon and a man like me. 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 skilful tradesman. 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 appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income. Whatever he has to sell he’ll get payment for it from all sorts of various quarters; none of your unpractical selling for a lump sum to a middleman who will make six distinct profits. Now, look you: if I had been in Reardon’s place, I’d have made four hundred at least out of “The Optimist”; I should have gone shrewdly to work with magazines and newspapers and foreign publishers, and–all sorts of people. Reardon can’t do that kind of thing, he’s behind his age; he sells a manuscript as if he lived in Sam Johnson’s Grub Street. But our Grub Street of to-day is quite a different place: it is supplied with telegraphic communication, it knows what literary fare is in demand in every part of the world, its inhabitants are men of business, however seedy.’ 

‘It sounds ignoble,’ said Maud. 

‘I have nothing to do with that, my dear girl. Now, as I tell you, I am slowly, but surely, learning the business. My line won’t be novels; I have failed in that direction, I’m not cut out for the work. It’s a pity, of course; there’s a great deal of money in it. But I have plenty of scope. In ten years, I repeat, I shall be making my thousand a year.’

To sum up the book, being a good writer is no guarantee that someone won’t starve. Connections and money are more important, possibly being enough on their own when even good writing is absent. Literature is a business and has to be run like one to be successful. People are reading less and their reading choices are becoming increasingly banal.

Sound familiar?

Frankly, I think the biggest value in New Grub Street, beyond being an entertaining and clear work of late 19th century English realism, is to provide a reality check for all the literary doomsayers out there. This book says a lot of the things people say now, and it said them about 122 years ago. These trends aren’t new, and I’m guessing that they aren’t proceeding as fast as some people think. The literary situation in this country may not be the most desirable, but literature probably isn’t going to die completely anytime soon.

Of course, that’s just my take.