Friday, May 7, 2010

Writer Beware

          In New Grub Street we get a cautionary tale for the writer.
          The two main characters in George Gissing’s 1891 novel about London literary life represent opposing sensibilities. Edwin Reardon had written quality novels that went unnoticed; he’s trying, in desperation, to churn out hack work that will earn him an income. Jasper Milvain has no aspirations to produce anything of artistic merit; he intends to become financially successful by making the right contacts. He is, to use a modern term, the ultimate networker.
          Yet Gissing does not serve up simplistic Good versus Bad scenarios; Edwin and Jasper each have flaws and virtues. All Gissing's characters are multi-dimensional and true to life. The aging literary man, Alfred Yule, whose many failures have hardened him into brutishness, arouses both abhorrence and pity.
          Money plays a crucial part in this novel – it is largely about money (or the destruction and suffering caused by lack of it). It may seem antithetical to write a book about the literary life with money as a 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.”
           In New Grub Street even love is tied to money – Edwin’s marriage cannot survive poverty. Thus Jasper’s observations – his whole cynical approach to life, including the literary life – seem honest. He is referred to as “the practical man.”
          The world Gissing creates is pervaded by darkness. 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.
          “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.”
          The words are Marian's. She is sensitive and decent (though not a cloyingly sweet Victorian female), and through her 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 bleak picture? And do it with such passion?
          Research shows what is obvious: the book is autobiographical. It depicts the literary world as Gissing had experienced it. He had published eight novels when New Grub Street came out; yet in eleven years of writing he had always existed on the brink of total literary failure. How can an author be published and still fail? In London at the time, printing a book was not a costly endeavor; publishers were willing to take a chance on a novel. If it didn’t make money, it was no great loss. Gissing had never gotten a large enough readership to provide him with a decent income. At times he lived in genteel poverty, but sometimes money was a dire problem; his health was undermined by years during which he went without adequate food and warmth (he developed lung problems; the cause of his death, at age forty-six, was pneumonia). Though he believed in the highest literary ideals, Gissing came to recognize that writing was 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.
          The portrayal of Reardon is clearly based on Gissing, but he is not presented as a noble victim; his weaknesses lead to his dissolution. Gissing displays a strange mixture of pity and contempt for Reardon. All the male characters refect an aspect of their creator. Jasper, in “dreamy bliss,” seems to be mocking the high-minded (and impractical) literary path Gissing had taken. Alfred Yule may embody Gissing’s fears about what years of embitterment can do to a person.
          Gissing was not to suffer the dismal fate that he assigns to Edwin Reardon; the act of writing his novel of resentment shows that he was not, like Reardon, broken in spirit. Ironically, New Grub Street was to be the first book by Gissing that went into a second printing (though he did not profit from royalties; he had sold the publisher all rights to the book). Gissing would go on to write many more novels in the dozen years left to him, and he was increasingly recognized and compensated. But it is posthumously that he has been fully appreciated; authors as diverse as George Orwell and Virginia Woolf have written essays lauding his work. This belated success does not change the feelings expressed in New Grub Street.
          A question is whether the picture he draws has more than a purely subjective truth. Those with brighter experiences than Gissing’s will incline to a different view. Some will not only disagree but will be offended, even repelled, by the 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.”
          For others the book will be a bracing antidote to cheery platitudes. Some will see a literary situation today worse than the one Gissing portrays; after all, human nature stays the same but circumstances change. In turn of the century London there was a thriving market for fiction (even for what is termed “literary” fiction). For many, writing was a lucrative profession. The door to publication was open, and one at least had a chance at reaching an audience. Not so today, when the entertainment dollar goes elsewhere. The shrinking demand for the commodity of words must naturally cause the negatives depicted in New Grub Street to become more pronounced. The Jasper Milvains will dominate.

(Originally appeared, in a different form, in Melic Review)

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