Monday, July 20, 2015

New Grub Street by George Gissing

Review by The Quidnunc

"New Grub Street" was published in 1981 & instantaneously filled literary London with buzz. It bares the name of a London Street (no longer existing) that became synonymous with hack literature (the term applies to paid writer's and their works). The main characters are two contrasting figures: Edwin Reardon ( talented, yet with low commercial prospects) & Jasper Milvan ( a journalist with semi-scrupulous attitude towards his writing).
On the whole the novel is a discussion of the threats and opportunities the new mass culture offers. Following the life of Reardon, who after achieving success gives up his scholar position and spends his earnings on an European trip, then marries the socially ambitious A. Yule. Under the pressure to produce & his unwillingness to compromise his artistic views, Edwin struggles to meet the demand  of the market. eventually this leads to his divorce and the collapse of his health.
Whilst Reardon and his friend Biffen represent the past, Reardon’s acquaintance and fellow writer, Jasper Milvain, is portrayed as a man of his times.  He grasps every commercial opportunity and makes the most of his limited talents:
"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 tradesman.  He thinks first and foremost of the markets. "
This is a literary world centred on London.  Reardon tries to argue that this should not be so in an impassioned conversation with Biffen:
"It's a huge misfortune, this will-o'-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be live worthily."
But Jasper Milvain’s success suggests otherwise.  He is able to exploit the opportunities the London literary market presents; a market driven by reviews, publicity and alliances. 

As far as tragic novels go, Gissing doesn't have the narrative power of a Joseph Conrad, or even a Thomas Hardy at his best; nor does he have the singular gift of psychological subtlety of a Henry James; or the ambition of Mary Ann Evans aka (bka?) George Eliot; not even close. These writers can be downright operatic in their works. Gissing's style is a wonderful and curious hybrid of knife fight and Victorian drawing room comedy. No, there is no violence to speak of; not in the physical sense. The violence comes from the "benign neglect" of a culture that doesn't give a damn about serious art or artists, but will peddle the most mundane works for the "quarter educated" masses for a cheap quick dollar, or rather pound, since the scene of the crime is London in the 1890's. Gissing's hand is savage, and spot on, not just about his age, but of apparently about our own. Think our age invented empty fame, or hype men, or "hustlers?" Not so. A great read, I have to put it on my "cynic's syllabus" of works that eviscerate a medium: on lit, it joins (or rather pre-dates) Wallace
Grub Street remanmed to Milton Street in 1830
Thurman's Infants of the Spring, on Broadway the film All About Eve, on film the film Sunset Boulevard, on Hollywood in general The Player, on television the film Network. I read about the book years ago, in a piece in the New York Times on books that aspiring writers should never read, (Gissing would appreciate the clever lure; one could almost see one of the hacks he writes of using the same device to help sell copy; Gissing would also entirely understand our click conscious culture, where fortunes are made and lost on the amount of eyeball traffic a site gets.)Read it. Think about it. Tell somebody about it after you're done.