Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: New Grub Street

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, March 2, 2006

“Little by little--or perhaps rather quicker than that--I shall extend my scope. For instance, I should like to do two or three leaders a week for one of the big dailies. I can’t attain unto that just yet.”
“Not political leaders?”
“By no means. That’s not my line. The kind of thing in which one makes a column out of what would fill six lines of respectable prose. You call a cigar a ‘convoluted weed,’ and so on, you know; that passes for facetiousness. I’ve never really tried my hand at that style yet; I shouldn’t wonder if I managed it brilliantly. Some day I’ll write a few exercises; just take two lines of some good prose writer, and expand them into twenty, in half-a-dozen different ways. Excellent mental gymnastics!”

New Grub Street is a fascinating novel about the early days of modern literary publishing. Part satire, part drama, it could easily be transported, issues intact, from its 19th century to our 21st century.

RecommendationRead now
AuthorGeorge Gissing
Year1891
Length576 pages
Book Rating8
Grub Street

Well before 1891 when Gissing wrote his book, Grub Street was a symbol of low class.

Such a strange little story. I don’t remember where I ran across this book. I think it was mentioned on some writers blog or chat group, and the description intrigued me. I went to Project Gutenberg to see if they had the text, and they did. Whereupon it sat on my computer’s desktop for several months, threatening to start a digital version of my “to read” bookshelf. At least the digital version doesn’t run the risk of toppling over onto my head while I’m watching “Saved!” on DVD.

Grub Street is the publishing world of Victorian London. New Grub Street is the evolution of literature from an art into an industry. New Grub Street starts in the unwieldy, stilted fashion of Victorian popular fiction, but it quickly develops a near-modern narrative flow. There are two main characters. Jasper Milvain is a sort of writing anti-hero. He has morals but he makes sure that they don’t get in the way of his financial success. And he’s very open about it. He is a very engaging character. His friend Edwin Reardon, on the other hand, is the dedicated artist set upon by his own poor choices.

I’ve seen people claim that Milvain is the villain of the piece, but he’s an engaging villain, one we understand. Milvain discussing his own villainy reminds me of the scenes in Shattered Glass where Glass makes the rounds of DC parties working on building a market for his work.

‘You think I talk of nothing but money?’ Jasper said suddenly, looking down into her face.

‘I know too well what it means to be without money.’

‘Yes, but—you do just a little despise me?’

‘Indeed, I don’t, Mr Milvain.’

‘If that is sincere, I’m very glad. I take it in a friendly sense. I am rather despicable, you know; it’s part of my business to be so. But a friend needn’t regard that. There is the man apart from his necessities.’

Milvain stands for practicality and the business-oriented approach to writing. One must be practical about one’s literary pretensions or they will not support a literary life. Milvain very practically studies the business of writing. He attempts to learn what reading public will pay for.

But where Jasper Milvain is rising, Edwin Reardon has fallen on hard times. He married as soon as he was successful, and when success didn’t last he began to quarrel with his wife. He begins to hate writing, and the more he hates writing the harder it is to write anything good. He begins to yearn for an honest job: set hours and a regular, if small, paycheck, as he had when he was starting out. But now he has a wife; that is not an option for him.

I wish I could have done for ever with the hateful profession that so poisons men’s minds.

One of the things Gissing is writing about is the industrialization of literature. Literature is no longer an art. Even Reardon’s friend Harold Biffen, who if anyone can be called a hero here it is him, wishes to move away from literature as an art. But this is because he sees art as an industry, a formula. Art is too tiresome; we must have a rest from it!

‘I shall never,’ said Biffen, ‘write anything like a dramatic scene. Such things do happen in life, but so very rarely that they are nothing to my purpose. Even when they happen, by-the-bye, it is in a shape that would be useless to the ordinary novelist; he would have to cut away this circumstance, and add that. Why? I should like to know. Such conventionalism results from stage necessities. Fiction hasn’t yet outgrown the influence of the stage on which it originated. Whatever a man writes for effect is wrong and bad.’

‘Only in your view. There may surely exist such a thing as the art of fiction.’

‘It is worked out. We must have a rest from it.’

Gissing saw in literary England the same problems we see today. Fame is rewarded before quality. Practical Milvain describes it humorously, but few writers today would argue the point:

You have to obtain reputation before you can get a fair hearing for that which would justify your repute. It’s the old story of the French publisher who said to Dumas: “Make a name, and I’ll publish anything you write.” “But how the diable,” cries the author, “am I to make a name if I can’t get published?” If a man can’t hit upon any other way of attracting attention, let him dance on his head in the middle of the street; after that he may hope to get consideration for his volume of poems. I am speaking of men who wish to win reputation before they are toothless. Of course if your work is strong, and you can afford to wait, the probability is that half a dozen people will at last begin to shout that you have been monstrously neglected, as you have. But that happens when you are hoary and sapless, and when nothing under the sun delights you.

While Milvain is the satiric core of New Grub Street, Edwin Reardon and his friend Harold Biffen model different sorts of dedicated artists. I’m not quite sure how serious the author was when he wrote:

The chances are that you have neither understanding nor sympathy for men such as Edwin Reardon and Harold Biffen. They merely provoke you. They seem to you inert, flabby, weakly envious, foolishly obstinate, impiously mutinous, and many other things. You are made angrily contemptuous by their failure to get on; why don’t they bestir themselves, push and bustle, welcome kicks so long as halfpence follow, make place in the world’s eye—in short, take a leaf from the book of Mr Jasper Milvain?

This may be the only time he reverts to the Victorian style of speaking directly to the reader. It is interesting that this chapter reverts to the writing style we are more familiar with from the era, because in fact, this is a good description of our feeling for Reardon. Reardon is a whining child most of the time. But not Biffen: he understands the choices he is making. Unlike Reardon, he is not passive. He knows what he wants to write, and despite its lack of likely commercial value he goes out and he finds a subject and he writes. He takes his part in this story on his own terms.

Biffen is in this sense very much like Jasper Milvain. He identifies his goals and he does what he needs to do to achieve them.

Where Reardon whines about writer’s block, Biffen sets to and writes. The worst part about Reardon’s complaints is that every scene in which Reardon complains calls to mind some great ideas for short stories and novels.

This is a light satire. Throughout New Grub Street, Gissing appears to be comparing a literary career to the relationship between a man and a woman. Both were becoming too practical to be interesting. With Jasper Milvain he takes this practicality to extremes, but not so much to extremes as to make it unrealistic. But then, satire often has the habit of not being so unlikely as the author expects it to be.

One of the strangest parts of reading this book, even disconcerting given the fairly modern nature of the rest of the book, is that it not only takes place before computers, it not only takes place before photocopiers, it takes place before typewriters. At no point in the story does any author send a novel manuscript through the mail to a publisher. They carry the manuscript personally. Partially this is because they needed money quickly, but it is, I suspect, simply too dangerous to do otherwise.

It’s been a long time since I’ve added a new text to the FireBlade Coffeehouse, but New Grub Street impressed me a lot, and was fairly easy to convert into HTML. As a bonus, I’m using the same method I use to publish my Internet tutorials, so it is also available as PDF and even as RTF if you want to edit it yourself. (If you’re subscribing to this as a podcast, you should have the PDF on your podcast reader.)

I’ve linked to Amazon’s version if you want to purchase it, but I read the whole thing on my computer screen. I was impressed with how easy it was to read a book in Preview on Mac OS X. Preview even automatically remembers the page I last read when I last closed the PDF file. It’s a great way to read a book about the industrial degradation of literature!

New Grub Street

George Gissing

Recommendation: Read now

If you enjoyed New Grub Street…

If you enjoy Victorian literature, you might also be interested in The Works of Oscar Wilde and The Funds in Victorian Literature.