Sordid, Unprofitable, Unrewarding: On ‘New Grub Street’ and Cynical Literature

April 7, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 3 10 min read


In today’s publishing world, it pays to be a doomsayer. We have an inexhaustible appetite for reports of literature’s demise. Go ahead, dust off that article on how the novel is dead for the thousandth time — only make sure you add that the whole industry is dying with it. Are you a publisher, the sort of person who purports to sell books? Give interviews with leading periodicals in which you admit that publishing is “at a crossroads,” and that we have lost the necessary magic to accomplish the nearly 600-year-old trick of turning printed matter into gold. Bring on the articles by journalists that remind us how journalism as we know it is passing away! Algorithms write our articles, videos replace text as the primary medium of communication, and soon all media will consist of an endless feed of indistinguishable information, which our children will scroll through lazily while they suck a ground-up mixture of kale and insects through a straw.

There’s something flattering about all this hand-wringing. It provides us with a sense of self-importance, to imagine we live in unprecedented times. One nice part about the apocalypse is the way it soothes one’s existential crisis. People who write, publish, and criticize literature have never been a particularly self-confident bunch, and the current climate — in which more than 300,000 books are published in America every year, not counting self-published titles — can encourage feelings of irrelevancy. Why write yet another review of yet another novel, when you can proclaim the absolute end of literature? Better to be a prophet than a drudge. Even authors can take comfort in the idea of a post-literary age, where the fact that all the great novels have already been written relieves us of the responsibility of writing our own.

Alas, all it takes to dispel this flattering illusion is a quick glance at New Grub Street, a novel by the English writer George Gissing. The book concerns itself with the self-aggrandizing and ultimately desperate lives of so-called “literary men” (and women) in Victorian London. This was a world that Gissing, a financially strapped, critically respected, and solidly middle-tier (what we would nowadays call “midlist”) author, knew well, and he renders it in harsh, bitterly funny terms. The resulting portrait of squabbling critics, disappointed writers, and the final triumph of literary middlemen is so obviously comparable to our own time that it ought to serve as required reading for anyone planning yet another thinkpiece on contemporary publishing.

Gissing’s greatest achievement in New Grub Street is his clear-eyed assessment of the complete uselessness of most literary production. In a crucial early scene, the young scholar Marian Yule sits in the Reading Room of the British Museum, struggling through some research, and has a vision of her own irrelevancy:

[Marian] kept asking herself what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead. When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market…She herself would throw away her pen for joy but for the need of earning money. And all these people about her, what aim had they save to make new books out of those already existing, that yet newer books might in turn be made out of them? This huge library, growing into unwieldiness, threatening to become a trackless desert of print — how intolerably it weighed upon the spirit.

Gissing wrote this passage in 1891, but it could just as well have been written today. There was already enough literature for a human being to read in his or her lifetime during the Victorian Era; the fact that since then the overall number of books has grown by many orders of magnitude hasn’t changed the equation, any more than pouring 60 cups into a tablespoon is any different than pouring 60 gallons. The fear of one’s own irrelevancy in the face of so much text is ageless.

New Grub Street ought to be required reading for anyone interested in how cultural history repeats itself. This is partly a result of how clearly it reflects so many contemporary issues — a confusing publishing marketplace, a general lack of faith in the uses of literature — but also a result of the tone in which it treats them. As a frustrated, middle-tier writer with scores to settle, Gissing had no illusions about being exceptional. Like Marian Yule, he was half convinced of his own irrelevancy, and he wrote about his own era cynically and clinically, in a style that spared no one, especially himself.

Most of the characters in New Grub Street are not novelists. Instead, the book focuses on the class of “literary men” who spring up as a kind of support system to literature: critics, scholars, and editors. Ambitious, prideful, obsessed with status and social class, these pygmy giants spend as much time making a name attacking each other in the editorial pages of literary periodicals as they do writing about books: a situation with which the contemporary reader is no doubt familiar.

The king of all these critics is Jasper Milvain, the ambitious young man who serves as the novel’s ostensible villain. I say “ostensible” because, to a modern reader, Jasper is delightful, for much the same reason as the novel as a whole is delightful: his ability to cut through the bullshit inherent in his milieu and expose the cynicism underneath. Orphaned and poor, Jasper is plain about his ambitions: he plans on amassing enough cultural power to be offered the editorship of a literary journal, at which point he will have the economic security necessary to allow him to write and publish whatever he likes. Until then, however, he’ll write whatever he needs to get ahead: a decision that makes the more idealistic members of his profession uneasy:

‘You, now,’ pursued John. ‘What do you write about?’

‘Nothing in particular,’ [replied Jasper.] ‘I make a saleable page or two out of whatever strikes my fancy.’

‘Exactly! You don’t even pretend that you’ve got anything to say. You live by inducing people to give themselves mental indigestion — and bodily, too, for that matter.’

‘Do you know, Mr. Yule, that you have suggested a capital idea to me? If I were to take up your views, I think it isn’t at all unlikely that I might make a good thing of writing against writing. It should be my literary specialty to rail against literature. The reading public should pay me for telling them that they oughtn’t to read. I must think it over.’

Reading this passage, I was reminded of a certain kind of current thinkpiece that suggests writers stop writing, since there are already too many books in the world.

At heart, Jasper is a hustler. For him, the literary world isn’t a matter of talent, but of connections, just like any other industry. “To have money,” he proclaims “is becoming of more and more importance for a literary career…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.”

Having recognized the reality of the literary market, Jasper serves it; he writes flattering reviews of influential people, produces insults on commission, and composes an endless stream of what he calls “rubbish of fine quality,” in which he takes a certain amount of pride.

“Many a fellow could write more in quantity,” he claims, “but they couldn’t command my market.”

Jasper is smart, shrewd, and fully aware of his own limitations; Victorian convention demands that Gissing make him the novel’s villain, but it’s clear that he has a great deal of affection for him. Now that a century has gone by, he seems like a hero for our time, if not theirs; the swashbuckling innovator with only the slightest scruples. By investing his villain with such energy, Gissing side-steps the moralistic hand-wringing that often accompanies cultural criticism. A lesser writer might have taken a more moral tack: the literary world is a farce, and isn’t it a shame. Gissing does away with the second phrase entirely.

But it isn’t simply Jasper’s gleeful cynicism that makes New Grub Street so perfect for today’s reader. The novel is full of small episodes that line up so perfectly with the current literary world that one wonders whether anything has fundamentally changed since the late 19th century — or if the age of Internet traffic is simply a reversion to the era of yellow journalism.

One of the novel’s funniest figures is a character named Whelpdale: a failed writer who is desperately seeking other modes of employment. At the beginning of the novel, he’s hit upon his first successful scheme, which even Jasper considers outrageous:

You don’t know what he’s doing? [Jasper asked.] The fellow has set up as a ‘literary advisor.’ He has an advertisement in The Study every week. ‘To Young Authors and Literary Aspirants’ — something of the kind. ‘Advice given on choice of subjects, MSS. Red, corrected, and recommended to publishers. Moderate terms.’ A fact! And what’s more, he made six guineas in the first fortnight; so he says, at all events. Now that’s one of the finest jokes I’ve ever heard. A man who can’t get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write.

Any resemblance to current writers stumping for pay, whether living or dead, is of course purely coincidental.

But Whelpdale’s finest and most successful achievement comes at the end of the book: his development of a revolutionary magazine. Having gotten his hands on a paper called Chat, Whelpdale decides to rename it Chit-Chat, to make every article “no more than two inches in length” and to make it appeal to “the quarter-educated.”

‘No, I am perfectly serious,’ [Whelpdale continued.] ‘Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention…their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.’

Jasper had begun to listen seriously.

‘There’s something in this, Whelpdale,’ he remarked.

Indeed, the publication of Chit-Chat is a wild success, and Whelpdale (something of a failure throughout most of the book) eclipses even Jasper’s ambitions — to the point where he ends up marrying Jasper’s sister, much to the critic’s chagrin. In the race to the bottom, Whelpdale is the undisputed winner: the BuzzFeed of his day.

(Or is BuzzFeed just a pale imitation of Chit-Chat? Hard to say.)

But Gissing’s jaundiced eye towards “literary advisors” and publishing ventures is equalled by his attitude towards the business of fiction writing. The two novelists at the center of New Grub Street are hopeless idealists, and their ideas themselves are so absurd that at first you don’t recognize their relationship to certain contemporary aesthetic trends.

Take Harold Biffen, a novelist so poor he can’t afford an undercoat, but who is convinced he’s hit upon a revolutionary strand of aesthetic purity: total realism. Unlike other novelists, who are afraid to confront the truth of life straight on, Biffen plans to illustrate it in all its banality:

‘For my part, [Biffen continued,] I am going to reproduce [common life] verbatim, without one single impertinent suggestion of any point of view save that of honest reporting. The result will be something unutterably tedious. Precisely. That is the stamp of the ignobly decent life. If it were anything but tedious it would be untrue. I speak, of course, of its effect upon the ordinary reader.”

The resulting book, Mr. Bailey, Grocer, is just as tedious as Biffen suggests; near the end of the novel, Biffen actually succeeds in publishing it, but despite a favorable review from Jasper (an example of the villain’s kind heart) it sinks like a stone.

Gissing is engaging in a bit of self-parody here, being a social realist writer himself — but despite its evident ridiculousness, Biffen’s concept of total realism should be familiar to contemporary readers. What separate’s Biffen’s theory from someone like David Shields and his inexhaustible desire for the “authentic” presentation of reality, as opposed to the too-neat, “artificial” pleasures of fiction — or from the work of Karl Ove Knausgard, which so many reviewers have acclaimed for being boring in the most interesting way?

These satires seem fresh for several reasons. The first is that very little has actually changed in literary culture since the 19th century. The poles between which our discussions always vacillate are the same; on the one hand a flexible, inventive shysterism, born of necessity: Chit Chat, BuzzFeed, and the Ten Books You Must Read If You Ever Want to Get Laid Again; on the other hand, the sort of artistic puritanism that convinces artists that their purpose is greater than simply pleasing the public, of calculating the effect of their books “upon the ordinary reader:” the great power plays of aesthetic judgment.

But the second, and perhaps more important reason, is that Gissing’s honesty refuses to valorize anyone. He is cruel to both the critics and the deluded authors they criticize — and he saves his harshest criticism for himself.

New Grub Street’s ostensible hero is a novelist named Edward Reardon. Reardon is in some sense Gissing’s self-portrait; like his hero, Gissing was critically respected, but had failed to earn a living from his work, and wrote New Grub Street in an effort to pay his creditors. He considered the novel a piece of hack work, and Reardon represents the worst version of his own failure: one of the thousands of semi-talented writers who discovered that their abilities didn’t guarantee them a readership, much less a living. Having produced a few novels that were well-received but which sold poorly, he finds himself short on funds and afflicted with writer’s block, struggling to support a wife and child.

The portrait Gissing paints of Reardon is unflinching. He is occasionally charming but generally short-tempered, prone to sickness and lacking in courage; his unwillingness (or inability) to play the game at which Jasper Milvain succeeds so spectacularly dooms his family to poverty and destroys his marriage. If he is in fact a self-portrait, the resulting picture shows the extent of the self-doubt and contempt Gissing held towards himself at the time of the novel’s publication.

It was this state of ambivalence, however, that allowed Gissing to put paragraphs like the following in Reardon’s mouth — paragraphs that expose the novelist’s work as quixotic, if not idiotic:

What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates with a few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognised the merit they at last applaud. That’s the lot of a great genius. As for a mediocrity like me – what ludicrous absurdity to fret myself in the hope that half a dozen folks will say that I am ‘above the average!’…I admit that everything is relative. There is no such thing as goodness or badness, in the absolute sense, of course. Perhaps I am absurdly inconsistent when — though knowing my work can’t be first-rate — I strive to make it as good as possible. I don’t say this in irony…I really mean it.

This would be touching, perhaps — a testament to small heroism — if it weren’t used an excuse for why Reardon’s family needs to give up their apartment and move to the worst part of London, simply because of his strivings.

All this makes New Grub Street a particularly potent corrective to the current cottage industry centering on “the writing life” — in which literary production is seen as glamorous, in which photos of writers’ desks appear on Pinterest and readers obsess over the perfect pen with which to write their buried masterpiece. The lesson of Gissing is that most novelists are bitter failures — always were, and always will be. If there’s any heroism in the writers he represents, it’s the bare fact of their persistence in the face of certain defeat. Mr. Bailey, Grocer might be a parody, but for its author, it’s a triumph. What more could an aesthetic puritan ask for?

Though it has its fair share of funny moments, New Grub Street can be a bleak read. It was written by a man who had seen his fair share of dreams dashed; practically anybody with any shred of decency meets a bad end, and its picture of society is as corrosive as it is perceptive. But for a contemporary reader, this bitterness can be clarifying. In an era in which “the writing life” is more important than the writing — Whelpdale’s job as “literary advisor,” grown to monstrous proportions — there’s something bracing about the book’s presentation of just how sordid, unprofitable, and unrewarding literature can be. It’s an unsympathetic (but also unpitying) look at a literary era. I eagerly await the writer who produces a similar look at our own.

s a fiction writer who lives in West Philadelphia. Long-form thoughts available here. Short-form rants available on Twitter.


  1. Sam, I think you are great; I’ll read anything you write (you’re the real thing).
    I am reading New Grub Street now (and Swinburne, by the by).

  2. Great commentary. To tell the truth, Reardon’s whining self pity, his appeals for pity from his long suffering wife, Amy, and his complete indifference to his infant son made him loathsome. What is wrong with earning
    an honest living teaching, especially with Reardon’s command of Greek and Latin?Being a governess is also regarded as a fate worse than death by Milvain’s sisters. So they write rubbish and suffer.Marian finally gets it, relinquishes her inky fingers, and goes off to work in a rural library. Not a novel I’d read twice!

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