“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.”
I enjoyed rereading New Grub Street–although “enjoyed” might be the wrong word given how relentlessly dispiriting the novel is. It’s a well-told story and its satirical commentary on the literary world, in which artists, intellectuals, and idealists suffer while glib, market-savvy opportunists prosper, seems at time uncannily contemporary. “The evil of the time,” says one of the novel’s many ultimately unsuccessful literary men, “is the multiplication of ephemerides”:
Hence a demand for essays, descriptive articles, fragments of criticism, listicles,* out of all proportion to the supply of even tolerable work. The men who have an aptitude for turning out this kind of thing in vast quantities are enlisted by every new periodical, with the result that their productions are ultimately watered down into worthlessness.
As for literary criticism, then as now “such work is indifferently paid and in very small demand.” (Plus ça change, eh?)
There is a lot to admire about the novel. Its characters are effectively, if somewhat schematically, established; their salient traits and values are distinct and the turns their stories take as they play their parts in Gissing’s depressing story of jockeying and dreaming and ailing and failing are always consistent with the strengths and weaknesses we know them to have. The intersecting plots play out with what in a more stylish writer I might call elegance, and Reardon’s story in particular reaches heights–or is it depths?–of pathos that are very nearly tragic, though Gissing’s tonal register is too prosaic for that label to sit comfortably. The novel is also very good about the way personal feelings are inextricably entangled with people’s money (or the lack of it) and ambition (or the lack of it): its marriages (actual, imagined, sought, and abandoned) play out in nice counterpart to, and sometimes illustrations of, the novel’s literary commentary.
I’m not persuaded, however, that I would like to teach New Grub Street, at least not as a replacement for any of the novels currently in my Dickens-to-Hardy rotation. For one thing, it is in many respects dully documentary–not to the same extreme as Biffen’s über-realist Mr. Bailey, Grocer, but enough to make summary seem more suitable than interpretation. As I read it, I wondered what we would talk about in class–or, more to the point, what we could discover in class discussion, given how straightforwardly expository the novel seemed. What is at stake in the novel that the novel then helps us to understand? The Odd Women–to show I’m not just biased against Gissing–seems to me to give us a lot more to work with in this respect, and it is also faster moving and more dramatic.
This underwhelmed reaction is, of course, very likely due to some analytical near-sightedness of my own, or to New Grub Street just not being the kind of novel that I like best to look harder at, while my preference for The Odd Women may just be because I know it better and have spent more time thinking, writing, and teaching about its central themes. But overall what I felt by the end of New Grub Street was that for a novel so self-consciously about fiction, it is surprisingly, disappointingly, not particularly metafictional: I couldn’t see a way in which Gissing was offering up a novel that is itself (in structure, form, style, or theme) more than the sum of the literary parts it includes. That lack of transcendence may be the point: if it is a novel about anything, it is about literary failure, including both the kind that presents itself as success and the kind that might actually be success but doesn’t seem like it, and so if New Grub Street was a brilliant, stylish, provocative, or formally innovative novel, its whole premise might implode. I don’t really think, though, that something so artistically self-conscious and deliberate is going on: Gissing is just describing a close possible world to his own, showing it to us in all its meticulous, dreary, disheartening detail. Adam Roberts is absolutely right that New Grub Street “works superbly as a detailed evocation of a particular social and cultural milieu,” but once you’ve acknowledged that, then what? (Adam, characteristically, does much better addressing that question than I have here: read his post for more, including the interesting suggestion that in parts of New Grub Street Gissing “cathects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into a more conventionally upholstered nineteenth-century novel,” an idea that couldn’t occur to me because I haven’t read any Beckett.)
*Of course he doesn’t actually include listicles – but surely they belong.