I’m still catching up with book reviews, so here is another of my Tuesday Book Blog specials. This week I’m combining a book review with a quick look at Victorian England as we discuss New Grub Street. It’s a wonderful insight into the world of writers and publishing at the end of the 19th century, with a surprising amount to say about that world today.
New Grub Street by George Gissing
In last week’s review of Ed Reardon’s Week, I mentioned New Grub Street. This week, having reviewed the light-hearted modern take on the subject, I’m going back to the 1891 original.
New Grub Street was written by George Gissing, a jobbing writer of his day, little appreciated for most of his life and largely forgotten now. The story tells the life of Edmund Reardon, a writer who, after one reasonably successful novel, is on the road to obscurity. The parallels between author and protagonist are so marked that the story often reads less like a novel than a memoir.
New Grub Street is a flawed book and one which, interestingly, makes it flaws part of its story. In order to make money from writing, Gissing had to produce ‘three volume novels’, the preferred choice of the publishers of his day. Yet many books really can’t justify three volumes. Gissing has his characters rage against the necessity of stretching work out to that extra volume: “A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists.” The second volume, he points out, is usually weak “simply because a story which would have made a tolerable book… refuses to fill three books.”
New Grub Street is a clear example of exactly what Gissing complains of. The second volume demonstrates exactly those faults which Reardon identifies in his own work. It consists “almost entirely of laborious padding”. In fairness, Gissing is being unduly critical: there is good stuff in the second volume, but you have to wade through an awful lot of superfluous dialogue to find it. Dialogue, as Gissing points out means “the space is filled so much more quickly, and at a pinch one can make people talk about the paltriest incidents of life.” It’s a shame because, particularly nowadays, people are unwilling to work their way through 550 pages of Penguin paperback to extract the 300 or so pages of excellence hidden therein.
Gissing has a sharp eye and if he makes Reardon sometimes rather cruel and cynical, that reflects Reardon’s increasing desperation as he moves further and further into poverty. Gissing was almost obsessed with poverty and its social implications, largely because he spent so much of his life poor himself. Gissing’s author characters starve in garrets not figuratively but literally. Even so, many of his observations on life read well in today’s world. One of his minor characters administers a charitable trust – “a charity whose moderate funds were largely devoted to the support of gentlemen engaged in administering it.” Another makes his living by private tutoring in a world where exam results are increasingly viewed as a path to what we would now call ‘upward social mobility’. “The teaching by which he partly lived was a kind quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world. In these days of examinations, numbers of men in a poor position – clerks chiefly – can see the hope that by ‘passing’ this, that, or the other formal test they may open for themselves new careers.”
Teaching “quite unknown to the respectable tutorial world” is now available online
Most of Gissing’s observations, though, are confined to the effects of poverty (Reardon lives close to a workhouse and is terrified he will die in there) and to the iniquities of the publishing world. It is his comments about publishing that might be expected most to touch a nerve with today’s writers, for they suggest that many of the issues that we see as being unique to the 21st-century have afflicted publishing since the 19th.
Reardon is writing in a world where the market is saturated with cheap books.
“The quantity [of literary work] turned out is so great that there’s no hope for the special attention of the public unless one can afford to advertise hugely.”
It’s a complaint I hear all the time from authors today and, like today, it leads publishers into arrangements for profit splitting which were relatively uncommon later in the 20th century but which, with the glut of e- books, have come back with a vengeance.
“[A publisher] offered to bring it out on the terms of half profits to the author. The book appeared, and was well spoken of in one or two papers; but profits there were none to divide.”
The secret, Gissing says, is to be well-connected in society so that your book is talked about by people who matter.
“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.”
Nowadays, of course, we don’t need to invite influential people (or ‘influencers’ in 2018) into our homes. That’s what social media are for. Here’s Rachel Thompson (book marketing guru) on Twitter [https://bookmachine.org/2017/12/10/twitter-guide-will-make-see-youre-wrong-make-right-authors]:
“Twitter is a wonderful way to connect with readers, book bloggers, and book reviewers if you are connecting with them strategically. Many writers are completely flummoxed how to do that … I love Twitter because it’s the best way I know to connect with readers quickly and without having to write novels (hello, Facebook) to connect. My goal here is to help you change your paradigm from selling to connecting.”
So much of what Gissing says is relevant to publishing today, it’s almost uncanny, but the most uncanny of all is his understanding of the appeal of modern media like Twitter. Here one of Reardon’s friends comes up with the idea for a new magazine – one which eventually makes his fortune:
“I would have the paper address itself to … young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams.… What they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information – bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches.”
The idea for a typical modern media offering is worked out in immense detail – right down to the click-bait headlines. It’s a terrifying foresight into modern publishing.
Gissing also has a way with words. I particularly liked his description of Reardon trying and failing to extract the ideas from his brain and put them down onto paper – surely an experience all writers have had.
“Twice or thrice he rose from his chair, paced the room with a determined brow, and sat down again with a vigorous clutch of the pen; still he failed to its excogitate a single sentence that would serve his purpose.”
‘Excogitate’ is a word I would love to see in common currency.
There is a lot wrong with Gissing’s book. His love life was a miserable failure (he quite probably died from the effects of tertiary syphilis) and misogyny is a recurring theme. It’s too long, possibly too bitter and remorselessly cynical, but it remains a fascinating insight into writing and writers, just as true now as when it was written. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Gissing identified the problem with getting your books seen at the end of the 19th century and that problem remains today. I write this blog because I enjoy it, but I’m also hoping that if you enjoy reading what you see here for free, you might consider buying some of my books. Have a look on the books page of this website.
Nowadays we don’t have many literary salons and I’m not about to invite you all over for afternoon tea and a discussion of the latest novels. But we do have a virtual equivalent and, just as having a circle of literary friends was essential for a successful writer in New Grub Street, so a virtual circle of friends is essential today. I tweet as TomCW99 and I have a Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/AuthorTomWilliams. I’d really appreciate it if you could ‘follow’ and ‘like’ these. And, almost invisible at the bottom of the page, there’s a sign-up box for a newsletter that I keep promising to start. Don’t worry about being overwhelmed with spam – with the blogs and the tweets and the Facebook posts, I wouldn’t have the energy even if I wanted to spam you.
Thanks for reading. Do feel free to comment, and I hope I’ll see you here again.