Gissing isn’t really read very much today. His novels – or at least some of them – are still in print, but I doubt if he makes his way onto many syllabuses or reading lists. Certainly I would not be reading him now if ‘New Grub Street’ hadn’t appeared on the Guardian’s best 100 list. Does that really matter? There is a relentless Darwinism at work in determining what books are read and which are forgotten, and if Gissing is steadily dropping out of sight it is probably for a good reason.
‘New Grub Street’ tells at considerable length the story of a small group of lower middle class but educated people trying to make a living from professional writing. Some write novels, others articles for publication, reviews, and short stories. All are utterly obsessed with their financial situation.
“Poverty is the root of all social ills; its existence accounts even for ills that arise from wealth. The poor man is a man labouring in fetters. I declare there is no word in our language which sounds so hideous to me as “Poverty”” (page 33)
George Orwell, in an article about Gissing which ironically was probably written simply to keep the writer’s income flowing, claimed that we had “very few better novelists”, although he does go on to say that “His prose, indeed, is often disgusting”. Disgusting is a bit strong, but clumsy, undoubtedly. Take this sentence for example:
“Fixed in his antipathy to the young man, he would not allow himself to admit any but a base motive on Milvain’s side, if, indeed, Marian and Jasper were more to each other than slight acquaintances; and he persuaded himself that anxiety for the girl’s welfare was at least as strong a motive with him as mere prejudice against the ally of Fadge, and, it might be, the reviewer of ‘English prose’.”
But it’s not all stodge – some of the descriptive writing, of which there is admittedly little, is very well put, as in here when he describes one of his younger female characters:
“So exquisitely fresh in her twenty years that seemed to bid defiance to all the years to come”. (70)
There is a relentless focus in ‘New Grub Street’ on money – who has how much, what interest can be expected from savings, how much an article of novel might bring in, and so on, at extraordinary length. Rarely a chapter goes by when money, and its absence, is not the focus of the narrative. Even when ostensibly the story moves on to a discussion about relationships, these are determined solely in respect of the relative wealth of the participants. Creative endeavour can only be measured by the income it generates. Despite the grinding poverty that most of the characters suffer, the distinction between this group of people, who earn their living, such as it is, by writing, and the social group immediately below them who work for a living, is preserved at all cost. One character, Edwin Reardon, is actually left by his wife because he proposed to take a clerical post, rather than continuing to try to earn a living by writing novels.
New Grub Street is a depressing place to be. One writer dies of a consumptive-like illness which is not specified by is clearly derived from years of poverty; another commits suicide when the failure of his magnum opus becomes apparent, a third marries purely for money and social advancement, abandoning a young woman as soon as her inheritance falls through. It’s not just the world of writing that Gissing is condemning, but the society in general – Reardon, the one person who throws it all in and gets a proper job suffers just as badly as the rest.
A novel about writing is bound to break the narrative fourth wall from time to time. It is obvious at points that Gissing is writing from personal experience about trying to earn his living. The scenes where Reardon suffers horribly from writer’s block also have a poignancy suggesting Gissing had probably suffered similarly, as well as having felt the pain of having to write for payment by the page. But overall it is hard to feel too much sympathy for most of his cast of characters, and I feel no compulsion to seek out any of Gissing’s other novels for now. Just to end with one of my favourite quotes from an Amazon reviewer of ‘New Grub Street’. Missing the point with uncommon accuracy – “It’s not funny at all”