New Grub Street does not, as you would expect, justify its five-hundred page length, which gets padded with detours and subplots about inheritances and the melodramatic deaths of several characters, but it is very finely etched when it focuses on its two fundamental incompatibles: writing and money. Gissing is so relentlessly materalistic in his focus that the writer’s life looks inconceivably horrible by the end of the book: his characters exercise their meager talents towards prostitution or invisibility.
Gissing is similarly impersonal in discussing the rationales his characters give for writing, and the effect is savage, even when Gissing pleads for compassion. The overall impact is similar to George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but that book’s Gordon Comstock is able to renounce writing for a happier career and existence, as Orwell himself did for a short period. Gissing is utterly fatalistic about people saddled with an artistic temperament.
It’s late 19th century London. Jasper Milvain writes witty crap for slick weeklies while Edwin Reardon toils in obscurity on unpopular, uncommercial novels before trying his hand unsuccessfully at hackwork. His friend Harold Biffen works on his self-proclaimed revolutionary work of social realism, Mr. Bailey, Grocer. Meanwhile, the elderly Alfred Yule writes academic literary essays that no longer appeal to the magazines, for which he recruits the uncredited help of his daughter Marian, who, it is implied, is the most talented writer of the lot, not that anything ever comes of it. All of them follow painfully predictable trajectories, enlivened by the unceasing machinery of thought, justification, and bitterness around their particular situations.
Gissing is so attuned to the peculiar and not entirely attractive self-indulgences of the decent, uncommercial writers that, fairly late in the book, he delivers a straight-up apologia for them:
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?
But try to imagine a personality wholly unfitted for the rough and tumble of the world’s labour-market. From the familiar point of view these men were worthless; view them in possible relation to a humane order of society, and they are admirable citizens. Nothing is easier than to condemn a type of character which is unequal to the coarse demands of life as it suits the average man. These two were richly endowed with the kindly and the imaginative virtues; if fate threw them amid incongruous circumstances, is their endowment of less value? You scorn their passivity; but it was their nature and their merit to be passive. Gifted with independent means, each of them would have taken quite a different aspect in your eyes. The sum of their faults was their inability to earn money; but, indeed, that inability does not call for unmingled disdain. (425)
To underscore his point, he then kills off both of them, Reardon by sickness and Biffen by pathetic suicide. He pleads compassion for these as others did for Little Nell, Tess, Sister Carrie, and the Rudkus family, which is not an unusual technique except that it is rarely deployed towards someone as seemingly gifted and spoiled as a rational, workaday writer. Gissing’s apologia is compassionate without being wholly supportive; he seems to realize he’s fighting a losing battle. And conspicuously absent from his case is any appeal to the utilitarian benefits of books and creativity, or to the transcendental nature of art. These virtues are, evidently, private. After a genuinely beautiful passage where Reardon describes a sunset in Athens, he says:
I am only maintaining that [this contemplation] is the best, and infinitely preferable to sexual emotion. It leaves, no doubt, no bitterness of any kind. Poverty can’t rob me of those memories. I have lived in an ideal world that was not deceitful, a world which seems to me, when I recall it, beyond the human sphere, bathed in diviner light. (370)
It is the paradox of the book that this, even next to Jasper’s craven instincts, is a more convincing case for Reardon than Gissing’s apologia, but only to people already inclined to be sympathetic to him. Many, even after reading both passages, will still feel more of an attraction to Jasper’s aims:
My aim is to have easy command of all the pleasures desired by a cultivated man. I want to live among beautiful things, and never to be troubled by a thought of vulgar difficulties. I want to travel and enrich my mind in foreign countries. I want to associate on equal terms with refined and interesting people. I want to be known, to be familiarly referred to, to feel when I enter a room that people regard me with some curiosity.
And how reasonable his aims seem. Reardon’s momentary bliss is the exception rather than the rule; mostly he is caught up in unceasing misery in which he writes more out of compulsion than for any pleasure. (Gissing spends a good deal of time discussing the almost physical anguish that he undergoes while attemping to write more commercially.) Following from the apologia, much of the book is an attempt to justify the fatalist view that Reardon, Biffen, and even Yule were destined to end up in their unhappy situations. The afflicted made no conscious sacrifice; they had no choice in their fates, so there is no tragedy. When he is the only one left standing, Jasper sounds a melancholy note of social Darwinist triumph, destined for moderate success and moderate fame, and the book ends, as though by default.
The most striking thing is how New Grub Street doubles back on itself, striving to become as unsentimental a tale of the arbitrarily unfortunate and fortunate as anything by Hardy (or Mr. Bailey, Grocer), but adding in melodrama and other plot machinations to keep things rolling. Gissing’s motives seem fairly uncontaminated, but his case is difficult: social realism and writers are an incongruous pairing, because, as Gissing mentions repeatedly, the average person will think the writers aren’t acting in good faith. Gissing counteracts this inclination through focusing in fine detail on finances and making occasional explicit pleas for mercy. But he has to let in some of the writers’ rationales, frivolous as they may seem, and he paints Jasper as a bad man to help elevate the unfortunates. Gissing’s strategies to maintain the balance between soaring, useless artistic success and hard social realism are at least as fascinating as the gloomy pronouncements on the London writing scene and the literary tastes of the plebes.
Ironically, New Grub Street is finally more effective than what I’ve read of his other, more Hardy-like books. While the particular Victorian miseries have transmuted and migrated, the self-deceptions and self-inflations of artists remain universals, as does the public’s lack of sympathy for those who sustain a Reardon-like existence off of the dole and arts council grants.