Jasper Milvain, great Darwinian survivor in the evolving literary market, has two sisters, Dora and Maud (whom he convinces to start writing children’s stories), to whom he constantly spouts out his cynical and frank views on what it takes to get ahead as a writer in the 1880s: ingenuity without integrity. In the country he meets the Yules: John Yule (a somewhat rich businessman); Alred Yule (a struggling writer); Marian Yule (Alfred’s daughter and assistant, and later Jasper’s almost-wife). Eventually, the patriarch of this family will leave an inheritance to his family. Meanwhile, Edwin Reardon, married to Amy Yule (sister to John Yule), is struggling to keep up his repute as a promising author, but is failing to do because he is impractical, unable write down to the commercial demands of the marketplace. His friend, Harold Biffen, who calls his style “ignoble realism” (similar to Zola’s naturalism), is also a commercial failure. Reardon and Amy sink into poverty and eventually separate. Jasper keeps climbing the rungs, and becomes engaged to Marian after she inherits some money. Her father disapproves of the match because of Jasper’s relation to Fadge, an editor of a journal that consistently excoriates Alfred’s works. Amy also inherits money, but her and Reardon don’t get back together until Reardon is on his deathbed. Biffen almost loses his manuscript in a fire, but saves it in a dramatic scene reminiscent of the Gaskell scene in North and South. Jasper breaks off his engagement with Marian after her inheritance fails to come through. His sisters marry folks in the marketplace, and he marries Amy Yule, and soon after becomes editor of The Current, and thus achieving his dream. Biffen commits suicide after losing hope in both his literary future and his romantic future with Amy.
An important novel because of its depiction of the professional author’s position in a social world increasingly controlled by the forces of market capitalism. Indeed, one can think of this as a response to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: author’s may be the guardians of sweetness in light, but this guardianship is premised on a certain amount of material wealth–and more broadly on a system that has inherent class, race and gender disparities. Carlyle had already foreseen this problem in 1840 when in Hero as Man of Letters he parsed out the double-nature of professional authorship.
The struggling idealists in the novel (Reardon and Biffen) have a complicated relationship to the Arnoldian ideal. Yes, they sight-translate from Homer, but they also aspire to be realistic in a way that is anything but a return to a golden age of Hellenic representation. Biffen calls it “an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent” (144). This is frequently contrasted to both Dickens and Zola: this first turns low class people into absurd tragic-comedic heros, the latter into tragic heroes. This is an emergence of a realism that will be peculiarly modern–and it is reflected by the form of the novel that contains it. Gissing constantly draws attention to the forces of production that allow or disallow the author “to produce,” as Benjamin would later say. This connects New Grub Street with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and with Jacob’s Room.
In borader ideological terms, the book can be read as intervention into the debate over culture’s relationship to society–a late intervention into the utilitarian debate that spans the century. Crucially, this novel (and the novels of Reardon and Biffen) are not mechanical mimetic organs, but rather aesthetic ideals that are worked for and persistently defended. Can relate this to Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel.
The Museum Reading, “the valley of the shadow of books,” is a crucial image that connects this book to both Jacob’s Room and A Room of One’s Own. It represents a literature that is dead–fit for copying and recopying….
Art must be practices as a trade, at all events in our time. This is the age of trade. Of course, if one refuses to be of one’s time, and yet hasn’t the means to live independently, what can result but breakdown and wretchedness? (51)
Connect this idea of untimeliness to Arnold’s idea of the untimely, penultimate critic. Gissing, again, giving material flesh to Arnold’s thoughts.
For months he had been living in this way; endless circling, perpetual beginning, followed by frustration. A sign of exhaustion, it of course made exhaustion more complete. At times he was on the border-land of imbecility; his mind looked into a cloudy chaos, a shapeless whirl of nothings. (123)
Connect this to the opening of Daniel Deronda, where Eliot talks about the arbitrariness of making a beginning. Gissing gives on more turn to the problem of beginnings (use Copperfield as an example, and before that, Pride and Prejudice), by showing the physicality the process of writing. Reardon’s investment in his story backfires onto his psyche. New Grub Street, however, starts with ease–but with Jasper Milvain, cracking an egg as a man gets hung and bell tolls–the convergence of the political, personal, etc.–the fiction of freedom, the tightness of the ISA–is the condition of all beginnings. Also, the idea of “the abyss” is picked up by Forster in Howard’s End, when talking about Leonard Bast. That narrative similarly describes the precariousness of the petty-bourgeois existence.
You have to become famous before you can secure the attention that would give you fame. (385)
A motto coined by Jasper Milvain, which spell out clearly the Catch-22 structuring the lives of just about every author. Marks out the (now-legible) relationship between fiction and the critics as overdetermined.
It was an excellent piece of writing (see the Wayside, June 1884), and in places touched with true emotion. (462)
A bid on realism by way of extra-diagetic empirical verification.
I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to day, 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…bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bit sof statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be short, two inches at utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat. (460)
This vision of bite-size prose comes toward the end of the novel, and has an obvious historical referent in Tit-Bits. An interesting commentary on the size of writing (contrast to the sheer bigness of the Victorian long poem), the time of reading (cf. I.A. Richards and Quiller-Couch), the fragment now reified as that best suited to the demands of industrialized consciousness: the quarter-educated.