Our Reading Lives

The 1891 Novel Eerily Relevant to Today’s Writing World

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Hannah Engler

Staff Writer

Hannah lives in New York and works in publishing. In addition to Book Riot, her articles have appeared on Forbes.com, the American Writer's Museum blog, Feminist Campus, and more. When not writing or reading (which is hardly ever), she tweets, eats, and watches Nora Ephron movies. Twitter: @caffeinehannah

More than once during my term as editor of my campus feminist magazine, I have been faced with the task of convincing writers that it is worth the extra editing, the extra wait period, to be published in a print magazine. I’m not slamming millennials (I am one),  nor I am I discrediting the Internet (I am an Internet writer, obviously). I became an advocate for print journalism by accident. I was sick of people submitting pieces to random websites instead of our mag.

“I don’t get it,” I snapped at my friend, slamming my laptop shut. “It’s like all you have to do to call yourself a ‘writer’ these days is compile a bunch of GIFs. Nobody wants to put in the extra effort to actually produce good work.”

My objections felt very 2016. When else had there been such controversy over the what was good and what was successful, when writing felt like a total free-for-all at the expense of the craft?

The answer, of course, is all throughout history, and often. Shortly after this little tirade, I bought New Grub Street by George Gissing for $5 in a used bookstore in Cleveland Heights. And it made me feel like an idiot.

New Grub Street, which was published in 1891, is a novel about novels – specifically, the rapidly expanding literary scene in London at the time. The two protagonists are Jasper Milvain, a cynic who will write anything so long as it makes him money, and Edwin Reardon, a “true artist,” whose life falls apart in his struggle to produce a work of genius. The book is funny, and satirical in more than one way, but what struck me the most is how applicable many of its themes seemed to today’s writing world.

For instance, at one point Jasper claims: “If I had the skill, I would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies. But it needs skill, mind you; and to deny it is the gross error of the literary pedants.” Cynical and amoral he may be, but wrong he is not. When I fumed that the low standards of the Internet were poaching my potential writers, I failed to take into account that Internet writing is an entirely different skill set, and serves an entirely different purpose. Yes, as a writer myself, I felt frustrated. As an editor, I felt impotent. But the Internet is a massive place. It does not exist at the expense of “good” writing any more than video killed the radio star.

Here’s what I was really mad about: the articles that I was so proud of, 800+ word thoughtpieces that sat smugly in their magazine racks all over campus, simply weren’t as popular as “Finals Week, As Told By These Quotes from MTV’s Daria,” or “7 Reasons Catcalling is the Worst.” Did that mean I wasn’t a good writer? No. But does that mean the reader of Now, the one who wants to absorb information quickly, during their commute, who wants to share what they read via Twitter and Facebook to give their friends a quick burst of food for thought, is stupid? Also no. And every minute that I (and Edwin Reardon) made this false distinction, another hundred writers lapped us.

New Grub Street is full of little observations that ring true in today’s day and age. At another point, Jasper declares that “the quantity [of 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” – or if one has a particularly massive amount of Twitter followers.

Yet, though New Grub Street is not what I would call a happy book, it far from confirms my hypocritical fears about writing. Rather, it refutes them by predicting them. Over a hundred years ago, people thought literature was dead; it absolutely was not. Jasper’s assumption that in the future, “men will not succeed in literature that they may get into society, but will get into society that they may succeed in literature,” is humorous, but not because it became true, necessarily. The comic effect comes from the fact that the novel predicts modern anxieties, not modern truths.

Popular writing – whether on the Internet or in the form of airport/grocery store novels – is valuable not because it is profitable, as Jasper believes, but because there’s a demand for it. Furthermore, works of “genius” are hardly ever created intentionally (and the articles I felt were being “overlooked” were hardly works of genius). For all of my former protestations, I found it immensely comforting to know we’ve been here before, and that we’ll most likely be here again. Gissing’s novel helped me realize that there are two constants in the literary world: change and fatalism.

I should probably cut my campus writers some slack.