New Grub Street by George Gissing was a rather surprising novel. Published in 1891, it is set in the literary world of 1880s London. There are literary feuds, there are writers starving for their art, there is a suicide, there is lots and lots of failure, and there is the up-and-comer who will do whatever he must to get ahead. There are engagements and broken engagements, there are happy marriages and marriages that should never have happened. And always, always, there is the scramble to make money by one’s pen. Most of the time it is just enough, sometimes it is not enough, and rarely is it more than enough.

We follow a number of characters but there are two main storylines, that of Jasper Milvain and that of Edwin Reardon.

Milvain is the young up-and-comer. He is well educated, comes from a middle class family that is squeezed for money since the father died. In order to finance Jasper’s literary beginnings, his mother and sisters are forced to scrimp and go without so Jasper can give the appearnace of having money and move in the right circles and meet the right people who can help him forward his career. Everything Jasper Milvain does is calculated to move his career forward. Every person Milvain meets and cultivates is someone who might help him later. He’s a clever young man who keeps his eye on the market– what is selling– and bends his own writing to meet the mass readership. His aim in life 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 while he meets and falls in love with a woman who loves him back in spite of his selfishness, he refuses to lose his head over her. Even his marriage, the when and to whom of it, is calculated so that it benefits him and his career.

Edwin Reardon is a whole other animal. He is very well educated in the classics, he reads Greek and he and his good friend Biffen can spend hours discussing the translation of a few lines of some Greek luminary. Reardon had some early success with a couple of literary novels. But then, as now, literary art does not sell like page-turning commercial fiction does. Reardon married soon after his early succes a beautiful and penniless middle class woman named Amy. Amy didn’t love Reardon so much as she loved the idea of being married to a novelist of distinction. Now that money is tight and getting tighter, Amy turns into a very unhappy woman who doesn’t understand why her husband can’t just write a potboiler or two to earn them some money and then, once they are comfortable again, return to writing a more literary novel. She tells Reardon,

Art must be practised 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? The fact of the matter is, you could do fairly good work, and work which would sell, if only you would bring yourself to look at things in a more practical way.

If only it were that easy!

It is the same battles in the 1860s as in 2013, literature as art versus literature for the masses and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Sadly, those who write for the market are generally the ones with the greatest success, those who write for love of literature, not so much. I had a good laugh over a character, Whelpdale, who came up with an idea to overhaul a failing periodcal called “Chat” by renaming it “Chit-Chat” and

have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, 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. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on ‘buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; 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. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.

It ends up being a great success. He becomes the journal’s editor which means a regular and assured income of a comfortable amount. Whelpdale feels a bit guilty about his success, he knows the journal is pure fluff. But his friend Milvain tells him to be logical and not worry about it because “success has nothing whatever to do with moral deserts.”

That line from Milvain, “success has nothing whatever to do with moral deserts,” is Gissing’s operating guide to the book. Those who we want to be successful, the good ones, the self-sacrificing ones, the ones we like and root for, don’t necessarily come out on top. And those who make us feel a bit dirty, the ones we would like to see make a misstep and take a tumble, are often quite successful. New Grub Street is not a feel good novel with a feel good ending. When I finished it my response was, “humph!” Because I wanted some poetic justice and Gissing refused to give it to me. It leaves one asking, as one of the characters does,

what was the use and purpose of such a life as she was condemned to lead When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here was she exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market. What unspeakable folly! To write—was not that the joy and the privilege of one who had an urgent message for the world?

Those questions go unanswered even today. Or maybe they are answered but the answers belong to each indiviual writer who, at some point in her life asks the question, why write?