(Or, how not to get seasick)
If I were a teacher of creative writing, I would assign one task to my students for the year, and be paid handsomely for doing very little: I would have them read George Gissing’s New Grub Street over and over until they were all convinced they would change their degree to something useful like computer science or quantum physics, and thereby spare the world the spectacle of yet another struggling writer languishing in poverty, tuberculosis and marital strife.
Let me start by saying that I did not become a writer by attending creative writing classes, I do not have an MFA, and I have no intention of ever becoming a teacher of creative writing (nor would I be hired on the basis of the lazy curriculum I would impose: let them read Gissing while I go to the pool!) I have, however, taught a few weekend classes, somewhat guiltily, as I don’t believe in the ability to teach creative writing: it’s a bit like teaching a sailor how not to be seasick.
Still, I will use this public space (it is my blog after all, not the University of Iowa’s) to teach a course in creative writing, thanks to George Gissing. Who lived and this is where it gets interesting from 1857 to 1903. While he is not as famous as other Victorian novelists such as Dickens or George Eliot or Anthony Trollope, he is, thankfully, still in print. His most famous novel is the one in question, published in 1891; Old Grub Street, according to Samuel Johnson, was “originally the name of a street…much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems, whence any mean production is called grubstreet.” A bit like Cannery Row for scribblers. Look at this image and you’ll get the idea, not exactly Marin County Real Estate material.
Without further ado, then, let us begin; each lesson will be inspired by quotations from the novel…that could have been written yesterday.
Lesson One: On Money
To have money is becoming of more and more importance in a literary career; principally because to have money is to have friends A lucky man will still occasionally succeed by dint of his own honest perseverance, but the chances are dead against anyone who can’t make private interest with influential people; his work is simply overwhelmed by that of the men who have better opportunities.
Marry well, or inherit, in other words. It is true that the image of the colony rat–the struggling writer who manages to live from one writers’ colony to the next, storing his or her belongings at parents’ and friends’– grows increasingly tarnished and illegitimate with age. Being a writer may be the cheapest of the arts, but the cost of postage just went up; and most literary agents still want hard copy, so you should buy stock in Kinko’s. Never having had that kind of money, nor made private interest with influential people, I cannot say whether I agree with Gissing’s character’s pompous assertions; having had friends, I know that they support me and help me as much as they can. But it would have been nice if one of them had been Oprah, or Richard and Judy, or someone like that. Sigh.
Lesson Two: On the glut of novels on the market
The quantity turned out is so great that there’s no hope for the special attention of the public unless one can afford to advertise hugely.
How true, especially today. I wonder what literary advertisements were like in the 1880s and 1890s.
The stunning new collection by Russian sensation, Anton Chekhov! Ably translated by Constance Garnett!
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: sexy and spine-chilling, you won’t be able to put it down! By the award-winning children’s author of Treasure Island!
The ravishing debut of vampire novelist Bram Stoker!
(Now you can see why I haven’t got rich writing advertising copy).
Since we only have the classics which have survived to our own era, we are under the misconception that there was less published back then. There was probably more: there was no TV or internet or gameboy or cinema or any of those visual distractions, and reading was both as glamorous and as common an activity as DVD rental is today. What is wrong in the 21st century–and perhaps there is, percentage-wise, an even greater glut of writers now than under Queen Vic– is that everyone thinks they can be a writer, whereas back then a lot of people still knew they had to be coal miners and road sweepers and umbrella repairmen. The present-day creative writing industry churns out writers faster than Nike does shoes from China and about as synthetically. On top of it, as a friend acerbically remarked the other day during the morning commute, Everyone wants to write but no one wants to read. Who will buy your book? (Maybe the umbrella repairman, for the dry season, if you’re nice to him?)
As for what people can afford, there are no doubt rich writers who, in addition to having influential friends, can afford an independent publicist, since we all know that the publishers do diddly unless you are Stephen King or someone huge like that who doesn’t need advertising; so yes, dear students, you will have to advertise hugely. Again, marry well, or get Michael Moore to make a film about you.
Lesson three: On self-promotion
Modesty helps a man in no department of modern life. People take you at your own valuation. It’s the men who declare boldly that they need no help to whom practical help comes from all sides.
And if you remain poor despite marrying an heiress, there’s nothing for it but to do your own trumpet-blowing. Don’t be modest, pretend you’re a photocopier salesman. Charles Dickens was a master of self-promotion, otherwise he would never have gotten to where he did, wasn’t he poor? He must have been, look at all those struggling paupers in his novels. (Or is that called imagination?)
Lesson four: On ageism in publishing
In literature, as in most other pursuits, the press of energetic young men was making it very hard for a veteran even to hold the little grazing-plot he had won by hard fighting.
Ah, now here’s a subject for an entire blog. Gissing wrote young, died young. People didn’t live that long back then, so the ones who did, like his character the ill-fated Mr. Yule, were a bit of an oddity and, unless they were already rich, brilliant, and influential, they would get nudged out by the up and coming crop of writers and editors. Young is sexy, we’re easily swayed. Plus ça change… the average age among NY editors must be about 31. No wonder they won’t buy my torrid novel about the thrills of sex on Viagra. So if you’re over 31, stop reading this blog immediately and move on to those blogs about senior care in the Falkland Islands.
Lesson Five: On commercialism and the market
When already there was more good literature in the world than any mortal could cope with in his lifetime, here she was exhausting herself in the manufacture of printed stuff which no one even pretended to be more than a commodity for the day’s market.
It’s a bit of real life.
Yes, but it has no market value.
Gissing’s characters contradict themselves somewhat here, one saying there is plenty of good literature, the other that real life has no market value; obviously, both are true. There have always been escapist novels as there have been good literary ones; there is, in a way, room for them all. Cream rises; Gissing stays in print. But most of you should clearly examine the market value of your novels about watching the corn grow in Saskatchewan or traveling to Ulan Bator with your pet mongoose. Or Tamagotchi. Though that one might do well in Japan.
On commercialism and the market, advanced level
I don’t know how you can go on reading that sort of stuff, book after book.
Oh, but people say this last novel of Markland’s is one of his best.
Best or worst, novels are all the same. Nothing but love, love, love; what silly nonsense it is! Why don’t people write about the really important things of life?
According to Wikipedia, Markland is the name given to a part of shoreline in Labrador, Canada, named by Leif Ericson; not a real Victorian novelist, obviously. England has very tough libel laws. So for our 21st century purposes, just substitute any name from the NY Times Bestseller list and you’ll know who they’re talking about. Or maybe if you just change two letters could it be that Barbara Cartland was already alive and writing in 1891? Anyway, as for writing about love, silly nonsense, indeed. It has all been done, every imaginable way possible. I’m sure there’s even a novel out there about torrid love on Viagra. But a novel about Leif Ericson in Canada: now there’s an original topic, no? (And no, he wasn’t selling cellular phones).
Lesson Six: On rejection
This was a trifle. For the first time he received a rejected piece of writing without distress; he even laughed at the artistic completeness of the situation. The money would have been welcome, but on that very account he might have known it would not come.
Ah. A vital lesson, although somewhat empirical: as with earthquakes, you’re not quite sure how you’ll react. But obviously this character has seen his share of rejection letters, and the more you get, the less they hurt. After a while you merely become paranoid and you know that everyone in publishing hates you and thinks you’re ugly and worthless and your writing is mediocre and incompetent, and you suspect the cards are stacked anyway in favor of those with sexy looks, or the private interest of influential people (see lesson one), or a passport from the trendy country of the month (India, Ireland, that’s all over. Afghanistan and Iraq are doing well. Time to go to Syria and Iran to get started on your next not-to-be-rejected novel). You’ll get your revenge on all those Philistines when you win the IMPAC prize and can buy your villa in Spain (with the pool for use while teaching your creative writing classes). Forget the Nobel, it doesn’t pay as much and no one reads Nobel prize winners anyway, they’re too gloomy and European.
Lesson Seven: On reviews
The reviews are very disagreeable. I have read the book since I saw you the other day, and I’m afraid it isn’t good, but I have seen many worse novels more kindly reviewed.
Jasper says it’s because Mr. Reardon has no friends among the journalists.
Assuming that despite all these discouraging realities you have gotten this far in the course, you can now enjoy the notoriety of being a published author, and learn how to deal with reviews. You have a choice: read and be damned, ignore and be damned. And read other people’s glowing reviews and be envious (see lesson nine on writer’s envy). Again, the whole business is crooked and you need to know a lot of influential journalists. This is changing somewhat with the internet, because you can get all your friends to write you glowing reviews on Amazon or on their blogs, and anyway the newspaper review sections are so tiny and diminished in this country now that there is only room to review the latest Stephen King or Dan Brown or Britney Spears novel that doesn’t need reviewing for obvious reasons. So you probably won’t suffer too badly. Except when the bank forecloses on your villa.
Advanced level: On the glut of novels and the lack of reviews
We know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men.
Shelf life was even shorter in those days. This was before refrigeration, remember. But shelf life is still extremely short in the US (most bookstores don’t put their books in the fridge): two-three months for a hardback, maybe a year in paper. Unless you get noticed and then, like Dan Brown, you stay in hardback so long you get arthritis.
My advice: write a novel about Iraq or Afghanistan. Sure to be a bestseller and get noticed. Especially meaningful if you go there for research, don’t forget your flak jacket. Sorry for my cynicism but unless you’re Al Gore, if you don’t put your life in danger you won’t get noticed.
Lesson Eight: On reputation
What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates with a few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognized the merit they at last applaud. A year after I have published my last book, I shall be practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotten as one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names one doesn’t even recognize. What fatuous posing!
To have had even a small reputation, and to have outlived it, is a sort of anticipation of death.
(Ah, fatuous posing, what a great expression might it go well in my Viagra novel?
All joking aside, I don’t really understand what he means by it. You’re welcome to give your interpretation in the comments section of this blog.)
More bitter pills to swallow. You’re tired of this Mr. Gissing, aren’t you? Well, he was a realist, of the Emile Zola variety. Whereas we live in an era where everyone thinks they’ll be the next big thing (fifteen minutes, yadda yadda). Well, there was the Victorian variety of Andy Warhol prophecies and not much has changed. Remember some of the prizewinners and bestsellers of 1991? For example: Robert James Waller? Who? Bridges of Madison County, how could you forget? (Oh, you weren’t born yet). Do we still talk about him the way we talk about Khaled Hosseini or Michael Chabon? I don’t suppose Mr. Waller worries too much if we don’t know him anymore but, still, we’re human and loss of reputation is like being ditched by your lover. Best to die young, like Gissing or Chekhov or Robert Louis Stevenson. Those Victorians knew how to live.
Lesson Nine: On Writer’s Envy
I speak of the common kind of success, which is never due to literary merit: it isn’t easy for me to look with charity on the success of men who deserved it far less that I did.
Get used to it. A lot of people are very successful in life because they have a pretty face or know influential journalists; literary merit may be pure and noble, but it rarely suffices. You will at least have the satisfaction, like Edwin Reardon, Gissing’s tragic character who speaks these words, of knowing you are right. Maybe there are villas in heaven for the artists who don’t succeed but know they are right, and where they will never have to look on the undeserving again (you know, the ones who always move in and add two floors to their house and spoil your view).
Lesson Ten: On short attention spans
The young men and women can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention.
If, after all this, you are still determined to write a non-bestselling novel that will be universally reviled and ignored by your lack of influential friends, this last wisdom from George should deal the necessary death blow. In 1891 they had no television, no cinema, no internet, no game boy or play station, no Tamagotchis, no Blackberries, no cell phones, no iPods, not even any walkmans or Discmans or tape recorders! Get real, kids! (If you are over 31 and still reading this you should hurry over to the senior center in the Falkland Islands before the airfares go up again.) If even back then, when all they had aside from books was whist, poker, ballroom dancing, quilting bees and sex, and still they had a short attention span, what on God’s earth makes you think anyone will want to read your book about Leif Ericson in Canada?! Unless you have the intrepid explorer end up in Afghanistan.