Grub, by Elise Blackwell, is an updated (2007) version of the novel New Grub Street, by George Gissing, the 19th-century satire of the publishing industry in London. It centers on the lives of five young writers. Eddie has written a literary first novel. Amanda, a writer herself, married Eddie and has been supporting him while he is supposed to be working on a second novel. Jackson is still trying to publish a first novel, as is his friend Henry, who writes experimental novels. They move in literary circles in NYC with writers who have “made it” enough to eat at Grub, a restaurant associated with writers and publishers, and with would-be writers like Whelpdale, who ends up spending his time publishing how-to-write books.
One of the delights of this book is the kind of snobby snap judgments the characters make. Early on, at a writing workshop, Jackson meets a woman who “flashed all the accessories of a neglected resort-town wife: crystal pendant, wide silver rings and bangles, and a fringed summer sweater dyed the precise blue of her eyes.” In order to impress the editor of a literary journal, Jackson says to this woman: “Let me guess. This is your first writers’ conference. You use journal as a verb. You call what you write creative nonfiction, but it’s really more a case of uncreative non-writing.” She, of course, turns out to be the editor’s wife.
One of the questions the writers ask is why they need to live in New York City, when they could, theoretically, write anywhere. The answer is, simply, that they’re snobs. When Jackson takes a train a little ways outside of the city, this is his description of the scene:
“The train braked for and jerked away from one absurd stop after another, depositing doughy men to stomp across filthy snow to drive their generic cars home to overweight, practically-shod wives in soul-deadening subdivisions and characterless towns. Jackson Miller promised himself that he would never live anywhere but New York, except, perhaps, Paris.”
As one of the “overweight, practically-shod wives” in a town that would be “characterless” to Jackson and his ilk, I am invited to laugh at the kind of writer who thinks that tales of urban life represent a kind of “realism” that the rest of the population of Earth cannot understand or appreciate.
Eddie’s early literary success has left him snobby about what he thinks of as literary taste but unable to write another novel that adheres to his own standards. When his wife asks him if he can’t try writing a book with some plot, he replies that “plot has always been the hardest but also the least important thing to me.”
His friend Henry is a literal starving artist, writing a novel that he thinks will be truly realistic, as it recounts only overheard conversation. Henry “believed what his friend Eddie Renfros wanted to believe but doubted: the fact that his talent was incongruous with the circumstances into which he had been born made that talent no less valuable. Had he been born rich, his literary labors might have seemed noble to others. Because he was poor, he was more likely to be scorned. And his beautifully honed book would most likely go unpublished or, at best, be published in a small way, its few reviews deriding it as too quiet, perhaps even tedious.” It sounds tedious in the extreme. Even the other writers don’t want to read it, until one of them feels obliged to say something about it.
Amanda, Eddie’s wife, thinks that he doesn’t know anything about being poor, or he’d work harder on the next novel. “He didn’t understand what she knew: poverty is a learned meagerness of spirit as much as it is a number on a ledger.” Finally Amanda decides that if Eddie can’t write a second novel, she’ll write a first one that will sell. “She’d heard interviews with novelists who spend a year or two ‘with their characters’ before a four-year period of drafting and exploring, ever hoping to enter the ‘dream space’ or be visited by some creative power from above or without. It was ridiculous, really, and it certainly explained why so many otherwise good books were thrown to the floor by readers hoping for a story.” Amanda’s book is a success; it’s a “story of lust, longing, libido, and ambition among the eighteenth-century French aristocracy.”
None of these writers have to work at the kind of job that makes you so tired you have no energy left over for writing. Jackson says airily to a writer he’s just met: “You could probably still get a teaching job. The Metropolis Workshop thing is always hiring. There’s lots of online stuff now too, the low-residency writing programs and all that. I don’t mean become a teacher—I think so much more highly of you than that—just something to do for awhile. Of course, if you liked teaching, you could pick up an MFA.”
Perhaps she could just “pick up” an MFA if she were independently wealthy, but if she needs funding, the kind of programs Jackson is talking about currently admit less than 1% of their applicants.
The writer who does end up going into teaching gives her pretentious father a satisfying put-down when he is urging her to fund a new literary journal that will publish only “the highest quality fiction” (with himself as the judge of quality). She says “It’s just so clear to me that there are more journals than there are good stories. Most of them fold. And it seems as though soon more than half of them will be online only.”
Having written a successful gossip column for several years, Jackson’s career is, in the end, slightly curtailed by his rising fame and expanding acquaintance:
“He briefly considered a column about the table habits and general levels of politeness of well-known authors—who’s a gentleman at dinner and who’s a real boor, that sort of thing—but dismissed it because it would likely get him in trouble with the Jonathans, one of whom had never encountered an entrée he didn’t consider finger food, and another who guarded his plate with his forearm as though he’d spent long years in maximum-security lockup.”
At the end, those who sought fame have found it, in one way or another, and Eddie, whose writing was “too pure” for plot, has become the one thing more obscure than a literary novelist, a poet.
If you like reading about how the literarily pretentious get what they deserve, this is an amusing novel for a weekend afternoon. That is, if you can put off your plans to wear your most practical shoes and gardening hat out to add to the character of wherever you’re living.
Also, in a final comment on the state of contemporary publishing, I ordered this book from a used seller, online, and received an old “Advanced Reader’s Copy” (not advance, but advanced) that clearly states on the cover that it is “not for sale.”