Writing is a business


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In his 1891 novel, ‘New Grub Street,’ English writer George Gissing dissects the jaded cynicism of the publishing world as deftly as any novelist ever has. And yet, if you’re a writer, to read the book is oddly self-revealing, as if looking at a dusty old mirror and discovering ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’

Here’s a taste:

‘People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads -- that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business. Get together half a dozen fair specimens of the Sunday-school prize; study them; discover the essential points of such composition; hit upon new attractions; then go to work methodically, so many pages a day. There’s no question of the divine afflatus; that belongs to another sphere of life. We talk of literature as a trade, not of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. If I could only get that into poor Reardon’s head. He thinks me a gross beast, often enough. What the devil -- I mean what on earth is there in typography to make everything it deals with sacred? I don’t advocate the propogation of vicious literature; I only speak of good, coarse, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar. You just give it a thought, Maud; talk it over with Dora.’


He resumed presently:

‘I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes. We are not geniuses, and if we sit down in a spirit of long-eared gravity we shall produce only commonplace stuff. Let us use our wits to earn money, and make the best we can of our lives. If only 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 a gross error of the literary pedants. To please the vulgar you must, one way or another, incarnate the genius of vulgarity. For my own part, I shan’t be able to address the bulkiest multitude; my talent doesn’t lend itself to that form. I shall write for the upper-middle class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness, but who can’t distinguish between stones and paste. That’s why I’m so slow in warming to the work. Every month I feel surer of myself, however. That last thing of mine in ‘The West End’ distinctly hit the mark; it wasn’t too flashy, it wasn’t too solid. I heard fellows speak of it in the train.’

David L. Ulin