Confessions of the new Grub Street
The money is bad, the hours long and the white wine copious and cheap
In George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street, an unflattering portrait of the late Victorian literary world, there are two protagonists. The first is Jasper Milvain, a moderately talented but unscrupulous hack writer who has directed his abilities towards “good, marketable stuff for the world’s vulgar”. The other is the infinitely more conscientious Edwin Reardon, a “literary” writer whose skill is not matched by commercial success. He ends up dying a miserable pauper, his health and ambition broken by failure.
Gissing’s sympathies are clearly with Reardon, but he was also too worldly not to recognise that Milvain, who cheerily announces that “I write for the upper-middle-class of intellect, the people who like to feel that what they are reading has some special cleverness”, was the coming man, whose special skill was giving the reading public what they believed that they wanted, integrity be damned.
Nearly 130 years later, the world that Gissing portrays so damningly has changed remarkably little. There are still many more Reardons out there than Milvains, hoping desperately that a literary agent will deign to pick their sensitively constructed masterpiece from the slush pile and realise their life’s dreams, but most of their hopes are doomed to be unrealised. The 2019 world of literature is shot through with a precise awareness of commercial sensitivities, but also, increasingly, a desperate attempt to embrace the rules and regulations of “the new woke”. Unfortunately, an industry run predominantly by public school and Oxbridge-educated white men will always struggle to be socially representative, and therefore it is required to come up with ever more attention-grabbing stunts, which inadvertently reveal the shoddiness of the whole charade.
The most egregious example of this recently has been the Booker Prize ceremony, as detailed by X. Trapnel in last month’s issue. For many years the suspicion has lingered that the winner of the industry’s most prestigious award has been a decision not entirely connected with literary merit, and this year’s debacle was not helped by the unfortunate suggestion, encouraged by a tone-deaf article in the Guardian by the 2019 judge Afua Hirsch, that Atwood had received the award less for her book The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and more for “[her] titanic career, [her] contribution to culture”, and that the only decision the judges had had to make was who else to acknowledge. Evaristo was the beneficiary but the split award had the inadvertent effect of marginalising her success, especially given Atwood’s household-name recognition.
The fallout from the botched decision continues, not least because there is a general sense in the literary establishment that the year’s best book was neither Atwood’s nor Evaristo’s but Lucy Ellmann’s much-praised Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,030-page novel consisting of one sentence. (Ulysses, eat your heart out.) It was published by the tiny independent press Galley Beggars, and its co-founder and director Sam Jordison wrote an aggrieved article for the TLS criticising the Booker judges’ decision. What elevated the piece from simple sour grapes was his observation that, behind the scenes, matters had gone badly awry. He wrote: “Everything about the process starts to look questionable. The confusion is only added to, when, despite public celebrations of rebellion, rumours swirl about private consternation . . . toxic thoughts and questions flood your mind when you can’t trust the process.”
It looks unlikely that Galley Beggars will enter another of their books for the prize if it remains unreformed. Jordison writes with justifiably Reardonesque aggravation about the costs of both entry to the shortlist (£5,000 plus VAT) and the need to send Ellmann out to literary festivals and the like to promote the book. One could be forgiven for asking, “Is any of it worth it?”
Literary success lies not in what you know but who you know
A number of bright young men and women leave university every year, with the intention of doing something in the world of books. For some, this means going to a publisher, starting a career as an intern and working their way up into an editorial or production role. This is a well-worn path, often reliant on wealthy and supportive friends or family at the beginning, but one widely acknowledged as “the done thing”. The money is bad, the hours long and the white wine drunk at publishing parties copious and cheap.
A rather smaller number intend to write books and their chances of publication are inversely proportionate to their, or their families’, degree of influence. I was sent a book for potential review a couple of months ago by a first-time writer and was astonished at how bad it was, and how it had ever come to be published. Then I noticed who she was married to and her frequent appearances in the society columns. Realisation dawned that literary success lies not in what you know but who you know. This has ever been the case, but even in our supposedly meritocratic age, the means of becoming a writer lies in the hands of a small and dwindling number of gatekeepers, who zealously guard access to the Valhalla of publication and will ruthlessly expel those whose faces, or backgrounds, don’t fit.
This seems especially true of the national book review pages, which I am proud to contribute to on a semi-regular basis. Not long ago, every reputable paper had an entire literary supplement, run by an editor of taste and discretion, and commissioned a range of writers who were paid well to convey their expertise to a keen readership. Budget cuts and publishers’ reluctance to advertise have meant that the literary pages of our newspapers have been reduced to a rump.
There are still some excellent, conscientious literary editors out there — one thinks of Robbie Millen of The Times, who is never afraid to commission a mischievously counter-intuitive review, or Ursula Kenny of the Observer, who manages to corral some of the best critics writing today into her pages. But there are others who either regard the role as a part-time sinecure and a well-paid distraction from their self-aggrandising puffery on social media, or who have been drafted in from some other area of the paper in desperation. I await the day, which I do not think will be too far in the future, when someone is uncritically described as the “books and interiors editor”. They do, after all, furnish a room.
Unsurprisingly, book reviewers are a strange mixture, ranging from conscientious critics who are themselves respected published authors to well-connected bluestockings and flashy young men who are paid to offer their views despite having never produced any significant writing of their own. Reading their reviews is often a depressing experience because it becomes clear that they simply haven’t read the titles they have been sent, beyond a cursory skim of the first few chapters and a quick perusal of other reviews.
This is why critical thought so often seems to follow a herd mentality: one person engages with the book, and many more follow behind. Such truths are dangerously heretical in what is a small, incestuous, world — hence my decision to write here under a pseudonym. Still, if the review is positive (which it usually is, few relish making enemies who may one day be in a position to return the favour), then the author’s pride is satisfied and the publisher has its paperback blurb. (“A triumph, the best book ever,” and so on.)
If this seems like a depressing state of affairs, the condition of the publishing industry is even more worrying. At the moment, the commissioning editors’ buzzword is “diversity”. In theory this is a commendable attempt to broaden a very narrow field, but in practice some deeply substandard books are published in an attempt to assuage the woke police.
There is also a determined game of double standards at play. One editor friend of mine confessed, shamefacedly, that it was a given in publishing that “black people didn’t buy books”. Hence much effort lay in producing carefully nuanced books dealing with race and society aimed at a liberal white audience who could congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness. This may be racist generalisation or simply a reflection of market forces. Either way, an audit of who is buying these books may well reveal that readers are also an uncomfortably un-diverse bunch.
Little wonder, then, that Oxbridge graduates continue to dominate the industry, as they have done for decades. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it does reflect the exclusivity of intellectual life in Britain, where two universities hoover up the power, prestige and influence (to say nothing of the cash), leaving little behind for the rest of them.
If a young graduate of a decent redbrick university asked me for advice on how to become a literary journalist or a published author, I would wish them sincere good luck but feel a sense that they were trying to squeeze onto a crowded train with the wrong ticket, and that sooner or later the conductor would throw them off before their stop came.
That is not just a personal tragedy but a disaster for the industry. As the Booker Prize snafu has shown all too clearly, tokenism and an “all must have prizes” approach to an anointed few are no longer acceptable. Instead, New Grub Street must find broader, more open means of entry to its houses, or risk becoming as obsolete as Edwin Reardon’s writing career.
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