I can’t say I actually know much about the concept/reality of “Grub Street,” but I looked it up. Apparently, it’s both a real street in London traditionally housing the literary and poetic districts. But over time, it came more so to mean a more pejorative term for hack-writing and cheap literary output.
In this novel, it’s both again. The novel focuses on the prevailing question of whether or not writing should be geared toward a reading audience (ie a paying audience) or work more toward the achievement of art in and of itself. It doesn’t get into the more aestheticism argument of whether or not art has deeper and greater meaning than it’s own sake, but focuses on that monetary question.
The site of this question is the friendship/acquaintanceship between Reardon and Milvain, each sort of representing one side of the issue–Milvain sees arts as a business and feels like he has an understanding of how to make a go at it while Reardon is a more traditional writer who is helplessly lashed against the “three volume novel” format. The novel then plays out against these lines and sees pretty clearly that the pure aesthetic qualities of an artist cannot withstand the marketplace.
This other tracks with me, but it also bothers. Perhaps that’s the mark of a thoughtful novel. Before I get into the issues let me assess a little. This is not a particularly enjoyable novel to read. The characters are not the most interesting or familiar for me and the situation is interesting, but I am not moved by it in any meaningful way. The writing is perfunctory, but more than anything this novel feels like a kind of crucible to test out the parameters of an idea. It’s written in a very naturalistic/Late Victorian prose style, so it’s relatively bare and even skeletal at times. The plot serves the questions at the heart. And so it’s a solid three stars.
As to the Idea of the novel, I am of mixed minds. An artist isn’t owed the world. And like George Gissing’s contemporary in America, Stephen Crane wrote in a poem:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
And that’s idea of the novel in a nutshell, that to hold onto feelings of obligation and entitlement against an uncaring world will almost certainly yield unfortunate results. The artist’s center cannot hold. It doesn’t seek to lament this or anything like that–it’s a Naturalistic novel–only to record it and note it.
But I do come across this weird notion all the time, that art (especially questionable art forms — like music and movies and video games) are somehow not dependent on marketplace whims and desires. Maybe I am old now and the idea of selling out just isn’t a sin to me any more, or even bad at all. The novel definitely suggests that selling out will definitely get you paid, and not selling out, will almost certainly not.