Labourers in Fetters

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It’s natural and not, I guess, uncommon for aspiring writers to look to established practitioners for hints on how to proceed. In my own case, though avid in my day for useful tips on how to make my mark in the Republic of Letters, I only ever came across two of any real value. The first was Mark Twain’s steely injunction: ‘Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’ The second was Hemingway’s advice to stop writing for the day before you have said everything you have lined up ready to commit to paper; that way you have something in reserve to restart the engine when you return to your desk tomorrow. To these two golden nuggets, I would add a third: read George Gissing’s New Grub Street.

Life is not a fairy story in which merit and reward are exactly balanced. Indeed, it is because of their imbalance in real life that fairy stories are needed. This I take it was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she described Middlemarch – an epic on the theme of disappointment, and emphatically not a fairy story – as ‘the first English novel written for grown-ups’. On similar grounds, New Grub Street, published in 1891, twenty years after Middlemarch, might well be called the second. Its subject is the hopes and struggles of a group of people, all known to each other, and all trying more or less desperately to make a living with their pens. It is, finally, a story of blighted hopes and stillborn promise in which decency, intelligence and good intentions are inadequate preventers of catastrophe.

For most of these characters their choice of career was originally dictated by a love of reading and the desire to apply their talents in the only world in which they feel at home: the world of books. One of the group, however, stands out as an exception: Jasper Milvain, New Grub Street’s anti-hero as one is tempted to call him, has no interest in literature as a source of refined enjoyment

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About the contributor

Roger Jones is hoping to be magically translated to some desert island where he will never again have to hear the words Trump or Brexit. Meanwhile he is working on a new (third) edition of What’s Who?, his ever-growing dictionary of eponyms.

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