New Grub Street tells the story of two men: Edwin Reardon, a talented writer nearing the middle of his career, and Jasper Milvain, a careerist who realizes that you can write utter garbage and always advance, so long as you never make anyone think, never cause anyone to hold up a mirror to their lives and who they are, and always trade in a sort of faux-life quality, so that industry people who are too scared to truly live think they’re having an experience in reading what you write, but only, really, have their nullity further enabled. The words on the page are meaningless, provided they come from the right kind of person, who is accepted by the gatekeepers of the system. That is to say, a person like those people, or anti-people. Are the right boxes checked? Is the person the right color, the right gender, do they have blue blood in their entitled veins? And, crucially: do they only offer writing that would never cause a person to become more alive, more human, in the slightest?
There’s no other route to success in modern publishing—until a visionary invents it, or wills it into being through the force of their talent and the outsized mass of their strength—where the hand-selected flavors of the month are trotted out to sell Paris Review tote bags, so that someone who doesn’t actually read can be seen at the Starbucks and regarded as an intellectual, not that the mainstream world has a clue what The Paris Review is. We have virtue signaling, and publishing is a fiefdom of intellect signaling, and woe is the person who is legit, and transcends any and all poses, for it is that individual who is the threat, and has to break a system—if they’re able—in order to get anywhere in it, or what remains of it, or, better yet, is then built in replacement of it. That’s Reardon’s challenge in New Grub Street; to say that he will be crushed even as he contemplates what he might do, what chances his work could have, is akin to saying a sparrow ground into paste under the wheel of a hansom carriage merely took one on the chin. This is a dark read.
The hellish binary makes Milvain a soulless innovator of sorts. He and Reardon are friends when the novel begins. Reardon has a wife and a kid, he’s been well-reviewed from a few people who exist as independent reviewers, bucking the trend of agenda-driven criticism, and based upon his talent, it’s reasonable to expect a lot from him. But as he tries to advance, he finds that those few honorable people who looked at his work as work, are such a small minority, that it might as well be as if none of them exist. A village rammed with insincerity, of log-rolling, of lip-service, lies, is required, and Reardon is not the sort of man that human zombies of this nature are willing to push forward. Writing for Reardon turns into something to get up and grind out every day. It becomes like chopping wood. Grinding it out every day begins to grind him down, and working in desperation, at all hours, begins to kill Reardon.
The thing about genius—or even just a reasonable amount of talent—is that it doesn’t count for much if it’s not something put into practice daily. By which I don’t mean the occasional clever thought that comes out when you’re talking to your significant other over some beers. Rather, the actual, active effort of daily production.
I’m sometimes loath to bring new people into my life, because at this hellish point, the days are scarcely believable. Every week I will work 130 hours. I will run thousands of stairs daily for my stress and heart. There could be, say, a piece in Sports Illustrated, one in Rolling Stone, some fiction in some lit mag, a piece in The Wall Street Journal and an NPR appearance in that week, and this will mean that twenty people will defriend me on Facebook, and half a dozen venues will ban me. Life will get harder with more that is achieved. I will write 20,000 words. About 10,000 formal words for work, with 10,000 more words (pitches, bill collecting, follow-ups, outright begging) going to people who likely will never write me back. Many will get off on that harder than ever have in actual coitus. Sometimes you’ll say, “we were friends, I did good work for you, could you just level with me and tell me what’s going on, it’s been six years of being ignored, I don’t want to waste your time or mine.” It’s simple: someone got to them, and pointed out that you were not the right kind of person.
They will not respond. There is so much jealousy in people of this nature, and if you are not one of them, and you do what you do better, and you achieve without being handed anything—further, if you achieve as they try to lock you out, and you get what they themselves want—you will be hated and bashed day in, day out by the whisper network.
After years of getting better at what I do, and becoming more successful despite the calumny and blackballing—all over virtues—I had to begin documenting what occurs in my life in the new, new Grub Street, in a public journal on my website, that now numbers several million words in length. Each day I think of what Reardon would have made of it. I think of his outcome, what we have in common, and what makes us different. I take some hope in the knowledge that the latter is of a far greater quantity than the former. But Reardon is never far from my thoughts.
Reardon’s wife pressures him to write faster, regain his earlier glories after a book flops, make more money. These glorious weren’t ever that glorious; but that’s the nature of the passage of time, when that time is defined by suffering. We look back on what happened, or what we had, and we give it heavenly elevation, because we are now that sparrow under the wheel.
Reardon seizes upon a plan. He will quit writing and find a new job, as a clerk, which apparently was of significant embarrassment for an educated man at the time. His wife doesn’t want to bear the shame. Reardon’s problem is that he has lost his gift, or thinks he has, which is perhaps worse. And he doesn’t retain the necessary driving passion, strength, will to rediscover it. But while he works within a rigged system, it’s not totally rigged—call it like 1% open. He still has his shot. He just feels like pursuing that 1% chance will kill him. Meanwhile, Milvain, the very portrait of soullessness and mediocrity, keeps advancing.
He’s not some odious person, entirely, and he has a conscience. Milvain is displeased with himself—within tolerable limits—when he praises some godawful book that makes him wretch as he reads it, because it will advance his career.
Consider: how many times do you read a review of a book by someone that you know the publishing community is touting as hard as it can, before they’ve done anything, and it’s so obvious that the review is essentially written before the book has arrived? The book will feature a narrator that is clearly the writer, it will involve an Ivy League school, being socially awkward, make literary references that no one out in the world will understand, and enable people who hate a self-examined life to continue on just as they are, and essentially pat themselves on the back and say, “there there! You keep doing that! You’re doing it right! See? I agree with your ways!”
More than this, the book will countenance these lives, which are not lives at all. People like that. It’s similar to those late night diet commercials that will say three times over that you can eat even more than you do now and the weight will come off. It won’t, of course. But this, more than any age to date, is the enabling age. Jasper Milvain would be a star of it, if he hadn’t been a white, prime-of-life male.