“I’m aiming to write a big book, you know, splashy. I plan for my first novel to be my break-out book. It’s not the literature that I’m sure you write. I’m moving around attractive stockbrokers, cocaine, gigolos, a dash of deviant sex.”
Sometimes I become impatient with my favourite authors. Why for example, is it taking Max Barry a few years to write another of his entertaining, wickedly funny books? Someone needs to take that man’s passport away and lock him in a room. Geoff Nicholson, if you read this: PLEASE write another fiction book. I love your books; they put me in a good mood, and I need to be absorbed in one of your imagined, obsessive worlds.
Now of course, while I write these things, it occurs to me, in some distant corner of my brain that I’m being a teensy bit selfish. But then I think we readers can be very selfish at times. When I long for a new novel from one of my favourite writers, it doesn’t occur to me to stop and consider them as anything other than literary machines–operating for my entertainment.
As a reader, I rarely think about what it’s like being at the other end of the equation–a struggling novelist hoping to get a book published, slaving away over a computer keyboard and sweating over bad reviews. Well if you’ve ever wondered these things, or if you’re just curious about writers in general, then I heartily recommend Elise Blackwell’s wonderfully entertaining, clever, and perceptive novel, Grub.
Grub, in case you wondered is the name of a posh restaurant in New York, and some of the action in the novel takes place there. But more than that, the book is also an updating of the Victorian novel, New Grub Street by George Gissing. This updated version begins at the Blue Ridge Writers’ Conference with several hopeful writers in attendance. There’s Jackson Miller–the black sheep of a very wealthy family. Competitive with a tendency towards arrogance, he oozes confidence. His friend, Eddie Renfros, managed to publish a first novel called Sea Miss, but it sank without trace and subsequently, Eddie has not been able to interest publishers in his second novel, Vapor. Amanda, Eddie’s ambitious wife, basically married Eddie for a life of fame that hasn’t materialized. With resentments simmering in their marriage, Amanda drives Eddie to write a third novel with more commercial considerations in mind. Other attendees include poor Henry Baffler, an unworldly purist obsessed with theories of New Realism and Margot Yarborough, the fey, sensitive daughter of arrogant, selfish writer Andrew Yarborough.
The young writers approach novel writing with different styles and regimes. Eddie acknowledges , “plot has always been the hardest but also the least important,” while Henry eavesdrops on a baliff to gather material for his novel. Jackson, on the other hand, with the deliberate decision to embrace commercialism “wanted to appeal to young readers, to hipsters, so he played with every trick he thought he could get away with: letters written in alternative typescripts, diaries that trail off pages with the suicides of their authors, the inclusion of small illustrations and visual puzzles, the occasional blank page signifying moral bankruptcy.” Amanda launches into a secret writing career while Margot quietly and patiently constructs her novel, and eventually sets out on a sad little book tour where she’s hounded by would-be writers.
Grub follows the fortunes of these novelists as they struggle with their novels–the difficulties of plot, the vagaries of character, brash literary agents and tacky jacket covers. While at times, I thought Grub portrayed novel writing and publication as all too easy to achieve, by the novel’s conclusion, I decided that on the contrary, the author had painted a rather bleak picture. A few authors, very few, hit the big time, but most sink into obscurity within a very short time. It would seem that the thick-skinned survive, while the fragile, more sensitive and ultimately better writers burn out, drop off, or fade away.
Blackwell presents a whole literary world for the reader–the other side of the coin for those of us who never have to sweat over a query letter, and the picture she paints isn’t exactly cutthroat; it’s indifferent with the publishing industry portrayed as pushing some desperate authors over the edge. Books are products to be marketed just like toilet paper or deodorant apparently, and quality seems to have little to do with it. We see some frantic authors checking negative reviews, engaged in bitter, petty battles of words with literary rivals, while other authors obsessively check their Amazon sales ranking. Meanwhile this industry creates its own bottom feeders–personified in this novel by the portly Jeffrey Whelpdale–a “writer” and so-called “manuscript doctor” who hasn’t published anything but who markets his services by convincing would-be writers that he’s a wizard in the book biz.
If you enjoy campus comedies, or if you’re just interested in the lives of writers, then give Elise Blackwell’s delightful novel, Grub, a try. Blackwell treats her characters with tolerance and affection while setting them solidly on career paths that will last the rest of their lives. The novel is written with style and wit, and while the tone is light and humorous, lingering regrets over the failure of some of the novelists resonate long after the last page. But then perhaps we are not all cut out to be authors. After all, the world needs readers too.