30 July 2014

If You Choose to Live in a Garret

George Gissing, New Grub Street, Vol. I (London: Smith, Elder, 1891), pp. 92-94:
'What is reputation? If it is deserved, it originates with a few score of people among the many millions who would never have recognised the merit they at last applaud. That's the lot of a great genius. As for a mediocrity like me — what ludicrous absurdity to fret myself in the hope that half-a-dozen folks will say I am "above the average!" After all, is there sillier vanity than this? A year after I have published my last book, I shall be practically forgotten; ten years later, I shall be as absolutely forgotten as one of those novelists of the early part of this century, whose names one doesn't even recognise. What fatuous posing!'

Amy looked askance at him, but replied nothing.

'And yet,' he continued, 'of course it isn't only for the sake of reputation that one tries to do uncommon work. There's the shrinking from conscious insincerity of workmanship — which most of the writers nowadays seem never to feel. "It's good enough for the market"; that satisfies them. And perhaps they are justified.

I can't pretend that I rule my life by absolute ideals; I admit that everything is relative. There is no such thing as goodness or badness, in the absolute sense, of course. Perhaps I am absurdly inconsistent when — though knowing my work can't be first rate — I strive to make it as good as possible. I don't say this in irony, Amy; I really mean it. It may very well be that I am just as foolish as the people I ridicule for moral and religious superstition. This habit of mine is superstitious. How well I can imagine the answer of some popular novelist if he heard me speak scornfully of his books. "My dear fellow," he might say, "do you suppose I am not aware that my books are rubbish? I know it just as well as you do. But my vocation is to live comfortably. I have a luxurious house, a wife and children who are happy and grateful to me for their happiness. If you choose to live in a garret, and, what's worse, make your wife and children share it with you, that's your concern." The man would be abundantly right.