Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Triple-Headed Monster

One of the more depressing Victorian novels you can read is George Gissing's New Grub Street. Set in London, it chronicles Victorian literary men and women struggling to make a living from their pens. New Grub Street came out in 1891 in the typical format of the day: a novel in three volumes. The "triple-decker" was designed to maximize profits for publishers and lending libraries. It allowed libraries to charge a greater fee to subscribers. Think of Netflix, you can pay one fee for a single DVD or a higher fee for three simultaneous DVDs. A library subscriber would need to shell out more for three volumes than one.

Gissing's anti-hero, the popular Jasper Milvain, discusses the tyranny of the format with Edwin Reardon, the novel's most tragic figure:
Milvain began to expatiate on that well-worn topic, the evils of the three-volume system.

"A triple-headed monster, sucking the blood of English novelists. One might design an allegorical cartoon for a comic literary paper...."

"For anyone in my position," said Reardon, "how is it possible to abandon the three volumes? It is a question of payment. An author of moderate repute may live on a yearly three-volume novel--I mean the man who is obliged to sell his book out and out, and who gets from one to two hundred pounds for it. But he would have to produce four one-volume novels to obtain the same income; and I doubt whether he could get so many published within twelve months. And here comes in the benefit of the libraries; from the commercial point of view the libraries are indispensable. Do you suppose the public would support the present number of novelists if each book had to be purchased? A sudden change to that system would throw three-fourths of the novelists out of work."

"But there is no reason why the libraries shouldn't circulate novels in one volume."

"Profits would be less, I suppose. People would take the minimum subscription."
In the first volume of New Grub Street, Reardon finds himself destroying his health and his family trying to stretch a thin story over three-volumes: "Reardon's story was in itself weak, and this second volume had to consist almost entirely of padding." The Victorian reader, first encountering the book in its triple-decker format, must have dreaded picking up the second volume of New Grub Street after that warning.

Come see the book in all three volumes by asking for Val 826 G44 T641.

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1 comment:

  1. Brilliant and appropriately chilling post, leading us into the low-serotonin days of early winter. I envy those who have had the privilege of reading this book in the original three-decker version and I will come and visit the volumes when I'm next in Hanover.

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