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Grub by Elise Blackwell

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Grub reveals grubby secrets about the grubbing aspiring novelists undertake, forsaking art to put grub (and bling) on the table.


Publisher: Toby Press
ISBN: 1592641997
Author: Elise Blackwell
Price: $24.95
Length: 380
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-08

Grub by Elise Blackwell, a University of South Carolina English professor, reveals grubby secrets about the grubbing aspiring novelists undertake, forsaking art to put grub (and bling) on the table.

By novel's end, you're likely to rate writers below grubs on the evolutionary scale.

Yes, Blackwell explores all the meanings attached to her title, as well as its past: Her dedication page reads, "This contemporary retelling of George Gissing's New Grub Street is dedicated to every writer with an unpublished novel."

If every writer with an unpublished novel bought Blackwell's, she would be a rich woman, indeed.

New Grub Street, published in 1891 and set in Victorian London, made Gissing's reputation (it's considered a classic) but not his fortune -- and money is often the point in New Grub Street and Grub. We all like to eat, and some of us prefer caviar.

Blackwell is faithful to Gissing's attitude, plot and characters. She focuses on a smoothie out for money and fame but intrigued by the daughter of a bitter, fading man-of-letters: Jackson Miller, Margot and her father Andrew Yarborough.

Equally important are a novelist struggling to sell a second novel, produce a third and not lose his ambitious wife, and the wife, who turns to her own pragmatic pen: Eddie and Amanda Renfros.

Here's Jackson at a writers' conference party: "Impressing Yarborough was the most important move he could make in his career, he calculated, at least until he had actually written a book of his own."

Here's Amanda, deciding to write a novel: "Nothing too light or vapid -- this was, after all, the post 9/11 world -- but nothing too complicated either. From studying best-seller lists and reading the book reviews in women's magazines, she knew that the most popular trends were telepathic or at least empathetic animals, themes of loss and emotional restoration, and novels about people in paintings or the painters who painted them."

Here's Jackson designing his future best-seller: "I'm filling it with stuff that the book-club and college crowds will eat up. Different typescripts, the occasional blank page, a hodgepodge of diary pages and letters. ... The idea is to make the reader feel clever. ..."

Jackson later tells Margot, "I'm moving around attractive stockbrokers, cocaine, gigolos, a dash of deviant sex."

When Eddie succumbs to an outline, a plot (and drink), in his desire to sell another book, his agent complains that his work is a "bit quiet."

Eddie objects: "There's a plane crash, adultery, bribery, surgery on a child's ear, a world premiere, a drunken cellist and a beautiful shameless slut of a violin player."

The only bearable characters are Margot and pitiful Henry Baffler, who willingly starves as he experiments with writing philosophies, a new "New Realism," followed by "open and circular."

Henry participates, at the Museum of Ultra-Contemporary Art, in an exhibit of living writers: "... considerably less popular than the fecal art show..." and ends up selling flash (extremely short) fiction on the street.

Margot is writing The Reluctant Leper, which deals with 19th-century Louisiana and Carville, its leper colony. She stands in for author Blackwell; her second book was The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which deals with a 1927 Louisiana flood and contains a character sent to Carville.

This is a catch to enjoyment of the book: inside references and jokes that will pass most of us by. Another catch: Every writer is anticipating, or victim to, agents' and publishers' definitions of the market, but we get only tiny glimpses of these puppetmasters.

On the other hand, if you enjoy reprehensible characters clawing their way toward fortune and fame (or disaster) -- certainly the theme of many a best-seller -- you'll enjoy Blackwell's ironic take on the writing life.


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