Review of GRUB BY Elise Blackwell
This month, as some of you may know, is National Novel Writing Month, when writers and would-be writers are challenged to produce a book of 50,000 words in thirty days. I tried my hand at it this year for the first time (and, for anyone counting, am woefully behind at just over 20,000 words right now). Being thick in the middle of a writing project made it an extremely interesting time to read Grub, Elise Blackwell’s send up of the modern publishing industry and a retelling of George Gissing’s novel New Grub Street.
Blackwell’s book is populated with writers of every category: there’s Margot, who comes from a literary family and writes out of a pure love of words; Henry, who wants to push the limits of what constitutes a novel with little regard for what people will read; Eddie, who had an early taste of success but struggles to maintain it; and there are Jack and Amanda, who truly understand the marketing side of publishing and focus their efforts to what sells. Each is committed to writing, though most seem to take little to no joy in the endeavor. Moreover, only a very few of these characters are easy to like. Blackwell takes the admirable but sometimes trying step of giving most of her characters serious flaws. Alcoholism, adultery, arrogance—we’re just at the beginning of the alphabet of these characters’ failings. Impressively, though, Blackwell spins a story that is both entertaining and well worth reading despite this.
Her more outsized characters offer nods at some of recent history’s memorable literary media obsessions. One plotline suggests a J.T. LeRoy-like alter ego (though on a smaller scale; to do that story justice would require a dedicated novel unto itself). Another revives memories of Jonathan Franzen’s refusal to appear on Oprah when she chose his book, The Corrections, for her book club and the subsequent media blitz that eclipsed even her formidable ability to raise the public’s consciousness about a novel.
These sections of Grub are an entertaining diversion from the heart of the book: the daily struggle to not only write, which is hard enough, but to also then find an audience for what you’ve written. Blackwell does not shy away from some of the more frustrating aspects of the publishing industry and there is something of a cautionary tale to Grub. Luckily, those of us who are still 30,000 words or more from worrying about agents and publishers can read and enjoy Grub independently.
Originally appeared in Enfuse, a Colorado-based arts, culture, music, and literature publication with additional offices in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and Vancouver.