- Reviewed by
As Marxism lies dying throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Marxist theory is alive and well in British and American departments of English—what D. H. Lawrence might have called Marxism in the head. John Sloan wrote George Gissing: The Cultural Challenge well before recent history's astonishing challenge to Marxism itself. Some sections appeared as articles in 1985 and 1986, and the whole book grew out of a doctoral thesis at Balliol College, Oxford. Since then a new epoch has dawned. In any case, the principal object of Sloan's ideological [End Page 596] reproaches—"liberal humanism"—served throughout the 1980s as a common whipping boy for literary Marxists such as Terry Eagleton. Sloan argues that in Gissing's novels a despairing form of humanistic liberalism undermines its own assumptions and so paves the way for ultimate enlightenment—presumably of a socialist kind.
Out of twenty-two Gissing novels, Sloan analyzes thirteen, primarily the more skillful ones. Yet his method makes literary virtues irrelevant. For example, the immature Workers in the Dawn (1880) lends itself well to Sloan's ideological jujitsu. Workers' inept portrayals of impotent solutions to mass social ills—philanthropy, education, the religion of humanity, philosophic idealism, or art for art's sake—permit Sloan to demonstrate how they deconstruct themselves. The worse the book gets, the stronger his arguments. But his method cannot shed light on the immense superiority of New Grub Street (1891) or Born in Exile (1892) to the poorly written Workers.
Although Gissing's novels invite an ideological approach, Sloan sticks too closely to his own narrow formula: show a conflict of social ideas and then claim that as a virtue. At times he does come up with an admirable insight: a comparison of The Odd Women (1893) with James's The Bostonians (1886), or a discussion of Ada Warren in Isabel Clarendon (1886) as a unisex protofeminist. Yet Sloan's book displays far less perspicacity about details of the novels than an earlier Marxist study—John Goode's George Gissing: Ideology and Fiction (1978).
Sloan also lacks the stylistic graces of a witty Marxist critic such as Eagleton. Sentences like the following clot Sloan's prose: "What I have tried to show, however, is how Gissing's very lack of imaginary supersession disturbs the satisfactions of contemplative approaches to narrative mimesis in a way that provides a series of unique insights into the historical and social conflicts that his fictional world would seek to resolve." Apart from the clumsy doublet "however . . . how," the enfolding of one that clause by another, and the clutter of prepositional abstractions, pretentious diction obscures the meaning here. What is "imaginary supersession," and why call it that anyway? And why are "the satisfactions" of "narrative mimesis" "contemplative"—similar, perhaps, to gazing at one's navel? More attention to style might have sharpened Sloan's ideological perceptions in themselves. But one suspects that he would dismiss such criticism as simply another form of "liberal humanist" quibbling. [End Page 597]