Good afternoon. Leela Bruce here. It's been a while since I beat the crap out of a dead white guy, so I'm looking forward to today.
Oh do my fists ever tingle when I see bullshit like that.
I was digging through some of Chris's old entries and I found out that he once had an encounter with a creative writing instructor who basically demanded the same thing. There's a strong concept of "the book inside you" or "the thing you're dying to say." There's a real sense that you won't (or can't) do any "real" writing until you figure out what that thing is as well. It is so prevalent in the pedagogy of CW programs that rather than focus on teaching a marketable skill (who goes to college for something like that, right?) an inordinate amount of energy is spent trying to "defeat" those trivial themes students are interested in exploring to get to some mythical creamy center of "worthy" subject matter--which... apparently has to do with childhood trauma and/or sexuality if the overwhelming subject matter of "literary" magazine short stories is any indication.
Yep, definitely time to kick some ass. It's probably not fair that I'm going to punch Fitzgerald in the face for every high-art, lit-snob, writing teacher that has come along since, but who says I'm fair?
Unless you're a masters in literature, or a seriously huge book nerd like Chris, there's only an infinitesimal statistical likelihood that you've read more than one thing of Fitzgerald's. Ever. Granted it is largely considered to be "The Great American Novel" in as much as what is missing from that should be: "The Great American Novel of White Heterosexual Males of the Last Century" but it is hard to say it isn't a decent read. The Great Gatsby is one of those books that almost everyone has read, most have read a few times, and this was even true before it was basically installed as a fixture in the American high school curriculum.
You may have heard a few things about Fitzgerald if you take an interest in that sort of thing. You might know he was born in the last few years of the 19th century, and did most of his well-known writing in the 20's. You may know about his friendship with Hemingway, about his raging alcoholism, about the fact that his wife was named after the eighteenth best selling video game franchise of all time (Zelda--we're glad she wasn't named Thetrisa). You may know he lived opulently in the French Riviera with other expatriats in a very romantiziced "writerly life" that still leads to misconceptions about writing to this day. These are the stories that are popular.
But here's what you maybe didn't know about Fitzy. This man was the biggest sellout ever to walk the purple mountains majesty. Take that you money-hating Humanities professors who think commercialism is a dirty word! Fitzgerald was the literary equivalent of a politician owned by the NRA. This guy couldn't convince Zelda he was worth taking a chance on until he sold This Side of Paradise (which did quite well for the day.) Then he goes back to her. If someone told me they couldn't get with me because I didn't have enough money, what I would do is peel out in their front lawn, race over to my nearest place of worship, and thank everything I think has any influence on such things that I found out before I was financially entwined. This guy finds out she's a gold digger and then COMES BACK WITH SOME GOLD.
The really sad part is that he was absolute shit with money. After his first novel went viral, he up and blew all his money....in the French Rivera....during the depression. How fucking unwise do you have to be to realize that spending all your money during the depression is not a good plan? You would think that somewhere along the line "Maybe we should move back to the States" would have crossed his mind. And in order to make money more he started writing short stories with what he called "commercial twists" (insisting they were deep and meaningful literary masterpieces within earlier drafts--before he grudgingly added the commercial parts). Both Fitzgerald and Hemingway called his work with Hollywood "whoring," but he did it anyway, and it soured that friendship. He sold short stories to magazines like Esquire to help shore up a flagging income. He borrowed so many advances from his agent that they had a falling out. Essentially he drank himself to death, claiming he had TB to hide the symptoms of his alcoholism, having heart attacks in his early forties and his fatal one at forty-four.
Are you starting to get the picture? Maybe not so much a guy you want to be taking advice from even though he was sort of the literary equivalent of a one-hit wonder? Even if you happened to be alive during the time. And you might be aware that there have been a few cultural and social changes since then as well.
Let me help bring it into even more focus. He was expelled from St. Pauls for being a poor student. He dropped out of Princeton for being a poor student. He joined the army after WWI was pretty much over. He adopted the lifestyle of New York Celebrities, which was why he was always in financial straits. When his wife, Zelda, published a book about their lives together and being captured by a monster named Gannon, not only did Fitzy get the book changed, but he also made Zelda's psychiatrists promise that they wouldn't let her write anymore of "his material." (Men could pull that shit on their wives back then.) Just so I make sure that last part was crystal clear, he got proprietary about their relationship as being "his material." He also talks constantly about the quality of genius in a way that makes it startlingly apparent that he thinks he unequivocally is one.
This guy pretty much screams "entitled assmongerface" from every pore of his body. Not only did he not really "have anything to say" when he wrote for a paycheck again and again (and again and again), but apparently what he did have to say involved a control of a story that we would find shocking and hideous in any modern context. Today, post-colonial literary analysis, Orientalism, and critical race theory have some pretty pointed things to say about the idea of voices in power that are unable to let go of controlling the narrative.
Now...when you're a young, white, heterosexual male, living the celebrity life the French Riviera off the proceeds from your FIRST AND ONLY book (technically it was his second--another was rejected) during the 1920's, when you're pretty much convinced you're a genius, literary and otherwise, despite flunking out of everywhere, and when you sort of view all the stories that you're involved in as "belonging to you" (even the one formed by the relationship between you and another fully sentient person), you reveal something pretty fundamental about your sense of self importance. Maybe you think that writing is something one does with purpose and determination like a precision laser, and maybe you have a certain disdain for those who use it in any other way.
But when a writer needs a paycheck (and not just because they overdid it in the Riviera but maybe because they want to pay your normal bills) they may just write to say something. When a writer writes more than four books before they're even a success, never mind EVER, they may develop a sense of what they want to say over their career. When a writer is not the most privileged voice in this world, but instead comes from a culture where their voices are marginalized, they may need to FIND that voice.
Joan Didion puts this succinctly as "I write to find out what I want to say," but many other writers echo her sentiments. When a writer has spent their recent cultural life having their stories stolen by assholes like you, Fitzy, they may need to find their words and even struggle a bit with them. Trust us when we say that the writing life is not so easy as it was for you Mr. One Book Success. Most of us do our best whoring at the BEGINNING of our career and aren't so self righteous about it later on.
And let's not forget when and where he was born. Life wasn't necessarily simpler back then, but people sure seemed to pretend that it was. America's star was on the rise. Men were MEN (*cough*). And women were women. And no one questioned those roles (or was taken seriously if they did). And everything in Fitzy's writing suggests he was pretty okay with that. And no one had yet looked at The Scream and thought "Yeah, that pretty much says it all." And no one had realized that the "war to end all wars" not only wouldn't, but was going to have a higher-budgeted and bigger-special-effects-sequenced sequel. And no one yet had to deal with the multiculturalism of an anti-communism immigration policy or women's liberation or civil rights or any of that stuff. And intellectually they didn't yet have deconstruction or post modernism or role theory or other kinds of criticism that involve the serious question about certain voices having control over all the stories. A privileged voice today might sit and wonder what the hell it even has worth saying. But you didn't really have that problem, did ya Fitzy?
Those of us who the universe DOESN'T revolve around have to actually work at this shit.
So that's why you get this power punch to the face Scotty, my boy. It's not because you never said anything poignant, meaningful, or resonant, or because your one uberbook isn't AWESOME. (It is.) It isn't because you aren't a fine writer. (You are.) It's for that crap that still gets echoed today by every high art snob as a reason to tell someone not to write what they enjoy. You get it right in the face.