Paging F. Scott Fitzgerald: Please Rescue Modern Fiction
The joys, surprises, and reminders of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost short stories also remind us that almost no one writes so well and so entertainingly these days.
In college, I stopped going to class because I wasn’t learning anything, and started staying home and giving myself my own education, which involved reading everything by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I am not stinting on the meaning of that word “everything.” It all went into the hopper: the novels and stories, of course, but also the notebooks, the letters, a play, an essay he wrote with his wife Zelda about a bad car of theirs, his poems. But what I didn’t read—though I heard tell of them—were the stories works in this new volume, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories.
Sometimes you’d see them mentioned in a letter Fitzgerald wrote to his agent, Harold Ober, who doubled as his life coach, fund-provider, debt-bailer-outer, put-upon friend, but the stories had gone missing, or had never been remembered in the first place. Like many things in life, though, no matter how buried, the stories have turned up over the years, thanks to literary archeologists, and now they’re in one place where we can gather and say, “Oh my, here is one masterpiece after another at the level of ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ and ‘Winter Dreams’ and ‘Babylon Revisited’!”
Alas, I’m lying with that last bit. There’s only one story at that level here, and more on it in a bit, but together as a whole the stories are one formidable tonic, and also a reminder—if you are still someone who even pays attention to such things—how far the art of language has fallen within literature and publishing.
When there is published fiction in this world that is not romance, erotica, some thriller written by a team of hands under a more famous author’s name, it tends to go under the umbrella of literary fiction. It’s a label I bristle at were someone to apply it to anything I wrote, because it almost always signifies the same thing: stories that are not for your entertainment or edification, but with huge, blocky paragraphs, characters from the upper middle class who all talk alike, think alike, and sound like the actual writer, because that actual writer is simply regurgitating their life.
This usually involves time at an expensive boarding school, maybe an Ivy League college, then the inevitable MFA. The sentences are invariably subject-verb, subject-verb, the stories utterly lifeless, joyless, humorless, turgid, painful to read.
Reading MFA fiction feels like homework. I don’t believe any of it will last. When people say they like it, I have to believe they’re pretending, like I used to say I liked Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans when I was an 18-year-old moron, carrying around books not because I enjoyed them or they brought anything to my life, but because I was insecure and I thought being seen with them meant I was smart.
What it meant was that I needed to grow up. The thing about MFA fiction is that any of your friends out in the world, away from publishing, will roll their eyes over how godawful it is, like it’s a satire of what serious literary is supposed to be. It’s not for readers; it’s for people who perpetuate a system that kills literature.
Even when he wasn’t writing masterpieces, this was never an issue with Fitzgerald, as this book bears out. At the level of the sentence, he couldn’t not write well. There is always a phrase to delight in, a new use for an old word, a snatch of dialogue that pops from the page of the lives of invented characters and informs yours as though it was meant to talk solely to you.
The opening story, “The I.O.U.,” about a charlatan-scholar who writes a massive selling scam of a book about his dead nephew—who isn’t dead at all—is hilarious, with Fitzgerald ripping on the publishing mores of his time, while flush with success. Just like he couldn’t not write well in terms of the language he deployed, he couldn’t not tell the truth.
The story is long on charm, one of the hardest qualities for a writer to realize; it’s slight, yes, but it’s also something knocked off for payment, and it will give you a nice goosing during your day, and stay with you for several more.
The title story is a Hollywood pastiche, with a focus on suicide. This was not what Fitzgerald’s audience was wanting. Or so his editors and would-be editors thought. At one point, in 2017 dollars, Fitzgerald was paid $55,000 a story. And yet, he always needed funds, with his reckless spending—dude was a wastrel in the extreme—and Zelda’s care.
He’d balk at the typecasting, at one point telling Ober, “I’d rather put Zelda in a public insane asylum and live on Esquire’s $200 a month” instead of making edits in a story he believed in. Fair play. This was a man who was always writing sentences like these, selected at random from the new book: “She felt a sound in front of her eyes, like a miner’s lamp exploding.” “That’s the end of Roger and me,’ she thought, next morning. ‘I never loved him—he was only my best friend.” “For a moment, standing in by the summer window, she forgot them all and the same vague nostalgia for something she had never known had rushed over her.”
These are bits of language in isolation, and you could carry out that exercise all day and Fitzgerald would always look good. Where he struggles, when he is writing at crazy speeds, with a need for funds, is in how the stories can have their narratives unevenly distributed, with rushed endings, disjointed characterizations. But you always get something, and you get more than anything I see anywhere now. A story here can be 8,000 words long, but it never feels like it, because there is an emphasis on entertainment—and on keeping you emotionally entertained, not simply plot-entertained—and Fitzgerald always writes in a way that I think of as writing downhill.
When most writers fashion a long sentence, you’re going to have to retrace your steps through the earlier clauses of it, trying to understand where the various parts synch up and bind with each other. An MFA long sentence is painful for this reason. You always are having to go back to try and go forward, an undertaking your heart is never in, because the story itself will be bereft of any, so why should you care?
Fitzgerald’s clauses always proceed downhill, going forward, so that a lot of the action of reading is provided by their momentum. You simply need to sit there and ride along. The best writing never makes the reader feel like they’re reading. It gives them an experience, transports them, black ink on white parchment acting as teleporter to new realms, feelings, emotions, truths.
Sometimes I imagine teaching a fiction class, and starting off the first day by saying, okay, everybody get a piece of paper, or use your laptop, I want you to write a very short short story, you have twenty minutes. And then, thirty seconds later, I’d tell everyone to stop, and ask each person what they chose to write about.
I bet in every instance, each person would have reached back to their own memory bank, their own set of experiences, that big thing that happened to them—which, often, in the grand scheme of life, isn’t that big at all, we discover—as the fodder for their story. That’s human nature. What’s ironic, though, is great art is so predicated on invention that goes beyond who we are or what its creator has experienced.
Not always, of course. After all, Melville had to hop aboard a whaler leaving from New Bedford to begin to get a bead on Moby-Dick. But a lot of what happens in that story isn’t anything that happened to Melville himself. People at that time, though, had richer life experiences. What is the life experience of someone who was often probably frequently on their own studying, went to those exclusive schools, became a teacher at one of them, wrote on the side and traded favors with cronies to get in literary magazines? Is there much derring-do in your emotional life if that’s your backstory? I’d wager, no. Do we need more stories about being in an MFA program, or being a professor wanting to get tenure, contemplating an affair, not having the affair, not getting the tenure—the horror—and acquiescing to have his daughter go to Yale rather than his alma mater of Harvard? Good God, no.
Fitzgerald certainly invented, but he also drew on his own life. The parties that were always bittersweet, the Hollywood failures, Zelda’s mental illness, his battles of endurance, a suicide attempt, what he believed was wasted talent. He had a great ability, though, for channeling those feelings, and putting them into the lives of characters whose life-details differed greatly from his own. He was always a fiction writer, as these once-scattered stories bear out further, never someone who converted autobiography into something that others called fiction.
The book’s chief contender for a Fitzgerald “Best Of” is a story he began around Christmastime 1935 called “The Pearl and the Fur.” Fitzgerald had complained to Ober that he didn’t write women as well as he wished, but he must have known how well he wrote girls. Especially ones with character, who would grow up, one presumes, to be the sort of strong, stabilizing, talented, brilliant presences that Fitzgerald seemed to crave in the form of a single female adult, whom he never did find before his death at 44.
So he’s certainly emotionally invested in Gwen, a 14 year old who takes a trip to New York City with a chaperone and a few of her friends. It’s a highly supervised venture, with an interlude: an afternoon when each of the girls is free to roam on their own, experiencing the city that way, for that first time.
Gwen ends up at the very bottom of New York, in a cab, where she makes a discovery, which leads to a brief excursion upon an ocean liner, and culminates in the dreary room of the cab hack, where this young woman—for she is a young woman by the story’s end—does something that you or I might very well not, though we should, were we in the same position.
Fitzgerald simply writes, “She was happy, and a little bit older.” And you know what? We are, too. In all of the good ways, in all of the ways that last in some form or other inside of us, after the plot details and the final outcome has faded from our conscious minds. Because that is one way, a very Fitzgerald-esque way, that things become a part of us, never to leave.