Distances

Writer From “East Nowhere”

I have finished it: I have read The Great Gatsby in full.

It is the first time I’ve read it since high school, and you may remember in a post the other day I recalled that uninspiring school experience. One does sadly wonder: how many teens may give up on reading because they are classroom force-fed non-age-appropriate literature that they, to be honest, don’t have the maturity yet really to understand and appreciate?

Gatsby is indeed worth a read as an adult. As I finished it, however, I thought I still did not feel it necessarily deserved the title of the “greatest” American novel. That said, it is superb, and I enjoyed it.

[The last page of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Photo by me, 2019.]

Yet for all of the praise heaped on it today, it is worth remembering it did not make its 29 year old author F. Scott Fitzgerald much money or win him wild applause upon its initial publication. Its 1925 first printing sales were weak. (He blamed those poor sales at least partly on the fact novels were read mostly by women and Gatsby lacked an “admirable” woman character.) Depressed by that, as well as by quite a few mixed – and even poor – reviews, Fitzgerald would not write another full novel for nine years.

He did earn a bit of extra money from a silent film adaptation that was made in 1926; but that adaptation was not a huge hit either (the proof of that being perhaps that the film is now lost; only the trailer exists). Logically, given his age, he should have lived to have at least seen the 1949 version. Perhaps he should have even been at the premiere of Robert Redford’s 1974 version, when he would have been age 78.

It was not to be. He had been an alcoholic throughout his adult life, and would suffer heart attacks during the late-1930s and die of one in 1940 at only age 44. (That age may seem “old” to some of you now, but trust me you will come to discover it is NOT.) Naturally he had no idea the impact his Gatsby would make in the decades that followed and he died apparently considering himself, essentially, a failure.

Thinking again on Fitzgerald’s fate, I stumbled into reflecting once more upon what my (late novelist) uncle once said to me: “Why the hell would [anyone] want to be a writer?”

[Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997, in paperback. Photo by me, 2019.]

I was then (in 2013) writing my first book and privately hemming and hawing as to if I should tell him what I had been doing (especially because I had fictionalized him), so I could only smile to myself as he blurted that out to me over the phone. He didn’t answer his own question. I did not press him, but I wish now that I’d had.

Here, some six years – and four completed books – since then, is my own weak attempt to answer that “why”: We want to do it because we love it and hope readers will love what we do; when you love something the rational goes out the window; we are sure the next book will be THE BOOK; that irresistibly causes us to keep going in the face of naysayers, ridicule, occasionally blistering criticism, and endless self-doubts; but always lingering in the back of our mind as well is that we are ultimately deluding ourselves: failure is indeed the most likely outcome. Yet despite the odds against us we are not to be dissuaded.

[Excerpt from Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997, in paperback. Photo by me, 2019.]

If you don’t know, my real middle name is actually “James.”

[Excerpt from Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997, in paperback. Photo by me, 2019.]

As my uncle also told me (probably more than once) of his own experience at a typewriter (later a PC): “It’s great as a writer to be able to get away with ‘stuff’ like that.”

Uh, to be clear (and honest) here, he had used – as you see – rather another word for “stuff” that also started with “s”. (I “censored” that excerpt there; this is a public blog. The original vulgarity is in the actual book.)

[Excerpt from Distances: Atlantic Lives, 1996-1997, in paperback. Photo by me, 2019.]

Well, I’m not from “East Nowhere” precisely. (Although I did grow up in a Long Island village starting with “East.”) Call a comment like that maybe the little bit of “Nick Carraway”/Scott Fitzgerald lurking in all of us. It is also great as a writer to be able both to step out of the real you while at the same time penning the same real you all over those pages.

I have been thinking for some months that the next next book should probably be some return to that late 20th century or even more recently. It is useful as a writer to think about not just today or next month or this year. I have discovered previously that planning “a book ahead” beyond the current effort helps one from stalling out creatively.

Regardless it is inevitable as well that someday there must be no next book, and when that time arrives what has an author left behind? Gatsby’s centennial will be in 2025, and suddenly that does not seem all that far away. All of those original critics who had given the book its mixed reviews in magazines and in newspapers are now often long dead, and even many of their magazines and newspapers are gone now too; but clearly The Great Gatsby is most certainly still with us all.

Have a good weekend, wherever you are. 🙂

2 replies »

  1. Yes, I have often wondered about the texts secondary students are forced to read. I remember reading Gatsby in high school, and although I didn’t mind it, I probably didn’t understand it. Now, as an adult, I have a much greater appreciation for the text. I guess for some students it won’t matter. Like us, they will continue to read and love literature. However, for those already disenchanted with reading, it could be the last straw. As my daughter was completing high school just a few years ago, I noticed that some of the same texts I studied, were still on the syllabus, just over thirty years later!

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    • In the “Gatsby” case, many teens do seem bored by it. I feel it’s because they just can’t identify with what it’s about; they lack the maturity. And it was, we always forget, not written for a “15 year old” in high school; its intended audience was adults. What is remarkable too is for all the talk we see of “updating” what teens are assigned in school, school reading lists I’ve seen or been told about seem pretty much the same as when I was in school (uh, too long ago now).

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