Monday, April 11, 2011

Fitzgerald’s Writing

What made F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing unique?

Two factors. One is that, unlike today’s literary writers, he didn’t craft every sentence to be sparkling, a la John Updike. Much of his work consists of simple declarative sentences intended to advance the narrative, hook the reader, and set up the beautiful passages which stand out in our memories afterward. To use a baseball analogy, Scott Fitzgerald didn’t throw a fastball on every pitch.

Second, because as a youth he read a great deal of literary “pop,” pure unpretentious genre stuff, Fitzgerald was able to meld a pop sensibility with literary craft. This is notable about The Great Gatsby, which contains elements of romance and mystery which could’ve come out of a low-brow detective story. Fitzgerald understood the magic of pop lit, of how to create atmosphere and plot. Gatsby is one of the best-plotted works of fiction ever created.

Instead of writers today trying to duplicate Fitzgerald’s ability, we see instead a polarization of styles of writing. On one hand, purely commercial fiction with no depth of thought, and scant intelligence—no sense of intentionally creating significant fiction or crafting art. On the other extreme are workshopped literary writers who scorn narrative ability, whose focus is not on the reader, but who drop instead into egoistic lands of overwrought sentences about worlds existing inside their heads. What the two poles have in common is a retreat from the world.

Blend the pop and the literary like Fitzgerald did and you’ll resurrect the literary art.

To understand Scott Fitzgerald’s genius, read one of his Basil and Josephine popular stories, “The Captured Shadow.” Because he wasn’t intentionally creating “Literature,” he was freer with this kind of story to entertain himself. His natural ability flows freely. He ends up saying more about art, the mystery and magic of the creation of art—art’s ineffable qualities—than do other writers’ entire novels. Scott Fitzgerald had a pure naive wonder about the world and was able to convey this in his work.  


  1. From your description, it sounds like he wrote according to his tastes and that the writing was relatively easy for him (emphasis on relatively). Am I getting that right? What do you think of Hemingway's portrayal of him in Moveable Fesat?

  2. With the pop stuff, like the Basil and Josephone stories, which are a joy to read, he made it look easy. Then again, he spent years on Tender Is the Night. He set the bar very high for himself. I guess my point is that, because of his pop reading background, he brought more to the table than other writers.
    He was more sensitive than most people, which was his strength, that he was attuned to every nuance, the sense that "things go glimmering." He could pick out a crucial moment-- such as in "May Day" when blue light surges into the diner the revellers have found themselves in.
    (Fitzgerald, by the way was a huge influence on Salinger. Compare "Bananafish" with "May Day."
    I rank Fitzgerald higher, because he had a greater sense of the larger world. The opening to "May Day" places the tale within context, within a time and place. Salinger, rightly from his perspective, always seemed to be escaping from the world.)
    Re Moveable Feast: Hemingway was always settling scores and belittling rivals. He envied Fitzgerald's talent. I don't buy for a minute some of the things he says about Fitzgerald-- except maybe Scott lying under a table. They were both terrific alcoholics.
    (By the way, they were both involved in Tournament hijinks this past weekend, which I have yet to write-up. Still recovering myself.)
    The Lost Generation is a fascinating part of lit history. Recommended reading for more accuracy than "Feast":
    Geniuses Together by Humphrey Carpenter;
    Being Geniuses Together by Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle, on which Carpenter's work is based;
    Memoirs of Montparnasse by a Canadian writer whose name escapes me, but is the most compelling and revealing reflection of them all.
    John Glassco?
    Boyle's description of McAlmon handing a drink out a window to somebody captures the time.
    The McAlmon-Hemingway conflict is more interesting even than that between Fitz and Hem, in that in many ways McAlmon was more the "True Gen." Had a grittier background, more of a cowboy before he started writing, embodied much of the pose Hemingway adopted, also, as another work whose title I can't remember describes, was more of a street fighter and bar fighter than Hemingway. They started as friends and ended badmouthing each other relentlessly-- by the end of the Twenties apparently had it out in a Parisien street when Hemingway gave a very drunk McAlmon something of a beating. The whole story of that decade in Paris would make a great movie!

  3. Fitzgerald was certainly an influence on Salinger.. but so were Hemingway and Ring Lardner. Different story styles were influenced by different old masters.

  4. Oh, and Sherwood Anderson, also. I have a Hemingway story and an Anderson story coming soon on that, besides being great stories in and of themselves, show very clearly how they inform Salinger's style in some of his works.