Category Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Links: Through the Cradle of the Civil War

Graceland versus Rowan Oak.

I read Alex Shakar‘s debut novel, The Savage Girl, in 2003, but I have no strong memories of it. (I had to consult I note I scribbled in an endpaper to remember when I read it.) Regardless, he spins a great yarn about how the best-laid promotional plans for the novel collapsed.

Edwidge Danticat on editing the story collection Haiti Noir: “We don’t always have to create pretty pictures around Haiti, but we are obligated to reflect or create fully realized human beings and that’s what our seventeen fiction writers did. I am really proud of that book. It’s not a rosy picture of Haiti, but it is nuanced and complex one. We are neither angels nor savages. Maybe that’s what fiction does best, define that middle ground.”

“While a full account of the role God plays in [David Foster] Wallace’s writing would probably take a monograph to flesh out, I’d like to point to a few moments in his work that one should pursue if one were to write that monograph.” (Chapter 22 of The Pale King welling up again; seriously, it should be sold as a Byliner-ish excerpt, or novella, or some other standalone publication.)

Jim Shepard talks up some of his favorite short-story collections, and his own work: “[W]riting about other things, if you’re doing so in the right way, is a great way of tricking yourself into writing about stuff you most care about. It can be a back door into difficult emotions. Especially if you’re a guy, you might have difficulty dealing with particularly vexed emotions to begin with. And particularly vexed emotions are the sort that power literature.” (via)

Harvard University Press has freed up the Ernest Hemingway chapter from A New Literary History of America, which discusses the influence of a family cabin in Michigan on his work.

Mad Men, John Updike‘s Maple stories, same diff.

Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America’s blog, recently turned a year old; it tallies up some of its most popular posts.

J.D. Salinger
, 1994: “I work on. Same old hours, pretty much.”

Roger Ebert is in a huff about an ESL version of The Great Gatsby; Jessa Crispin doesn’t see what the fuss is about.

Dinaw Mengestu goes to the Greek isle of Patmos and finds a waystation for migrants.

On Louisa May Alcott‘s brief stint as a Civil War nurse.

How Vladimir Nabokov stage-managed his interviews.

In defense of Jonathan Franzen‘s underappreciated second novel, Strong Motion.

“[Larry McMurtry] described The Last Picture Show as a ‘spiteful’ book that took three weeks to write and was intended to ‘lance some of the poisons of small-town life.'”

Arthur Phillips on Moby-Dick: “When we…went out to sea, it was something in between a realistic sea adventure and some other dreamlike lunacy – then I felt like I was in the hands of somebody who was inventing the novel as he wrote one. That same wonderful feeling. This is not exactly a sea adventure or a sea melodrama with an evil captain. There’s something much weirder going on.” (Nathaniel Philbrick‘s forthcoming Why Read Moby-Dick? has some thoughtful observations on these points, about which more soon, probably.)

Some elements by which to judge the success of an expat novel.

Legislators are trying to make a Mark Twain commemorative coin happen. No word on whether it’ll be embossed with the phrase, “Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God.”

Ceaselessly Into the Past

Washington City Paper is running my review of Tom Carson‘s new novel, Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter, a 600-plus-page comic tale whose protagonist, Pamela, gets a front-row seat to some of the key events and figures of World War II and the Cold War. Though the title suggests a kind of sequel to The Great Gatsby, the two books are about as similar to each other as Julie Andrews‘ “My Favorite Things” and John Coltrane‘s:

Right, about Gatsby. Though he expands on some of the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel—Daisy becomes a junkie, Nick Carraway becomes an adman and then a monk—it’d be off-target to call Carson’s book a sequel. Carson makes no attempt to ventriloquize Fitzgerald’s writing; he’s clearly not interested in its concision. The spirit of Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter is closer to that of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which provides another rich mine of pun fodder for Carson. Yet Pamela’s voice is Huckish only in its defiance and common sense, not its sound. Carson riffs on his inspirations, but he never echoes them. Why bother? As Twain would say, we’ve been there before.

Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter has a closer kinship to Carson’s previous novel, 2003’s Gilligan’s Wake, which displays the same style of furious, pun-heavy riffing. (At least in the early pages; I haven’t finished it, but eagerly intend to.) Last month on the blog Work-in-Progress, Carson wrote about some of the connections between Wake, Gatsby, and the new novel:

This isn’t even my first trip to F. Scott’s attic. I’d borrowed Daisy Buchanan to star in an episode of my novel Gilligan’s Wake back in 2003 and didn’t want to try the same trick twice. But then a sentence I’d written fairly idly in the spiteful voice of the future “Lovey” Howell, Daisy’s imaginary crony in the Jazz Age — “Of course, her daughter, Pamela Buchanan, became a writer, and I suppose that’s as good a way as any to fritter away your life when you’re too homely to catch a man” — started insisting it was an embryo. The next thing I knew, my grown-up Pam was sharing a laugh with Jack Kennedy after her bestselling book Glory Be got beaten out for the 1957 Pulitzer Prize by JFK’s Profiles in Courage.

In plenty of people’s eyes, this kind of bricolage is literary and for that matter historical parasitism. That’s a legitimate take. I’ve never had any interest myself in reading, say, Lo’s Diary. Maybe one reason Nabokov never learned to drive was that he just didn’t want to deal with pathetic or obnoxious hitchhikers. On the flip side — and I’m leaving myself out of this comparison, just noting the extremes –who’d want to tell Tom Stoppard that writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead betrayed his lack of originality?

The test of any idea is what you do with it.

True. And though the novel has its flaws—it gets saggy in places, and some of the gags get wearying—but Carson unquestionably has written something wholly original.

Links: Comment Thread

“Book reviews as extensions of the book: a review = a room with a door leading to the book. Perhaps some book reviews have multiple doors, one leading to the book, another leading to another review or to an interview with the author, a blog post about the book, an advertisement on a website or in a magazine, a phone conversation, a gchat, a video. The point is their interconnectivity.”

Andrew Seal adds his thoughts on Benjamin Kunkel‘s essay on the past decade in American fiction. Seal calls out a few blind spots in Kunkel’s argument, particularly the growing “internationalism or transnationalism of the American novel.”

Jane Smiley: “I know there are writers who don’t find their work easy or pleasant, but I do.”

Wendy Lesser, who’s written an excellent book on rereading, on rereading The Bostonians.

Lydia Davis is working on a new collection of stories, inspired in part by her recent work translating Madame Bovary.

What Mark Twain ate in the Northwest.

The World Socialist Web Site posits that Tobias Wolff‘s stories admirably connect personal lives and the larger social degradations of the Cold War era—unlike, I suppose, dirty realists and other contemporary American fiction writers, who just make up characters who get drunk and fight in motels.

Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement.”

Benjamin Percy hasn’t been to central Oregon since he graduated from high school there in 1997, but he’s committed to setting his fiction there.

Was Herman Melville‘s poem “Monody” an elegy for Nathaniel Hawthorne or not?

How giving away 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers during World War II may have cemented its reputation. (via)

Rosencrans Baldwin on his freelance writing gig for an upscale lifestyle magazine: “I did a back page humor column, and they wanted ‘luxury humor.’ I’m like, ‘What is luxury humor?’ They said, you know, jokes about chateaus and wineries and Greek islands. But it paid really well. I just thought: If I have to make knock-knock jokes about Merlot, I can do that.”

Links: New Deal

Guest editor Claire Messud dedicates the new issue of Guernica to women writers, including Holly Goddard Jones, Porochista Khakpour, and Elliott Holt. In her introductory essay, Messud writes: “Here’s the deal: men, without thinking, will almost without fail select men. And women, without thinking, will too often select men…. Our cultural prejudices are so deeply engrained that we aren’t even aware of them: arguably, it’s not that we think men are better, it’s that we don’t think of women at all.”

Aleksandar Hemon (also in Guernica): “I think the short story has been revived by these so-called immigrant writers; they do not know what the common lore is so they don’t care about it.”

John Updike never reviewed T.C. Boyle‘s books, and don’t think Boyle didn’t notice. But that that doesn’t mean Updike did him no favors.

This Side of Paradise will be a musical.

So will American Psycho.

Daniel Green has assembled an impressive list of major author interviews (i.e., non newspaper-phoners) that are available online. HTMLGiant wants suggestions for worthy additions to it. (I have one!)

Myla Goldberg: “Writing—it’s sort of the opposite of blogging and tweeting because I’m trying to conceal. I don’t want you to see me.”

Links: She’ll Never Know Your Story Like I Do

Two good links re: Roiphe and then we’ll move on: Andrew Seal uses the essay to dig into John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, while Anne Trubek argues that the foofaraw is a missed opportunity for a more serious discussion about sexism.

Cormac McCarthy had a few notes for the the director and screenwriter of The Road before it was released.

A documentary on Walker Percy is in the works.

Honeymooners: A Cautionary Tale, Chuck Kinder‘s 2001 “nonfiction novel” about his friendship with Raymond Carver, has been reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press. The new edition includes letters that Carver wrote to Diane Cicely, now Kinder’s wife.

A appreciation of J.D. Salinger, who recently turned 91, notes that you might occasionally find him in the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College.

The director of Gatz, a stage adaptation of The Great Gatsby in which the entire text of the novel is presented over six and a half-hours, discusses how and why he did it.

John Updike has an agent, finally.

“The book was no fun to write”: Anne Tyler is avoiding the hard sell for her new novel, Noah’s Compass.

Links: Rod and Reel

In a Philip Roth interview with the Wall Street Journal—that would be the Roth interview that doesn’t address green dildos—he talks about his current reading habits, which mainly includes old favorites. “Mostly what I’m doing is rereading stuff that I read in my 20s, writers who were big in my reading life who I haven’t read in 50 years. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, Turgenev, Conrad. I’m trying to reread the best before… I die.”

“Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence”—a lovely piece by Alexander Chee about studying writing under Annie Dillard.

Atlas Shrugged and Ralph Nader’s new novel, Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!, have more in common than you might think.

Dan Green takes a close, thoughful look at Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, but determines (rightly, I think) that The Subterraneans is in many ways a superior work.

The American Scholar takes a close, thoughtful look at F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s tax returns.

Ethan Canin on the film adaptations of his work: “Movies are big, exciting, hopeful collaborations, brought down by venality, pandering, and greed.”

Lionel Shriver opens up about using her family as source material for her novel A Perfectly Good Family.

The Nation on the novels of Don Carpenter. (subscription req’d)

A gallery of Tom Adamscurious paperback covers for Raymond Chandler novels.

Writers aren’t doing too well in the Baltimore Sun‘s contest to declare the area’s biggest local celebrity, but Anne Tyler‘s still in the running.

In related news, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, and Dennis Lehane speak out on the importance of the late James Crumley.

“The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved.”

Should you wait until you’re 40 before attempting to read Moby-Dick?

Baltimore: City of Dirges and Elegies

This week about 100 or so F. Scott Fitzgerald scholars and aficionados convene in Baltimore for the conference of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society. Madison Smartt Bell will give a keynote address, John Barth and Alice McDermott will attend a buffet dinner, people will give presentations like “Classy Cars: Automobiles as Representations of Class Tensions in The Great Gatsby,” and visitors will get a bus tour of the city where Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, lived for five years, starting in 1932. According to a preview piece on the conference in the Baltimore Sun, he spent a much of that time drunk or getting there, hanging out either with various women or writer pals like H.L. Mencken, who published his first short story.

“It’s a little dark,” society vice president Kirk Curnutt tells the Sun of that period. More detailed proof of that comes from the work of another conference attendee, Scott Donaldson, the author of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days, a new critical biography of the two authors. Donaldson details how Fitzgerald finally wrapped up Tender Is the Night while in Baltimore, but also fell into the alcoholic despair that would eventually result in the autobiographical essay collection The Crack-Up:

Fitzgerald wrote his three “gloom articles,” as he referred to them in his Ledger, in the fall of 1935. He finished “The Crack-Up itself in October 1935, “Pasting It Together” and “Handle with Care” in December. At the time he was suffering through an extremely low period in his life, during which he attempted to deaden with liquor and sex the awareness that Zelda would never be wholly well, the realization that his earning power had drastically diminished while the bills mounted ever higher, and the sense that he’d let his life and his talent waste away. In 1935 and 1936, he observed, “all my products were dirges & elegies.”

When [Esquire editor] Arnold Gingrich came calling in Baltimore one day in the spring of 1935, he found Fitzgerald in a “ratty old bathrobe” moaning about having to write another story of young love. He couldn’t do them with enthusiasm any more, and the idea of having to produce one brought up his “cold gorge.” “Well, why not write about that?” Gingrich suggested, then thought no more of the matter until, in the fall, the first of the three “Crack-Up” pieces turned up on his desk.

Links: Elder Wisdom

That post I wrote on Susan Bell‘s essay about revising The Great Gatsby? The Elegant Variation has the full text of it.

That post I wrote on Charles Taylor‘s essay about Donald E. Westlake? Sarah Weinman has plenty of thoughtful follow-up comments on The Ax.

Marilynne Robinson has a few thoughts on reading Edgar Allan Poe as a child.

Ethan Canin figures the future of American fiction is increasingly in Madagascar.

I wasn’t able to make it to BookExpo America this year. I feel a little more bummed that I wasn’t able to make it to the Calabash International Literary Festival, at which Edwidge Danticat tag-teamed with Junot Diaz and Robert Pinsky expounded on the history of the saxophone.

Guitarist Ry Cooder has just published his first book of fiction, Los Angeles Stories. You’ll have to attend one of his shows to pick up a copy.

Planning a summer road trip? Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Flannery O’Connor’s farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Mr. Fix-It

Because I don’t write fiction, I tend not to read much about craft. Francine Prose‘s fine 2006 book on the subject, Reading Like a Writer, is one exception, as are the three fascinating collections of Paris Review interviews. More recently, I’ve surprised myself at how much I’ve enjoyed flipping through The Writer’s Notebook, a collection of essays based on seminars given at the annual Tin House Summer Writing Workshop from Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, and others. One of the first pieces I gravitated toward was Susan Bell‘s essay on the revisions of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, which quickly but thoughtfully addresses the rigors involved in rethinking one’s writing—as well as the close, delicate relationship between a writer and editor while making fixes.

Fitzgerald’s editor was Maxwell Perkins, a consummate diplomat. As Bell writes, shortly after Perkins received the manuscript of the novel, “the editor diagnosed its kinks, the wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism.” After writing that the book and Fitzgerald’s talents are “most extraordinary,” Perkins brings the bad news, which is pretty serious:

Gatsby is somewhat vague. The Reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

That Fitzgerald took this critique of one of the story’s main support beams with such appreciation speaks to his confidence in the story. As he wrote back to Perkins, the “vagueness I can repair by making more pointed—this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” As Bell explains, Fitzgerald didn’t need much prodding and querying; Perkins, she writes, “didn’t mark up Fitzgerald’s text word for word, didn’t roll up his shirtsleeves, dig in, and reposition the prose.”

The downside of being an editor with a strong eye for structure, apparently, was a certain ineptitude at catching factual errors. As the late Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli explains, Perkins could exasperate his colleagues. Charles Scribner Jr., for his part, seemed barely tolerant: “Perkins was totally useless when it came to copy editing or correcting a text,” he wrote. “Such details meant very little to him. Consequently, the early editions of books such as Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were textually corrupt to a nauseating degree.”

For instance, numerous small corrections, neglected by Perkins, were requested for the text by others: Fitzgerald’s friend Ring Lardner noticed a handful of errors that were flagged too late to be integrated into the first edition. At issue was stuff like what train left from what station. But it was a time when reviews sold books and reviewers could be fussy. As Lardner wrote, “these things are trivial, but some of the critics pick on trivial errors for lack of anything else to pick on.”

Links: The Names

comomonwealthhonorees20091

Here’s Don DeLillo, winner of the 2009 Common Wealth Award, along with three fellow winners who, unlike him, don’t seem to mind smiling: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kevin Spacey, and Buzz Aldrin.

Growing up bookish in Chicago meant, at least for me, that Nelson Algren was all but unavoidable, but apparently that’s not true in the rest of the country, according to a Los Angeles Times report, which includes comments from DeLillo and Russell Banks. Just wait until everybody gets a load of Stuart Dybek.

The Great Gatsby: the ballet.

Alice Walker‘s papers are now available at Emory University. The university’s Web site includes a slideshow of some of the more interesting holdings, including the invoice of Walker’s purchase of a headstone for Zora Neale Hurston‘s tomb.

Andrew Seal has what I’m hoping will be the last word on the Walter Benn Michaels foofaraw. I’m grateful that somebody’s willing to marshal the intellectual rigor to dismantle Michaels’ bloviations, and get in a few good zingers too. (“To say that Michaels is being absolutist is like saying an elephant is heavyset.”) Seal also points to video of the New York Public Library event that inspired all the chatter.

Literary agent Eric Simonoff, whose roster includes Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many other heavy hitters, discusses his recent jump to the William Morris Agency in Crain’s New York Business. He points to the recent six-figure sale of Danielle Trussoni‘s debut novel, Angelology, to Viking as proof that the publishing industry isn’t completely off the rails: “It was viewed as a test case, to see if we can still fall in love with a book and pay lots of money,” he says. “The answer is yes. There are still enough publishers, and few enough great books, that we can.