The Artist, Not the Art

In which I reassert an opinion

A short while ago I read a collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ones he sold to magazines to make extra money (read: stay afloat) between novels.“Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” etc. Most were written by the early 1920s but sold in the ‘30s.

I was glad to have read them. In fact, the act of reading reaffirmed a long-held suspicion: that I don’t enjoy Scott’s work very much. That I am largely fascinated by his life and method and largely frustrated by the content of his catalogue.

No doubt he writes well and displays a special knack for description. I like his voice, and even what he writes about for the most part. It’s his characters who bother me. They just happen to appear unsympathetic and sometimes even flat. Now, their definition—or lack thereof—could be a product of my considering them a century after the fact, in light of all the progress that has supposedly taken place since then. It also begs the question, currently plaguing Hollywood, of how likable characters ought to be. Isn’t it truer to life in many ways to depict corrupted people with unsavory characteristics?

But first a bit of background. Ever since reading The Great Gatsby at fifteen I’ve had a weird thing for Scott. Don’t ask me why, I can’t exactly put my finger on it. The pictures of him prove that he was as capable of looking terrifying as attractive, and the descriptions of him by such frenemies as Ernest Hemingway suggest a person whose constant insecure jabber would annoy me to death. It sounds like he was really only aggressive and unpleasant when he was drinking, but then it sounds like he was drinking…all the time.

I’ve talked about him and Zelda, so that’s a factor. I became invested in them around the time of—partly because of—my own first romantic relationship. My boyfriend, who knew of my interest, sent me the newly published Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and it remains one of the reasons I continue to read (and write) historical fiction. So I associate their story with a certain period and experience in my life. Which could explain the attachment.

From there it was natural to sort of accept Gatsby at face value. Here were these people I liked, whose narrative was reflected in a heady, lively era, whose fictional alter egos threw crazy parties and had intense affairs. All stuff I wasn’t exactly doing in high school, so you can’t fault me for seeking the vicarious thrill. But it took only a couple years and a slightly closer look to realize that something is really off about every single person in that story. And it took only one more novel, The Beautiful and Damned, to realize that maybe the problems weren’t unique to those characters. And then it took this collection to cement in my mind the sad but ultimately unsurprising truth that these characters are in fact All The Same.

Young male character “goes East” to an Ivy or (worse) finishing school, meets fellow males with whom he probes the root of money and power, meets girl who appears to be some kind of woodland sprite or other inhuman, unattainable creature. Expensive hijinks ensue. Needless to say, the cast of his collective works encompasses the whitest bunch of white kids you’ve ever seen.

Rehashing this template in various tessellations starts to grate before very long. What makes the short stories worth engaging with is the almost science-fiction/magical-realism element to them, particularly “Benjamin Button” and “The Diamond.” Things happen that the characters can’t explain; nature doesn’t always behave according to laws we recognize. One imagines that, had Scott received a certain kind of mentoring or led another kind of life, he would have grown and developed the presence of those genres in his work and could easily have left quite a different legacy.

As it is, he gets bogged down in the character tropes. One upside to Gatsby is that he evidently outgrew some of said tropes by the time he wrote it, or at least knew how to do the tropes better. Everyone is older and a little (or a lot) jaded, factors which exacerbate their interpersonal drama. Jordan Baker is no woodland sprite; nor does the label apply to Daisy Buchanan, as there are too many far more condemning things to say about her. The really remarkable thing is that it compels me in spite of its characters being so dislikable. Or maybe because of? That’s a surprising, subversive success. I don’t care what happens to these morally (and, in some cases, financially) bankrupt people—so why do I care about the story?

A discussion of what draws us to such situations can be a derailing one. I had a morbid fascination with Gone With the Wind upon first seeing it in my late teens, but I wouldn’t classify determining which character suffers from which severe personality disorder as ‘enjoying’ a film. Sometimes you just find yourself there, in a fictional world you would avoid at all costs if it were real, and you don’t know why you can’t bring yourself to leave.

A writer who gets you into that fix has obvious chops. Like I said, the guy’s talent was never up for debate in my mind. And Gatsby, first and best in my experience, continues to influence me in ways big and small. It’s a bit too late to escape it.

The matter is complicated. But regarding the question recently put to me of whether I’m no longer a Scott fan, I can happily answer that that isn’t the case. I’m a bigger fan than ever, just properly aware that my fandom has always been more for the artist than the art.

Image: from the Bruccoli Collection. When he was fine, he was fine as hell, though, amirite?

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti is a freelance writer-editor based in Berlin, Germany, with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. Her free time goes toward singing, dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, trying to finish her Netflix queue, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her artist-heroes. Connect with her on Twitter (@CeciliaGelato), Instagram (@c_m_giglio), and YouTube (Lia Lio).

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