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New Left Review I/21, October 1963


Brian Way

Scott Fitzgerald

The best writing of most great novelists seems their natural level, and their worst writing an unfortunate lapse. With Fitzgerald it is just the opposite: when one considers the bulk of his work, he seems to be a naturally bad writer who miraculously produced two great novels. Certain kinds of bad writing seem to be accidental; other kinds characteristic. With Lawrence, one feels The Plumed Serpent, say, is out of character—that he was not himself when he wrote it. Angela Thirkell, one feels, on the other hand, could not by any possibility blunder into distinction. The bad writing of a great writer can usually be put down to negligence and failures of attention, as in Dickens; errors of judgment and unsuccessful experiments like To Have and Have Not; eccentricities of style and presentation—Absalom, Absalom; or a failure to visualize a particular situation—Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. The bad writing of a naturally bad writer isn’t explicable in these ways: it always seems inevitable and constitutional. Fitzgerald’s work is habitually shallow and vulgar, and the achievement of Gatsby and Tender is the Night seems a defiance of the probable. As this is not the usual view of Fitzgerald, and since, indeed, he is often considered something of a born stylist, I shall enumerate the characteristic failings of his writing in detail.

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