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.
In the first place, there is the knowingness, the modish tone, the obsession with being up-to-date, with being what David Riesman calls an inside dopester. This takes many forms: “Switzerland is a country where very few things begin, but many things end”. (“One Trip Abroad”, Afternoon of an Author.) Here we have the triviality of the belle-lettrist, connoisseurship of experience, the making of distinctions which appear subtle but which under analysis have no meaning. Just as often it will be the chatter of the gossip-columnist—
. . . very shortly people over twenty-five came in for an intensive education. Let me trace some of the revelations vouchsafed them by reference to a dozen works written for various types of mentality during the decade. We begin with the suggestion that Don Juan leads an interesting life (Jurgen,
1919); then we learn that there’s a lot of sex around if we only knew it (Winesburg, Ohio, 1920), that adolescents lead very amorous lives (This Side of Paradise, 1920), that there are a lot of neglected Anglo-Saxon words (Ulysses, 1921), that older people don’t always resist sudden temptations (Cytherea, 1922), that girls are sometimes seduced without being ruined (Flaming Youth, 1922), that even rape sometimes turns out well (The Sheik, 1922), that glamorous English ladies are often promicuous (The Green Hat, 1924), that in fact they devote most of their time to it (The Vortex, 1926), that it’s a damned good thing too (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1928) . . .
(“Echoes of the Jazz Age”)
This last extract illustrates his fatal facility for churning out commercial writing (Saturday Evening Post, Esquire and filmscripts) and his disturbing capacity to feel completely at home in this area of American entertainment. His stories and sketches are so much worse than Ring Lardner’s tales, or Hemingway’s sporting stories, produced for the same publications.
He was rarely able to regulate the degree and nature of his involvement in the experience he was handling. This is especially clear in the stories about writers and entertainers. The Last Tycoon is involved in Hollywood in the wrong way: it is not a novel about Hollywood with the pressure of real experience behind it; it is a Hollywood production of the worst period—the period from the beginning of sound to Gone With the Wind—with all the shaping powers of moral analysis dormant—
It [Hollywood] can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half-a-dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads. And perhaps the closest a woman can come to the set-up is to try and understand one of those men.
(“The Last Tycoon”)
Another of Fitzgerald’s failings is an addiction to rhetoric, something I shall discuss in more detail when dealing with Gatsby. It is an aspect of his particular type of romanticism, a romanticism which can be partly defined by recalling his enthusiasm for some of the more sensuous and immature poems of Keats such as The Eve of Saint Agnes and The Pot of Basil, referred to in his letters to his daughter Frances. In a very bad story indeed, The Diamond As Big As the Ritz, even more effete influences are apparent—Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination, and behind them, the Gothick novel. The Diamond is certainly a parody of Poe, up to a point, but it is only in the plot and some of the properties of the genre that the parody is conscious. Fitzgerald’s surrender to the style, its indiscipline, its gush, its sensationalism, is much deeper—