The Not-So-Great Gatsby

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby 90 years ago this month, it flopped like LeBron James drawing contact in the paint. The book, now regarded as one of the finest (if not the finest) example of the Great American Novel, took too long to sell through its first print run and didn’t sell out its second for at least a couple decades. The great H.L. Mencken gave it an extended yawn. Even Edith Wharton, who liked Fitzgerald, couldn’t find much in the book about which she could be excited.

Meanwhile, let me say at once how much I like Gatsby, or rather His Book, & how great a leap I think you have taken this time — in advance upon your previous work. My present quarrel with you is only this: that to make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career (not from the cradle — but from his visit to the yacht, if not before) instead of a short résumé of it. That would have situated him, and made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a “fate divers” for the morning papers.

But you’ll tell me that’s the old way, and consequently not your way…

In other words, she thought the book exciting and better than what he had done before, it still wasn’t great and, well, yaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.

On the other hand, T. S. Eliot loved Gatsby. Sylvia Plath considered it important enough that she studied and annotated her copy. Haruki Murikami named it “indispensable” to him in his considerable writing career. Tens of thousands of students have read and fallen in love with Fitzgerald’s work. It’s been adapted for two ballets, two radio plays, an opera, and seven feature films.

In other words, The Great Gatsby is still a big deal even though it wasn’t a big deal when Fitzgerald first turned it loose upon the world.

Which brings me to the real point of this post. As a “creative”, you’re going to make a lot of stuff that’s going to flop, big time. That doesn’t mean all your flops are bad. To be sure, some of them will be, but not all of them. Don’t get discouraged if you are not suddenly and wildly successful. Give your work time to compete against everything else that’s out there, to endure when the flashes in the pan have long-since burned out.

You will have critics and many of them will hate on your work like you had run over their puppy and slept with their girlfriend and mother at the same time. That’s okay. Critics criticize. They crush and grind and slash and burn. That’s what they’re paid to do. Keep on making stuff. Release it. Find your T.S. Eliot. Then find a couple more. Do better. Do it again.

You might have a classic on your hands. You won’t know until you get it out into the world.

So, go. Do.

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