Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Big Read Does Gatsby

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had." ~ Nick's opening lines in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

My last post mentioned I'd been listening to a CD series called The Big Read, produced with grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts. Yesterday my commute included a listen to commentary and an overview of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

I'd also mentioned that someone in the Steinbeck program said Grapes of Wrath was the quintessential Great American Novel. It was amusing to hear the same statement with regards to Gatsby. One critic mentioned that he reads it twice a year.

Jack London was the highest paid short story writer of his time, in the period leading up to World War I. Fitzgerald became heir to that pop throne during the Jazz Age, a phrase he apparently coined. His stories garnered a pretty savory three grand each, which was good money in those days. Unfortunately, despite being the rage in the short story scene, this book failed to catch the wave. The Great Gatsby received little more than a yawn from the public, selling about 25,000 copies over the next fifteen years.

By comparison, London's Call of the Wild sold out the first printing almost immediately, and the second, and has been translated into more languages than nearly any book by an American author, ever.

Pop adulation is apparently not necessarily the mark literary acclaim. Nobel Prize winner Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country sold 3,000 copies the first year. It's a beautiful book and worthy of the recognition it later achieved. But it was hardly a bestseller. And many of Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide's 80 books had print runs of only a thousand copies or less, distributed amongst friends and a few loyal readers. By way of contrast, some of today's best selling authors see opening print runs in the hundreds of thousands, due chiefly to our era of mass distribution.

So why is it that Fitzgerald gets the adulation from the critics, and London a courteous nod? It might be that London, who came up through the ranks from the working poor, simply didn't have the appropriate color of blood, as in blue. Or maybe, being an outspoken socialist who took the side of the working class in some of his books, he was politically out of step in his time. Or... maybe... he tweaked too many peoples' noses and stepped on too many toes of persons in high places.

Yet it is evident that London knew how to reach an audience with his gritty stories written as if he had lived them, which in many cases he had, from the Klondike to the high seas. And for this he was well paid. edNote: if you are serious about making it as a writer, be sure to read Martin Eden.

I admit that I have enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby several times over the years, but for some reason the book felt a little sappy to me in my latest read. Maybe the film spoiled it. Some of the lines felt more dreamy when written, but when spoken were clearly stilted and almost corny. Am I being too harsh here? It may be that I'm more jaded than I used to be.

Review additional comments on Fitzgerald and Gatsby here

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