There’s a great scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon where Monroe Stahr, the titular tycoon, is walking on the beach one evening with his girlfriend. They meet an old African American fisherman and get to talking. The fisherman asks Stahr what he does and Stahr tells him he works in motion pictures (he’s actually one of the most powerful producers in Hollywood at the time). The fisherman says he never cared for motion pictures, and Starh asks him why. The fisherman shrugs and says, “They just don’t seem realistic enough.”

This observation clearly affects Starh. The fisherman then wishes Starh a good evening, and walks off down the beach, “unaware he had just changed the entire motion picture industry.”*

This scene stayed with me more than any other in the book, and for good reason I think. As an author, there is no doubt that certain people’s opinions seem to matter more than other people’s opinions. From a professional standpoint, this is undeniably so. That your cousin the dentist thinks your novel is great is just not going to have the kind of immediate effect on your career as a rave review in the Times.

But from a human standpoint no opinion is actually more important or more valid than another. Though we might enjoy donning our fancy Author Hat as we strut about the world, at the end of the day that hat comes off and we are humans first, last, and only, a reality no publishing contract or movie deal can reverse. Everything beautiful, useful interesting, and profound you will ever write flows from your humanity. And just as no one is more human than another, so too no one’s opinion is actually more important than another.

You know this because before you were an author, before you’d sold anything or been reviewed by anyone, you were just a person who knew what you liked and what you didn’t like. You weren’t famous, no one cared what you thought with the exception of your parents (maybe), and yet what you liked and didn’t like guided you through your life. It guided you to your friends and lovers, to the books read, and eventually to writing stories of your own.

The intimate and private relationship to your tastes and preferences has remained constant even as your life has changed. Now perhaps you stand in a bookstore or library, reading your story to a crowd of friendly strangers. And even though they have all come to hear you, though they have gathered in this one place because of your book, in your heart you are the same person who had never written or published a thing, just a human guided by your humanity to this place and time.

*I apparently lent my copy of The Last Tycoon to some scoundrel who neglected to return it. So this is my best recollection of that scene. Apologies in advance to Fitzgerald scholars offended by any liberties I took out of necessity.

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Gods and Mortals

I really like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I am not alone in this, of course – and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, I do like the book. I like how short it is; I like the story’s elegant simplicity; I like that it’s a classic tragedy; I like that it’s romantic; and yes, I also like Fitzgerald’s voice, which manages to be both conversational and precise. I’ve read it twice – once when I was twenty-one and once when I was in my forties, and I liked it equally both times.

But, as I said, I’m not the first to recognize this. When lists are made of the 100 Greatest Novels, Gatsby usually places in the top three. It’s a staple of high school language arts classes and college literature and creative writing courses. The last sentence is held up as the shining standards of last sentences, if such a thing actually exists. The literary world, in short, has come to an agreement about this book.

That said, it’s still just a book written by mortal a writer. Fitzgerald is not a deity and Gatsby is not a sacred text. It’s a story. It’s a story that did not sell as well as some of Fitzgerald’s other books. It’s story, in fact, that only sold seven copies the year he died – five of which he bought to give as gifts. Now, however, it’s famous. Now, it’s The Great American Novel.

But once upon a time it was just a story that someone wanted to tell. It’s worth remembering. Perhaps you feel there is a qualitative difference between what you write and what Fitzgerald wrote. This difference exists entirely in your imagination. The difference is no greater than between you and any other writer on the planet. I don’t care about the 100 Greatest Novels. I don’t care that Hemingway called it a great book in A Movable Feast. I don’t care about college courses or last sentences or movie adaptations or the canon.

I care about the next thing I’m going to write, and if I place Gatsby on some holy pedestal, if I deify Fitzgerald, it makes the next thing that much harder write. Now I am caught in a world of mortals and gods, and I am all too aware of my own mortality. I like Gatsby and I’m glad Fitzgerald wrote it, but it deserves exactly as much space on the shelf as it’s 197 pages requires – the rest of the shelf belongs to all of us.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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