The Best Unfinished Book I Ever Read

by Bill Kenower

It’s not often as a writer that you get a chance to watch another writer, let alone a celebrated writer, wrestling with a story, but that is just what you will be treated to if you pick up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (or The Love of The Last Tycoon, as it was renamed by Mathew Bruccoli in his updated 1994 edition).  Written between the spring of 1939 until his death of a heart attack on December 21, 1940, Tycoon tells the story of Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr and his ill-fated love for Kathleen Moore, who bears a haunting resemblance to Stahr’s deceased wife.

The particulars of the plot, however, are not at issue here.  For one thing, the book was not finished.  In fact, because Fitzgerald was apparently a relentless re-writer, not even one draft had been completed, although Fitzgerald had written copious notes and outlined the plot thoroughly as he saw it unfolding.  To the casual reader, this aborted narrative might be unsatisfying, but as a writer, and as a fan of Fitzgerlad’s, I found it as satisfying and interesting as anything I’ve read recently.  The book provides a great glimpse into the creative process, both through Fitzgerald’s published notes, and, synchronistically enough, the nature of the story itself.

The first great gift Fitzgerald gave was not finishing a complete rough draft of the novel.  This, no doubt, would have inspired a cobbled together posthumous effort similar to those still, somehow, being offered from his contemporary Ernest Hemmingway.  Instead, the editors, first Edmond Wilson in 1941 and then Bruccoli in ’94, were forced to make due with a fairly polished half-manuscript followed by a detailed plot synopsis and then—the notes.

Both editions provide long excerpts of Fitzgerald’s very detailed notes.  These include problems with the already written sections he wished to fix, (we are told, for instance, that in chapter II beside one particular paragraph Fitzgerald had written “Only fair”)

as well as meditations on how he planned to handle the many as-of-yet unwritten scenes.  There are short one-line notes such as “Action is Character,” and “Don’t wake the Tarkington ghosts”; some lovely descriptions he seemed to be hoping to include, as in this one about an airplane trip: “My blue dream of being in a basket like a kite held by a rope against the wind”; and then of course his story notes, including, in Wilson’s 1941 edition, a kind of story map, breaking the novel into Acts, Chapters, and Episodes, complete with anticipated word count. 

And then there is the book itself.  Although Stahr is technically an executive, he acts as a story advisor and editor.  There is much talk throughout the novel about what makes for a good story, albeit an early Hollywood story.  No matter, it is the creative process, and we get to watch Stahr breaking down the daily Rush’s, dissecting scripts, even explaining to a novelist what makes a good movie.  Coupled with the in-process nature of the published novel, this makes for great reading if you’re a process junky like myself.

And why am I such a process junky, and why do I so love to read about Fitzgerald’s wondering how to handle this scene and that paragraph?  Because it is easy to forget, especially with someone like Fitzgerald whose The Great Gatsby has achieved a kind of mythic status, that works of art, especially novels, rarely spring wholly formed from the mind of the artist.  Rather, they are the product of a long series of choices—choices weighed, rethought, sometimes inspired, often corrected, frequently discarded—whose sum, once the artists declares “Enough’s enough,” we call finished.  While his notes provide much wisdom into the nature of writing and story-telling in general, I think their greatest benefit is to remind all of us working today that once upon a time F. Scott Fitzgerald was just another writer toiling away at his desk, trying to say what he wanted to say.

Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle. 

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