From a piece that's coming soon.
Gatsby was Fitzgerald’s third novel. It’s 46,000 words long, and its shape is that of a short story. Or I should simply say a story. I think that’s one of its radical advancements. It defies and transcends form. It doesn’t give a rat’s ass what one might call it, even though it has had the Great American Novel tag going on for a century, largely because of the reasons stated above. It only cares what it is. I view it as a work of towering is-ness.
To write such a work, and care not for labels, with the abiding concern being only the thing itself and what it does as a work of art, requires heaps of confidence that are tantamount to total faith in one’s abilities. For all of his other doubts, and the many slams he received over the course of his short life and shorter writing life, Fitzgerald never wavered in this faith. It was like he always knew his own is-ness.
Typically, I want to say, “If you loved Gatsby so much, why did you read nothing else by the man?” but I end up answering my own question. There are several factors. People are lazy. Something needs to be talked about by a lot of other people at once for a person to check it out. Look at Twitter. If there’s enough evidence of how cool it is to walk around with a toilet seat around your neck, rest assured you can step outside and the world will look like a million moving bathrooms.
The publishing industry is now built around this premise of sloth, with sloth begetting sloth. No work may be autonomous. Originality is bad, because it’s not possible to then compare that work to other works. Every book is intended to be a shadow-self; not an actual thing, but a copy, or a reflection. This is how people now write fiction, and how fiction is taught.
As a business model that prays upon the idea of wanting something, however falsified, to be one’s “thing” on which an identity is built, the central task must be easily repeatable. What? Are we going to insist that people be born with talent, work every second of their life to develop that talent, or else it’s tough luck, Jack? Not in this performance trophy world, where reality is often the ultimate Bogey Man. There is no enemy from without, nor enemy from within, that people hate—and fear—right now more than the truth. Especially if it implicates them in some way or other.
In such a reading environment, Gatsby—the book most readers first encountered in high school—won’t be revisited. Reading becomes like a bygone act, itself a dusty trophy of a former life that sits on a shelf. The details of the big game are not remembered, and the game—reading—is no longer played. But one has to say something, at least, about a favorite book, right? Or answer a prompt on a dating site. And so, the old trophy is cited.
The irony is that nothing galvanizes a person, society, the world, or the marketplace, like a work of intense, revealing, inspiring human creation that is genuinely new, invigorating. A book or writer of unsurpassed originality. I mean for real. Not because their father-in-law or someone they summer in the Hamptons with and share an agent said so on a blurb and he won some awards because lots of people did blurb-y things for him.
But we are an auto-pilot society, and that’s reflected in the telling refrain, “My favorite book is The Great Gatsby!” The horse won’t go to the water on its own. And even when it’s led there, it requires someone else to submerge its head. We don’t go looking. We aren’t open. The water has to be brought to us.
Now, this can be the most wonderful water in human history, that restores mind, body, soul. But if it doesn’t flow right up to our door, seep in through the cracks, we won’t know it exists.
But bad books that are like other bad books? The publishing industry will tell you all about them, and nothing else, save what color, gender, sexual orientation someone is.
This has become an industry that will look to the number of Twitter followers long before it looks to the actual words on the page, which are so secondary they might as well not exist. For that system to work—which is an oxymoron—a real, vigorous interest in partaking of the written word because of the wonder it might hold, must be extirpated. Killed off by taking away reasons to care.
That’s another reason why people cite Gatsby; they haven’t read in forever. Most people, though, aren’t paying any attention to the publishing industry, because who wants to read anything like what I’ve just described? Engaging with a deathless text—and Gatsby is replete to overflowing with life—is akin to focusing in on a strand of color woven into the tapestry of a reading life and a life well-lived.
The tapestry is under glass in some murky, shut-away annex of the museum. We’re not passing through that building anymore. The publishing industry ensures this. There’s no one to protest. No one to object. No throng, no vocal aggrieved parties in any numbers to say, “Stop! Fix this!”
People just don’t care enough. They are doing other activities. Their time—which they have more of than ever, due to technology, though they insist on the opposite—goes elsewhere.
I have a glib line, but it’s true: the industry wants books, stories, and writers that suck, bore, and match other books, stories, and writers that suck and bore. That requires less effort.
There’s no accountability or onus of garnering legit interest. It’s a problem that there’s so little new work worth reading, that will impact and inform your life. It’s a problem that the industry rewards factors that ought to be irrelevant and no one is doing anything fresh, alive, innovative. Bountifully human. But it’s also a problem in terms of how this affects the great books we’ve long had, like this one which Fitzgerald rightfully cited as virtuosic, and this was no boasting man.
You know that expression we see everywhere now, at the end of the day? At the end of the day, people—especially publishing industry people—just want to go home. There’s no searching, focus, openness, no standards, because the industry is built upon cultivating apathy. Put another way: no one gives a flying fuck about any of these books. They pretend they do if they are in the industry, but that’s about community. Not real community—rather, invented/forced, grab-ass community.
That’s not for the real love of literature. Instead, we're talking Mean Girls/gatekeeping/power-trip love. No one wants to work with purpose and vision. To question. To stand up and say the truth that so many do know. Coattails. Blurbs. Cronyism. Jay Gatsby himself tried to build a life on these same rickety cardboard boxes. None of it is real.
And I would also say—to return to Fitzgerald, who came to know an earlier version of all that I’m saying as his own life went along, before the industry devolved much further—that Gatsby is paid a lot of lip service as well. How much does anyone truly love it if they read nothing else by a writer who has aged better than any other from his time period, despite the ostensible trappings of flappers and bootleg gin philosophers?