Beautiful and Damned

What we lose when we only read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby


in Pop Studies • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


Having unfortunately passed through many dating sites as I navigate this life in search of a person I find hard to believe exists, I’m accustomed to the reoccurring bromides people share about their lives.  

They can, for instance, stay in or go out, which is quite a marvelous feat. They are all living their best lives. They are laid back. They don’t take themselves “too serious,” nor do they use adverbs. They extol a nuanced, metaphysical worldview of live, laugh, love. And if they are forced by a prompt to tell you that one of these loves is a book, it is often as not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.  

In more naïve days, this would cheer me. I thought, “Right, soon this comely lady and I will be going back and forth about our favorite Fitzgerald stories, and wow that will be hot,” before I was disabused of the notion. Violently. Without wiggle room or hope that maybe something else was happening. Because not one of these people had ever read anything else by Fitzgerald. Gatsby was just the book assigned to them the last time they read a book. In other words, in high school.  

This knowledge used to make me wish to fall on my (metaphorical) sword. But: “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy,” Fitzgerald once declared. So, in keeping with that spirit, let us try and serve as would-be heroes, and redress some Fitzgerald stuff that’s indicative of stuff beyond our man from Minnesota, and ideas of our age that aren’t so hot, if not tragic, and what we can do about them.  

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 attached to it 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 even 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, and 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. That’s more like 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?  

Reading Gatsby “then” — in school — isn’t the same as reading it now, in life. Gatsby isn’t best-read when you’re 16, 17. You’re impressionable, which is different than really being ready for a work of art, when it can function in tandem with you. Where you are in your life. What you’ve seen, felt, come to know. It can still “work” on you, but it’s not the same.  

We’re this way with everything, not just Fitzgerald and Gatsby, and it limits us. We miss out on so much. When we miss out on a lot, we don’t learn and grow as we might. We don’t become who we have the potential to become. That’s the micro level.  

The macro level pertains to society, to culture, which also suffers. Get bogged down. Pinned in by roteness. You look on Twitter and become convinced that people communicate in the same 10 words. We’re sufficiently inept at language that to make a point we wish to make, and (hopefully) clinch an argument, we treat the word “literally” as if it were a magic button one pressed that made something “extra super duper really true.” “It’s literally ridiculous.” Is it? Go beyond what was shoved in front of your face, and the powers and parameters of your mind widen. The same is true with reading Fitzgerald.  

A century ago, in the first third of 1922, Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published. He was big at the time. A star. A stud. Voice of a generation. A “hot” guy, too, you could say. Lived the life. He also had the added cachet of being seemingly approachable. No airs. Fitzgerald, unlike Hemingway, was not a dick. He was that friend you’d turn to when you required advice that you knew no one else could provide, despite their well-wishes and claims of “you got this” and “I’m sorry that happened to you.”  

Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, had been published two years prior. There was a raft of popular short stories. When I think of Fitzgerald, I don’t think of him as an author, a writer, a novelist, a maker of short fiction, a masterful correspondent, a man who endured, an essayist. He is all of these things, but more than any of them, he is a storyteller. Story transcends form, even as form abets story. It certainly transcends labels.  

Fitzgerald has novels that are like short stories, and short stories that are like novels. The parsing has never interested me. The voice does. The music of the prose. Its painterly qualities. All in service of story. Story is the absolute when it comes to Fitzgerald. The reason his work endures — if we seek it out and experience it — is because the same is true for us. Nothing impacts us or defines us like story. You’re riding on the train, and two people across from you are having a conversation where one is sharing a story of the evening before with their companion. This isn’t about eavesdropping, but you want to listen to that story. It’s one of the most fundamental parts of being human. Fitzgerald got it, and he lived a life in service to story. Which is also to say, to people.  

This Side of Paradise was fun. First novels can be that way. All of the ideas to that point in life, and all of the energy, go into the soup. First albums are similar. Paradise was akin to Fitzgerald’s The Pickwick Papers, a gazpacho of styles and voices. Collage prose (about college) that lent it a Modernist feel, not unlike what Stoker pulled off with Dracula nearly a quarter of a century earlier. Call it populist Modernism without meaning to be.  

Later on, Fitzgerald would reflect that at this time, he thought life was something you dominated if you were any good. He couldn’t do anything wrong until, of course, he could. I was coming out of a theater a few years ago with a friend after we’d attended a screening of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. Welles and Fitzgerald have a lot in common. There was early success at shockingly young ages even for the time, when a lot of life seemed to happen earlier in life, if you will. They were toasted and envied. (Near the end of his career, Fitzgerald wrote a story called “Pat Hobby and Orson Welles” about the latter in the first flush of success and the broken, has-been-who-never-was Hollywood writer who envies him.) And then everything crashed, and would never be the same again.  

For Welles, that occurred with his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, his follow-up to Citizen Kane, which itself had confused the public. They didn’t get Kane, and Ambersons depressed the hell out of them. With Fitzgerald, the rot set in — to borrow George Harrison’s phrase about The White Album — with The Beautiful and Damned. Welles lived to 70, and was chasing artistic freedom for the rest of his days. Fitzgerald only made it to 44, but he chased, too. The more he chased, the more humiliating his life became, the more he was openly pitied by writers around whom he wrote circles, and the more of a paragon he became. Of not just endurance, but endurance through art. Perhaps art has no higher calling. Or perhaps we have no greater need from it. Or from anything.  

As we were walking, my friend asked me if I thought that Welles was prone to over-directing. I said no, I didn’t believe that at all, but the query made me think of Fitzgerald, and The Beautiful and Damned in particular. The novel tells the story of Anthony Patch, a 25-year-old Harvard grad with a fortune likely coming to him, via his dying grandfather. He weds Gloria Gilbert, a flapper, and the two drink and dissolve in a haze of merry times that aren’t really so merry. It’s not hard to connect the dots to Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre, but Fitzgerald drew on what he felt in life, much more so than what happened in his life.  

The book is bleak. It’s a cautionary tale, not unlike Welles’s Ambersons, which was based on a Booth Tarkington novel, a writer Fitzgerald loved, but more so for his comedies, such as Seventeen and Penrod, two of the funniest books I’ve ever read (about which Welles said the same). Patch is disinherited, the romantic relationship erodes, he serves in the Great War, has an affair, and ultimately comes into the money in the end, while still with Gloria, but the glitz is gone, and they can’t stand each other in the quiet way that I believe a lot of people in relationships can’t stand each other now. We often enter into these relationships for other reasons than love or connection. So that we won’t be alone. So we can have regular sex. For appearances. To have children and imbue life with the purpose that it lacks — not the best reason to have kids. Then people ride it out, much like Anthony and Gloria do.  

Fitzgerald was an elegant writer who could compose a 50-word sentence with four subordinate clauses, and make you feel like you were reading one that was six words long. He was this way at his best and his most confident. He has those moments in The Beautiful and Damned, but he also hasn’t mastered his talent yet. The writer who is as gifted as Fitzgerald has to learn to scale back the qualifiers. The mind is so hyper-aware, that the compunction to be as precise as possible creates an effect where the reader feels micro-managed and gets tuckered out. Consider the first sentence of the book: “In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him.”  

It’s not a grabber. The isolated “had” doesn’t work. He’s trying too hard. He doesn’t need to — Fitzgerald simply needed to be himself, and that would carry the day, which is partially what the novel advises, in other enterprises in life. It finds that Fitzgerald-esque rhythm, in which the prose carries us downhill, so that we don’t feel as if we’re straining as readers, but it’s also a novel of figuring out where Fitzgerald would go. And where was that? To Gatsby, yes, but works of prose art that gives Gatsby a solid thumping in terms of quality. Works we should read. Works we should know. Works, as I think of them, that we should let happen to us, because they are life experiences.  

For instance, there are the Basil and Josephine stories, from 1928, which are collected together in a single volume that you can call a story collection or novel, though, again, I don’t believe that’s the going concern. The title characters are teenagers, and within their teen worlds is enough wisdom to serve an adult were they to live for millennia. The prose is elegant and it is tight; it’s absolute flow.  

I would be a different human if I hadn’t read that book, and there’s much I can say that about, because I didn’t stop with Gatsby. Nor did I start there. The Beautiful and Damned is a tragedy, in part because a tragedy was what you wrote if you wanted a certain form of recognition, sort of like how it was if you were a songwriter you’d write love songs. Fitzgerald himself remarked that a writer should write for the youth of his generation, the schoolmasters of the next, the critics of ever after.  

Eh. It’s quip-y. I don’t think he meant it in the least. It’s like how Dylan will always go for the rhyme over the sense if it sounds good. Gatsby was a reclamation project, to undo what Fitzgerald had thought he’d done to his reputation with The Beautiful and Damned. To be taken seriously again.  

In time, he’d outgrow the need. He’d wise up the way he understood that Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert never would. He wrote to himself, we might say, and he got the message. And then all that mattered was story, because that is all that matters anyway, given that’s what everyone is, if they bother to find out. Keep going. Don’t stop. Neither with Gatsby, nor anything else that is true, real, beautiful, and saving. In other words, story at its human essence.•


colin fleming’s most recent books are an entry in the .33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a volume about 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film; and a work of fiction called If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. He's the author of the comic novel Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, with his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. His op-eds feature in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit.