No high-mindedness here, like keeping locals employed or giving neighborhoods nice places for coffee and conversation. We really need bookstores because…
I’m looking for a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, Tender Is The Night. The problem is there are two versions. Originally Fitzgerald published it in installments in Scribner’s magazine, and the first book version followed that format, with flashbacks through the story that made the narrative, as we love to say today, non-linear. But more widely-known is the second version, prepared from the author’s revision. Fitzgerald died before he could incorporate the changes, which now makes the action chronological, but it’s believed he decided to revise based on poor critical reception and not because he thought the straight-forward structure was better.
The problem is I can’t figure out which version is being offered on Amazon. There are multiple editions of the book, including one that’s just come out. Yet nowhere in the product notes is there a way to tell which text I’m getting. (One that contained both for comparison would be ideal.)
In a bookstore I could find a stool, sit down, and crack open the object in my hands to figure out what I have. Amazon offers “virtual browsing” in the form of a feature called “Look Inside This Book.” But I can’t really tell by “looking inside” the book because they don’t give you much of a peek. You get mostly useless material—copyrights and title pages and cover art and legalese—and almost no actual content—not enough to tell me anything useful in most cases. A recent peek inside a book on Amazon, after legal notices and publishing info, yielded this much of a sample:
The ability to page through a book is now simply gone. Amidst all this advanced technology we can’t do something our great-grandparents took for granted.
Amazon and others usually offer a single chapter, usually the first. Sometimes one doesn’t even get that, but instead something random like every third page. The ones in between, we are told, are “blocked for copyright reasons.”
Aside from the fact that I can’t learn a lot about most books by reading the first chapter, or parts of the first chapter, this situation is bad because editors often tell writers they only want to see the first chapter and a synopsis, or maybe first and last and a synopsis. So writers—you can’t blame them—put a hell of a lot of furniture polish into that first chapter.
I’ve read many books recently that had terrific first chapters but otherwise dragged. As a consumer, I don’t want to base my purchasing decision on so little, and on only what the publisher wants me to see. I want to browse. (A bookstore chain from years ago used to boast the tagline, “Dedicated to the Fine Art of Browsing.”) I want to open randomly and see if a section grabs me.
Also, when there are many editions of a book, I want to compare different type-settings and book designs. This is particularly true with classics, where there are many editions. Some have easy-on-the-eyes type, some don’t. Some are printed on nice paper, others aren’t. Some have wide margins and lots of spacing and others feature crammed-together type, causing a headache.
With most online samples, you will be told the version you are viewing isn’t necessarily the same as the edition of the book you have clicked on. They use the same samples for every edition of the book, in other words. With translated works this is particularly annoying. I’ll be told that a certain translation is by far the best, only to click on that edition and have the “look inside” show me a different text. What I order and receive in the mail may be something else, and there’s no way I can know without buying.
It saddens me that we people who are so quick to blow hundreds (thousands, really, when you count the total costs) on our yearly smartphone, gamebox and movie habit, are so cheap with books that we let our bookshops go out of business in favor of the “look inside” model of retailing, all for a 20 or 30 percent discount on a $24 book. Money saved: seven bucks. Big deal. (I just saw an on-line review from a mother overjoyed to find an “inexpensive” pair of skinny jeans for her young daughter’s back-to-school. Price? $130.)
As someone who is hopefully going to have Entertaining Welsey Shaw selling on sites like Amazon and Barnes&Noble.com, I would like people to be able to see good-sized amounts of the book. I’d like them to be drawn into some moment of drama in the middle and decide they just have to see how it ends.
Because if they can’t do that, if they just get a quick gloss that looks like every other quick gloss, I fear they’ll just breeze over to something else a click away. Attention spans are already short. I fear that stingy sampling only encourages them to get shorter. The Xbox always awaits.
Gatsby’s back. For better or worse (and I haven’t seen it yet), Baz Luhrmann, not one of my favorite directors, has brought Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic Great American Novel to the screen again. I only wish Fitzgerald could see some of the money that would flow his way were he still alive.
When he died in 1940, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was considered by most people, including himself, a failure. Despite some early successes that allowed him and wife Zelda to live the high life, he was financially ruined by the time he died, hacking out unproduced and unwanted screenplays (as well as some bits of Gone With The Wind that were never filmed). You have to understand, this was a time when a novelist writing for Hollywood was considered a shameful act, and not something a writer would drown his mother in a bathtub for, like now.
Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, had been since college. His funeral was attended by few friends, just like Jay Gatsby’s, and he could not be buried in the family plot in Maryland because “he was not a practicing Catholic.” The clergy also didn’t like his books. Zelda, by now locked away in an insane asylum, died a horrible death eight years later in a fire.
It seems cliched that America’s iconic writer was drunk, unappreciated, misunderstood. When he died, there was a warehouse filled with stacks of The Great Gatsby. Since then, it’s sold millions. The whole thing is not unlike the fate of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, who lived in the same age, drank heavily, and died (even younger) unknown and unmourned (and broke). Late in life, when he returned to visit his midwestern parents, he found the records he had proudly shipped home still in their wrappers in a closet. The Beiderbeckes were ashamed of their awful son.
We live in a different world, for better or worse. Today there is an interest among the mainstream media—Time, Newsweek, The New York Times—in crowning new geniuses, if not manufacturing them outright. In part this could be to rectify wrongs of the past, but also it’s to have copy for stories. If Fitzgeralds can’t be found, they must be created—lots of them, because the news cycle (entertainment cycle, really) is now continuous, and faster than ever: ten new heroes must be crowned for every old one, or we will run out! And cultural heroes are one of the few things America still manufactures and exports in great abundance and to immense profit.
But that still doesn’t mean many genuine artists might not go to their grave without being recognized. Today the selling of a personality is more important than what that personality actually does. It’s as if we’ve looked at the models of the past and decided all future aspirants would be taken from these models—to the detriment of those who may not fit the preconception. We’re looking for a reclusive, perhaps alcoholic or drug-addicted (or better, former alcoholic or drug-addicted), person who does not fit with society in certain almost predictable ways. Artists, academics, scientists, politicians all come from Central Casting. There are perhaps many legitimate reasons Chris Christie might not make good presidential material, but we obsess with his midsection.
In the arts, certain backgrounds and predispositions are a plus, even perhaps a prerequisite. It’s easy in that mode to miss a genuine, low-to-the-ground creative person, because frankly many creative people are very dull. Their makeup and politics are also not predictable. Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work, Gus Flaubert said.
That wouldn’t go over so well today, where more and more the artist determines the perception of his art, especially since most new art is either very similar to old art or so different as to be incomprehensible—and almost always intentionally so. More people know about Warhol’s private life than understand why his soup cans are in museums, if indeed there is a good reason. The pimping of artists and hyping of artistic movements are manifestations of the very shallowness in the “American Dream” that Gatsby is all about.
Writers call that irony. Can’t wait to see the new movie.
In 1851 a novel by an obscure American made its quiet debut. It did not turn out to be a best-seller. Exactly 40 years later, after the death of its author, the New York Times stated, “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week…a man who is so little-known even by name to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and that of only three or four lines.” Herman Melville was then known only as an ex-sailor who had described life among the cannibals of the South Sea. Oh, and incidentally, he also wrote a few unsuccessful novels. One was about a big whale.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, unsold copies of The Great Gatsby were still in the publisher’s warehouse. The man who today is iconic with the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties experienced only relatively modest success in his lifetime, and most of that was for magazine potboilers forgotten today.
It’s interesting to note the letter Fitzgerald sent to his publisher when he finished the work: “I think that at last I’ve done something really my own, but how good ‘my own’ is remains to be seen.”
Such self-doubt! Nowadays we live in a very different universe.
I’ve always been amused by the term “Instant classic,” because it’s an inherent contradiction. A classic endures. It’s the exact opposite of instant.
And we really don’t know what’s going to endure.
I often think I would like to go 50 or 100 years into the future and look at what’s still in print, or byte, or whatever the format is by then. Will Harry Potter still be a massive favorite? Will teens be devouring Bella and Edward’s romance? Or will the standard-bearers be titles we have never heard of, or are only modestly popular today?
It’s hard to say, because what determines popularity has changed in the last decade or so—something almost no one has noticed or at least commented on. Used to be there were people in society who were entrusted to know a little more about their given subject than anyone else. Don’t get me wrong: critics have never been entirely popular, and have often been vilified. But in the past most people accepted the general concept of expertise. Artistic canons were not considered a product of the devil. The critics, whose job was to see more product in his area than we possibly could and have greater experience with it than we had time for, were taken seriously.
Today that’s changed. Critics are so irrelevant that Yahoo’s movie page no longer even links to their reviews. Most magazines of criticism have gone belly-up or become unabashed cheerleaders for their industries. The dean of movie critics, Roger Ebert, has recently announced his TV show has gone on hiatus because it’s out of money. No one reads professional reviewers anymore. Art criticism is dead, having been replaced by art promotion. In this age of the Internet and instant marketing, the voice of the people matter, because collectively we’re supposed to be so smart.
In 1813 a new symphony was premiered by Ludwig van Beethoven. It was the single biggest success in his career, and sent the crowd into wild delirium. To put it in modern terms, Beethoven rocked the house. He was now the number one favorite composer among listeners in Vienna and probably the rest of Europe as well.
The critics, however, hated it. And they still do.
Today this work isn’t even found among his nine numbered symphonies, and it’s almost never performed. This “tenth” symphony, called Wellington’s Victory or sometimes The Battle of Vitoria, is so abysmal that admirers of the composer would rather just forget that he wrote it, and we tell ourselves he did it for altruistic reasons (as a benefit to raise money for wounded soldiers). The motivation may have been laudatory, but it doesn’t change the fact that, like “We Are The World,” the music itself is horrible.
Now imagine if the people instead of the critics were allowed to decide Beethoven’s canon. That little gem called the Fifth Symphony likely would go by the wayside, not to mention the late string quartets and piano sonatas, today largely regarded as the peak of instrumental music, not just by Beethoven, but by anyone.
To be fair, the critics didn’t get those works immediately either. But they eventually did. The public took longer. A lot longer. About a hundred years.
As another great composer, Gustav Mahler, once commented about his immediate lack of a fan base, “Someday my time will come.” It has. And without Twitter, too.
The audience did not bring these works to the forefront. As un-PC as it is to say today, critical consensus did.
It’s harder to know what from this era will await us in 2060 or 2100. Will tweets and “Likes” determine our future canons? Will everything in life be a popularity contest? Will the smart money say Salieri was really the great one, with Mozart only liked by “elitists” and “pretentious people”?
I recall an interview a while ago wherein a very popular writer of “chick lit” novels said the critics who derided him did so not because he is a bad writer, but because they were “jealous” of his success. Well, no, take my word for it, he is a bad writer. But putting oneself in the position of authority is very unstylish today. It sets one up for all sorts of personal attacks. It’s classist, racist, sexist, elitist, and a hole bunch of other -ists. The masses have wisdom, we’re told again and again. So siddown and shaddup.
That writer I just mentioned stands in very sharp contrast to Fitzgerald, who wrote his publisher he hoped “his own” was any good. (Woolf said something almost identical after finishing Mrs. Dalloway.)
I like the opening sentence in the editor’s preface of the Gatsby that I own: “The Great Gatsby does not proclaim the nobility of the human spirit; it is not politically-correct; it does not reveal how to solve the problems of life; it delivers no fashionable or comforting messages. It is simply a masterpiece.” Amen.
One of the things I worry about when ordinary people are judge, jury and executioner is that, like children in a bakery, we are going to want what makes us feel good. What’s wrong with that? The same thing that’s wrong with eating cake for every meal. Yes, the brain rots too.
This is why we used to turn to teachers and critics for some guidance and perspective that’s outside of our necessarily limited sphere. When I want an opinion on a construction project, I ask a contractor, not my neighbor. Sure “experts” are wrong sometimes: they’re human. But millions of Twitterers and Facebookers are wrong too, and with them the wrongness is multiplied and projected unchecked. There’s this belief of collective intelligence, that the opinion of millions has more value than the lonely one. Some people were astonished when grandmaster Garry Kasparov beat millions of who’d logged in to collectively “challenge” him in chess in Kasparov vs. the World. But anyone who was surprised doesn’t understand how the bell curve works. And I wouldn’t want any of those people deciding what’s an instant classic for me.
I saw this picture recently and started wondering, as I always do when I see pictures like this: who has/had it better?
Here’s Earnest Hemingway and friends, sitting in a cafe in Pamplona, Spain, where the bulls run. This was around the time he was writing The Sun Also Rises.
This is every modern fiction writer’s dream, the fantasy of everyone you see pounding away on a MacBook in a coffee shop. Hemingway and his pals hung out in Europe, particularly France and Spain, soaked in the times, lived adventure, and then he wrote about it. Fitzgerald did the same thing. This lifestyle has been greatly romanticized in modern times. If you’ve seen Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you know what I’m talking about.
And looking at them, I’m struck by how these people changed history, made a mark, an impression on people, and they didn’t have Twitter. They didn’t even have to worry about such a thing. They spent their days writing.
That’s good for us. All those artistic legends and more—Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Josephine Baker, Cole Porter—converged on Paris at the same time. They produced. If Ernest or Scott or Pablo had spent their time posting to Facebook or setting up websites for their work, organizing book parties or deciding on a proprietary font for their names, think of all the time they would not have spent writing. Or thinking about what they wrote about. Or just experiencing life that they then converted to fiction. (As it was, Fitzgerald only had Zelda to blame for his interrupted productivity.)
So much of the fiction I see today seems like it’s based on television. Or movies. Or the Internet world—what the writer knows about people through the narrow sampling of blogs, Google and text messages. Our worlds, despite the massive access to information we have (or maybe because of it), are getting smaller. I recently wrote about an artist I admire tremendously who prefers to shut herself away in solitude. This may be why her work is so profound. Depth isn’t a hallmark of much of today’s fiction. I know some people will automatically say that’s only because we’re only remembering the good stuff, that Gatsby didn’t sell well initially either. All true, but I still think, fifty years from now, despite the fact that there are more writers than ever publishing more works than ever to an oversaturated market, I don’t think we will come away with as many masterpieces.
And I don’t think artists are, in the long run, doing themselves a favor by being their own publicity machines. Maybe Warhol could do it. But everyone is not a Warhol and thank goodness for that, because one was enough, despite what modern prices for his work may be. I think he was brilliant at capturing and marketing the zeitgeist, but penetrating it? Getting beneath it and shedding real light on it? I don’t think so. I can hear the hate mail coming already, though.
Interestingly and coincidentally, as I was writing this I came across an article in the New York Times, The Rise of the New Groupthink. It concludes that despite the vogue of “brainstorming sessions” among businesses, solitary thinking actually produces better results. This finding doesn’t surprise some of us who are unimpressed with trendiness. I have never sat in a brainstorming session that yielded anything noteworthy, and groupthink actually has a dangerous tendency to homogenize thinking—the opposite of what’s intended. I used to work in advertising, and such sessions are de rigueur in that industry. I would sit patiently, silently counting the minutes, and then return to my office and come up with real ideas. My boss probably thought the sessions were doing wonders for me. My boss understood nothing about creativity, as most business and even academic-types don’t.
When I look at this photo of Hemingway and his friends, I understand something my advertising boss and others I have had to deal with over the years do not: creative thinking happens when you’re sitting in a cafe, when you’re walking along a trail, when you’re taking a shower or even something else in the same room (messy if you keep a pen and pad with you, I know). Creativity can’t be booked between ten and eleven-thirty on Tuesday in Conference Room 2-B. The artists who sat along the Left Bank in Paris were spending their time much more efficiently, despite modern day wisdom. They were working, or gathering material for their work. Would Hemingway be making better use of his time having drinks here or removing himself from the world to tweet, or post on FB, or work on his website, announcing a new deal on his last book or trying to create “buzz” for his next? All his posts and video uploads wouldn’t be worth one short story. I wonder how any masterpieces are lost today because of these distractions and obligations.
Don’t get me wrong. Some people can do this sort of social media. And some people hire others to do it for them, which I think is probably the best idea. I am reminded of reading once how the wife of Charles Schulz was annoyed that the cartoonist was not very good with his hands, and more useful around the house. I felt to the contrary she should have insisted he spend every moment he possibly could with Snoopy, Charlie Brown and the rest. Only one man could draw Peanuts. Plumbers are a dime a dozen.
Heningways and Picassos aren’t. I’d feel sorry for those gentlemen today, having to organize events on Facebook and deal with answering tweets and maintaining their social profile on the web, instead of doing what they do best. We think all our gadgets and multitasking make us more efficient, more productive. Sometimes we forget about that hazy thing called quality. Often it’s a singular, solitary endeavor. There was a reason Thoreau escaped to the woods, and Melville was a loner. I look at this picture above and I imagine the thrill of coming across Hemingway at a cafe and sitting down next to him to see what he was doing, what he was thinking. I would be very disappointed to find him fiddling with his Twitter account.