The party begins this weekend in the new adaptation of The Great GatsbyA warning first: There will be no high-school essayist’s hunt for symbols (the green light of Daisy’s dock, Dr. Eckleburg’s big eyes that see all) or any critical comment on the music chosen for the new Baz Luhrmann adaptation opening this weekend (I loved Moulin Rouge and applaud a director for freshening up a concept with new sights and sounds).
What I’m hurrying to write about here, before the movie opens and we all lose the ability to imagine Gatsby without Leonardo DiCaprio and big nightclub scenes--the book has private parties but no nightclubs--is the classic text as a source of lessons and pleasures for the creative writer.
As anyone who lives in my house (apologies to a certain 15-year-old daughter) or has taken a class from me knows, I’ve been reading and re-reading Gatsby a lot this year, and finding more novelist’s nutrition in it as a forty-something than I ever found as a high school freshman. A swift read and half the length of most novels today, Gatsby rewards the aspiring novelist looking less for obvious symbols and themes – the prey of the analytical assignment-conscious reader –than for things like macrostructure and revision, the quarry of the craft-conscious writer.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned from Gatsby so far, with the help of scholar-interpreters Matthew Bruccoli, Susan Bell, and others. Many of these lessons have to do with revision and editing--part of the writing process we study least and depend upon the most.
1.Even great writers have a hard time with titles.
Fitzgerald’s other choices were “Trimalchio in West Egg” and my least favorite, “The High-bouncing Lover.” Even after its current title was chosen, Fitzgerald was trying to make another switch, which he telegraphed to his editor Maxwell Perkins: “Under the Red White and Blue.”
2. POV choices are some of the most important choices we make in a novel.
The use of a partially involved observer-narrator—Nick Carraway—is one of the most memorable and essential elements of Gatsby. Can you imagine this novel told by the phony and tragic Jimmy Gatz himself? Maybe you can, but it would be a different novel entirely. I’ve hit more novelistic dead ends by choosing the wrong POV than by any other error. Choose a fresh and fitting POV, on the other hand, and a novel can seem to tell itself.
3. Condensed storytime creates a powerful temporal frame.
Flashbacks and backstory aside, Gatsby is framed by the events of a single summer, a timeframe so classic—and now so emulated--we might underappreciate its brilliance. The change in a young narrator’s ways of seeing the world over a single, sensual season has become, along with its themes of aspiration and self-invention, one of the most American aspects of this slim, simply structured novel.
4. Short can be sweet.
Is Gatsby such a classroom classic because of the all-American themes, the lyrical language, the colorful time period and setting, the P.G.-rated party scenes that thrill without disturbing? Or is it because it’s short enough for most students to finish over a weekend? If you’re a novelist who writes on the short side, take heart: 50,000 to 70,000 words – a novel one can read in four to six hours -- has its advantages. Just avoid calling it a novella whenever possible, and you’ll find yourself in good company with Philip Roth (Goodbye Columbus), Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Ian McEwan (On Chesil Beach).
5. We can cloak characters in mystery, but only up to a point.
Fitzgerald wanted Gatsby to be enigmatic, and many of the novel’s characters are simply and even thinly drawn, but with the help of editor Maxwell Perkins, the author recognized that Gatsby was simply too vague. In later drafts Fitzgerald added more hints of Gatsby’s business dealings, including pressing calls from associates. Perkins also recommended Fitzgerald repeat Gatsby’s “old sport” expression a few more times to give his character a recognizable verbal tic.
6. Break up the backstory.
In early drafts, Fitzgerald clumped Gatsby’s backstory, creating what his editor agreed was “a certain sagging in chapters six and seven.” How Fitzgerald solved the Gatsby backstory problem—and whether he solved it completely, or only introduced more artifice—is an excellent puzzler for working novelists. Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit is a great primer in self-editing that instructively explores many of the Fitzgerald-Perkins edits, focusing especially on the author’s problems with macro-structure.
7. Use the power of understatement.
There are two deaths in Gatsby; both happen more-or-less “off-camera” and take up little space in the novel. The car-accident death of Myrtle, in particular, is told in swift, unadorned prose – mostly in two sentences without internal punctuation that seem stylistically closer to Hemingway than Fitzgerald. Compare that to the lavish prose Fitzgerald uses in his scenes and chapters dedicated to parties.
8.Structural details matter—including even the order of chapters.
The first three chapters of Gatsby show us American society in triptych: the high class, old money culture of Tom and Daisy; the low class culture of Myrtle and friends; the nouveau riche frenzy of Gatsby and the crowds he attracts. In earlier drafts, the second (low class) and third (nouveau riche) chapters were transposed. In earlier drafts, the triptych ends with a fistfight; in present form, the triptych ends with Nick finally meeting Gatsby. Why one choice is better than the other—and how it changes our reading – is yet another interesting detail for writers to ponder.
9.Borrow from the best.
Gatsby has inspired and influenced many, and few authors have been more outspoken about deliberate mimicry of the American classic than Michael Chabon, who literally pulled Gatsby off a shelf and used its summer-time structure and themes as a scaffold for his own bestselling debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Recognizing that books talk to each other, and how authors take what they need and transform it into something fresh and new, is an essential element of the novelist’s apprenticeship.
10. Listen to the editors… to the critics, not so much.
Gatsby is a testament to the power of revision, including both Fitzgerald’s own skills of self-editing and his humble wisdom in listening to the editing advice of the brilliant Maxwell Perkins. It’s also one of those books that prove how often critics get it wrong. The very first review that appeared proclaimed: “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud.”
Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Detour and The Spanish Bow. She teaches in the UAA low-residency MFA program and for 49 Writers.