Fitzgerald’s woe: Fiction vs. Cinema -- Rituparna Roy


I have just started working in a private college in Kolkata; and among my teaching assignments this semester, my favourite is an essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Crack-up. Written for the magazine ‘Esquire’ for their three consecutive issues of February, March and April 1936, this piece is one of the finest examples of the ‘personal essay’ – bold (for its time, in that the author chose to write about his breakdown at all ), insightful and moving. In writing about his crack-up, Fitzgerald gives us the highlights of his biography – but he does not give away names and years (that homework is meant for the reader), and very interestingly, actually conceals as much as he reveals.

The essay spoke to me at multiple levels, but what was most memorable for me were the sections where Fitzgerald talks about writing, and himself as a writer. And that happens close to the beginning and towards the end of the essay. He starts by saying there are two kinds of breakdowns and ends with the declaration - articulated in an incredibly selfish and cynical tone - that after a lot of soul-searching, he has decided to be only a writer – not "an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch". In between, we get a remarkably detached analysis of his state of mind during and after his breakdown (and at one point, a recalling of two such other previous experiences), without an iota of self pity.

When it comes to his reflections on writing, in the second para of (Part-I) the essay itself, there is a kind of sizing up of the “impact factor” of writers and a candid confession of his own vocation:

"It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man—you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived; you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied—but I, for one, would not have chosen any other."

This optimism of the writer and his work having a greater chance of being remembered in the future (vis-a-vis the movie star, and by extension, movies), however, totally gives way to despair towards the end of the essay (in Part-III, 'Handle with Care') -- the despair that is born of the knowledge that one’s medium of artistic expression will always, inevitably, have less value than another; the despair, in short, of fighting a losing battle:

"I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures... but there was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power… I set that down as an example of what haunted me during the long night—this was something I could neither accept nor struggle against, something which tended to make my efforts obsolescent, as the chain stores have crippled the small merchant, an exterior force, unbeatable -"

As early as 1930, Fitzgerald had seen the future – of Cinema’s absolute sway over fiction; in 1936, he gave vent to his feelings of frustration and despair as a novelist. But that didn’t stop him from being a Hollywood hack himself soon after: he signed a lucrative 2-year contract with MGM in 1937 and also did freelance screenwriting for a while before his untimely death in 1940. He seemed to go for the very thing he hated... out of a desperate need for money; but he didn’t shy away from mocking himself either in his “The Pat Hobby Stories”.

Reading Fitzgerald’s rant in The Crack-up made me wonder: given the ironic fact that his work became more popular after his death, and his novels were adapted on screen multiple times (the very thing that seemed to be anathema for him in 1936), would he have been less rankled as a writer, had he lived to see his (greater) success in print and on screen? Could the lure of Hollywood been staved off altogether in his case if his novels had sold more?   

I also wondered what he would have felt had he lived now – when all literary “content” ultimately aims to be visual, when the diminished value of the written word has reached new heights, and when cinema/serials/web-series seem to be not just an additional but the only means through which to validate fiction/storytelling. I wondered whether he would have been able to write at all in such a scenario.

And I realized, standing as I do a whole century after him, with literary aspirations of my own, how much more courage it needs to be - to even want to be - a fiction writer today!


Comments

Griselda Heppel said…
That sounds a wonderful piece, moving and sharply written, classic Fitzgerald. I suppose the rise of the talkies must have made writers feel the ground was being pulled from under their feet... when in fact screenplays developed and flourished as a new art form, the best of which express all the subtlety, nuance, pain and poetry Fitzgerald could wish for. I’ll bet when fielding, Defoe, Smollett et al set the novel going, poets and playwrights deplored this blunt, prosy sort of writing. As you say, so many other visual narrative forms have sprouted since Fitzgerald’s day - tv, streaming, YouTube - but people do still read, thank heaven. Interesting post, thank you!
Rituparna Roy said…
Thank you for your response, Griselda! I completely agree with you that screenplays were a new art form with great 'literary' potential. I guess, it all boils down to an inherent human reluctance to accept all things new, whether in art or life. I personally don't think reading will ever die out, but the reading habit has reduced drastically. There's no denying that. May be, the best way that parents/teachers can persuade youngsters to read more is leading by example!

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