Tuesday, April 17, 2012

For the Sake of Argument

I remember very little of my actual university course work, but I remember most of my "American Literature" class. Not because the professor was interesting, erudite, or inspired in any way. Far from it. The best that could be said for him was that if recorded speaking, he could singlehandedly wipe out insomnia. Ah, but in that class we read books. Good books. Great books! After reading them we not only got to discuss them -- but we were actually encouraged to do so!

I was 19, so I, of course, knew everything. I had read most of the titles required for the class before graduating high school and considered Twain, Hawthorne, Poe, and Salinger old friends. I'd read enough Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Crane to know that their work didn't speak to me in the same way my "friends" did. I had definite opinions and was thrilled to discover a kindred spirit in the class.

T. was 10 years older than I. Not only did she have opinions, but -- praises be! -- her views on literature differed significantly from mine. On many occasions, the two of us would take over the class with our discussion of the work at hand. The professor never stopped us. I'm not sure he could have. And the other students would privately thank us for Siskel-and-Eberting because they learned more and found the class more interesting than when the professor droned on unchallenged.

That class introduced me to F. Scott Fitzgerald. How I'd managed to miss out on reading him before then, I'll never know, but I became an instant fan. We read "The Great Gatsby," and it was like finding a book that someone had written just for me. Oh. My. God, how I loved all of its glorious, golden tragic excess.

Product DetailsUntil I got to the end.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

To young, know-it-all me, that was the DUMBEST ENDING EVER. I thought just about any ending would have been better than that. If the book had ended one paragraph sooner ("And one fine morning..."), I argued, it would have been perfect.

T. disagreed with me on just about everything with "Gatsby."

While I loved the metaphor of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, T. found the imagery tiresome.

I hated Daisy with a purple passion. I thought she was a conniving, simple-minded bitch. T. took into consideration where Daisy came from and sympathized with the choices she made.

I thought Gatsby's "you loved me too?" is one of the saddest lines of dialogue I've ever read. I still do. I don't remember whether T. agreed with me or not on that. What she thought didn't affect my supreme enjoyment of that line in the slightest.

In fact, one of the few things T. & I agreed upon with regards to Gatsby was that we both loved the book and hated the Robert Redford / Mia Farrow-ization of the movie.

Today, years later, "Gatsby" remains one of my all-time favorite books. And here's the thing: I no longer hate the ending. With age comes wisdom, perhaps. Maybe there's just something to be said for accepting another's creative vision, even when it differs from your own.

For the sake of argument, imagine if Fitzgerald was an unpublished writer tackling today's publishing system with his manuscript for "The Great Gatsby." (Yes, yes, I know Gatsby was his 3rd published book. But honestly, do you think "This Side of Paradise" would ever make it past the intern in charge of the slush pile?)

Gatsby falls just shy of 50,000 words: too short for a novel / too long for a novella. It includes flashbacks, inventive punctuation, and has no clear antagonist. We don't even get to meet the book's protagonist, its namesake, until Chapter 3.

For the sake of argument, imagine if Scott, fresh from finishing his manuscript with a metaphor that (ahem) some 19-year olds might hate, attended a writer's conference where he got to spend a glorious, hope-infused 3 WHOLE MINUTES with a harried editor or agent, pitching his story about the doomed relationship between a poor little rich girl and a hopeless romantic. Show of hands: how many times would he hear "I just don't love it" before he got a green light to submit a synopsis and a partial?

Do we live in a world where agency interns would recognize Scott's brilliance if it shone at them from their email inbox? Would Scott himself have been able to craft a query letter that would "hook" the reader into requesting a partial -- or would his query render him Query Shark bait?

If he did get a partial, either from a conference connection or from shining through slush, would the fact that his protagonist doesn't appear in the first 50 pages of the manuscript nix a request for a full?

In order to get Gatsby published, he would have to find an agent who wasn't trolling for Amish romances, paranormal, YA, steampunk, urban fantasy, horror, mystery, or freaky zombie / vampire / werewolf mashups involving literary or historical characters.

Once such an agent was found, Scott would have to write a hell of a query letter that piqued the interest of the agent's unpaid intern enough to get the intern to request a partial. Then he'd have to rely on the intern liking the story enough to request a full, read the whole thing, recognize its merit, and pass it to the agent with a recommendation. The agent would then have to sell a publisher on the project -- a process as fraught with potential pitfalls as finding an agent.

Could such a thing really happen without Scott receiving notes like:
  • Need at least another 20,000 words. Perhaps add a paranormal element? Better market share.
  • Consider bumping up erotic tension between Nick and Daisy.
  • Does Myrtle have to die? If so, show in more detail. Make me feel her evisceration.
  • We need to see at least one sex scene between Daisy & Gatsby. Ramp up the heat.
  • The final paragraph doesn't work. Suggest rewriting and / or eliminating completely.
For the sake of argument, I sincerely hope so, though privately, I wonder. Because if F. Scott couldn't get Gatsby published in today's world, then what hope do I have of succeeding where he would fail?


Anonymous said...

A chilling question.

Honestly, I can't see it happening. I feel like every work of literature that comes out today indeed needs an angle, what's the angle? Who and how many will this appeal to?

I fear Fitzgerald's meandering, and at times ambiguous prose wouldn't stand much of a chance in today's go-go, will-it-make-a-good-movie-trilogy? world.

But, that doesn't mean its not worth fighting against that current, no, on the contrary...

Ami Hendrickson said...

I, like you, fear that it wouldn't happen as well. Which saddens me more than receiving a form rejection. You're right: we must continue fighting against the current.

"So we beat on, boats against the current..." ::sigh::