But wait, why discuss him here, in this advertising site? Is it because for a time he actually wrote advertising, like writers after him as varied as Salman Rushdie, Don Delillo, Dorothy Sayers and Joseph Heller?
Or is it because he’s a fundamental part of American culture, and, as we have often said, advertising is intrinsically connected to culture, uses its tropes and symbols and icons as a language with which to sway the masses?
No, we’re focusing on the Bard of the Jazz age because this particular series of lost stories shows a creative – if we may use the term so loosely – at a particular crossroads, a crossroads that is instructive to anyone who uses their creativity at all.
Let us begin with this: No one tells you when you are learning how to make anything creative, that form and formats will have as much impact on what you are trying to do as anything else you have at your command. So you must pick them carefully – not only to make sure they align properly with the truth you are trying to tell as you begin, but because over time they will seep into the way you think about what you do, and if you are not careful, they will make you incapable of telling the new truths you discover because they do not fit into your old formats’ demands.
And that’s what you see illustrated here again and again. You can see the form of writing for Hollywood – the scripts, the treatments, the revisions – has forced Fitzgerald to forgo the hallmark insights that made Gatsby and the stories of the 20s so brilliant. Replacing them with a dizzying number of locations and superficial characters that only serve to move improbable plots along. Until that old Fitzgerald genius rears its ugly head, and does insert those hallmark observations which stop you in your tracks; because of their beauty, yes, but also because of how out of place they feel in the story – or is it a treatment? – you are reading.
But we would not waste your time if this were purely an exercise in style and form. For here as in all great work, form and content are intertwined. And as one sees Fitzgerald struggle with his form, one also sees him struggle with his content. And thus with his marketplace. For the public wanted a certain type of story from the man who gave them Berenice Bobs her Hair. They wanted – still as the Depression drew on through the 1930s – those gooey tales of daring young flappers and handsome young gentlemen who argued and fought and yet somehow fell in love at the end to reassure us that all was right with the world. And even if one could set aside the inherent creepiness of a man in his forties writing about the amours of young girls in flower, it wouldn’t matter because this was not what Fitzgerald cared to write about anymore. Or maybe, was not capable of writing about any more. A man who had been through the madness of Zelda, the bankruptcy of his finances, and the cratering of his career could not help but cast a cold eye on life, death and America as the decade of Roosevelt rolled towards World War Two. Which Fitzgerald was fine with. He wanted to write new stories. That’s what he was trying to write here. Stories, frankly, that America needed. Stories about rock bottom, about recovery, about maybe not achieving some neat absolution, but about achieving something important nonetheless.
But that’s not what the public wanted. Or at least, not what the editors of the major publications by which Fitzgerald had made his fabulous fortune, thought they wanted. And they were probably right.
So here you see a writer, struggling to write this new kind of story. Stumbling towards that second act (not drunkenly, for that would be too unkind and too obvious a metaphor; stumbling as if in the dark, as if in an unfamiliar hotel room where one knows the light switch is there somewhere, but where?), knowing that there are truths to tell, knowing that he is the one to tell them, but also knowing that the popular press will kill him rather than hear what he has to say. Knowing the deep irony of that, and the irony of the fact that the very work he is doing to keep himself alive long enough to write these new truths – the Hollywood writing that he has not quite figured out how to do – is slowing poisoning his ability to tell them to these new generations.
How can you not love that? How can you not admire that?
And how can you not admire that then – on the cusp of a new World War, when a new generation would be stepping into a world in which they would have everything and lose everything and have to reinvent everything, a generation that might actually be able to listen to the wisdom of someone who had as well, and who had yet, through it all, never lost his faith in himself, in America, in the ability to reinvent, in hard work and integrity and hope – he drops dead in a bungalow off of Sunset.
So sure, maybe that’s not an advertising story. But please, raise your hand, copywriters and art directors and creators and thinkers of each and every stripe, if what Fitzgerald was struggling with in these stories – in form, in content, in audience, in truth, in context and yes even in brand – does not sound familiar to you as you try to tell new truths to new generations with new clients and new forms. Please tell me, you do not understand this story at all.
I thought so.