Friday, May 29, 2009

In Praise of Editors

The Elegant Variation just ran a four part series in which it reprinted in full (with permission) an essay by Susan Bell, "Revisioning The Great Gatsby", which appears in The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, a collection of essays that offers "aspiring writers insight into the craft of writing."

This essay explores the way in which F. Scott Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, influenced the final version of The Great Gatsby.

Here's a taste:

In autumn 1924, Fitzgerald sent Perkins the Gatsby manuscript. The editor diagnosed its kinks, then wrote a letter of lavish praise and unabashed criticism. “And as for the sheer writing, it is astonishing,” wrote Perkins. “The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry are most extraordinary.” A crucial problem, though, was the hero’s palpability. Perkins explained:

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

Gatsby’s vagueness was intentional, according to Fitzgerald’s December 1 reply: “[Gatsby’s] vagueness I can repair by making more pointed—this doesn’t sound good but wait and see. It’ll make him clear.” To make Gatsby too clear would make him too human and unheroic. Fitzgerald wanted to clarify Gatsby’s vagueness, not Gatsby himself. But in a fascinating turnabout, on December 20 the author wrote again, this time to confess that the vagueness was not altogether intentional:

I myself didn’t know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in & you felt it. If I’d known & kept if from you you’d have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I’m sure you’ll understand. But I know now—and as a penalty for not having known first, in other words to make sure I’m going to tell more.

Here are links to all four parts. Well worth reading in my opinion.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four