Friday, November 19, 2010

The Short Story Market Killed F. Scott Fitzgerald

Since his death at 44 in 1940, people have speculated both why Scott Fitzgerald died so young, why he failed to live up to the massive talent he displayed in writing The Great Gatsby, and fundamentally, how it could have been different.

Reading Jeffrey Myers biography Scott Fitzgerald, it becomes apparent that it is impossible to separate all the strands that ruined Scott.  He drank, and was not the kind of drinker who could function.  His upbringing did little to prepare him for adulthood and its responsibilities.  His marriage to Zelda was disastrous to his health and creativity and further propelled his drinking (although he did drink too much before he met her.)  

But his profligate lifestyle would have been impossible without money, and he earned this not from his novels or short literary fiction, but from popular writing in magazines like the Saturday Evening Post.  A story in the Post, which in the 20s had a circulation of three million, could earn him three to four thousand dollars a story.  He made nearly forty-thousand dollars a year, four or five times the amount of an average American family.  He felt he needed this money, to keep Zelda in luxury, and to present a picture of himself to the world as the successful artist.  

But this dedication to hack writing at the expense of other work, made his art suffer and ultimately diminished him as a writer.  Without those massive fees in the 1920s the Fitzgerald juggernaut would have been more difficult to keep moving at its dangerous speed. It might have even saved him.

For current short story writers, this is an amazing and ironic situation.   There is no short story market, except for a few select writers.  Most short stories are taken by journals for little or no money.  A short story market, literary or popular, simply doesn’t exist anymore.  Bad short stories were replaced by bad radio, and later bad TV, as popular entertainment. 

Now short stories in any form can hurt no one.  Writers should have no fear of them.  Readers might even try to read them.

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