Review: Victory at Sea

When I saw the press release of this book by Yale historian Paul Kennedy, I knew, as an ex-US Navy officer, that I had to get a copy. It makes for fascinating reading, particularly in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Paul Kennedy the author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, a New York Times bestseller. He has also written Grand Strategies in War and Peace, and Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. He s J Richardson Dilworth Professor of History and Director of International Security Studies at Yale University.

Bismark under Attack 1941

This history book includes a remarkable series of fifty-five paintings of warships by Ian Marshall who was a fellow and past president of the American Society of Marine Artists. The paintings are a valuable addition, bringing the text alive.

Written in five parts and three appendices, it begins with stage-setting background of the development of the six navies involved in WW II: USA, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan. There is also a discussion of sea power in the sweep of history, and an overview of geographic and economic considerations. Kennedy argues, persuasively, that geography and economics favoured the United States, while both factors worked against the Axis alliance.

The next four parts cover the periods 1939-42 (the early years, which favoured the Axis); 1943 (the critical year); 1944-45 (triumph of the Allies); and Aftermath and Reflections. In these sections, Kennedy does not describe the sea battles in detail. Rather, he describes the situation, the strategies, the combatants, and the results materially and psychologically. Even without the real time detail, one has a feeling for what the battle was like.

The principle point which Kennedy is making in this book is that one the US decided to enter the war, the conclusion was inevitable principally because of the economic potential of the country. It had access to all the natural resources it needed; at the end of a major recession, the human resources were available; and the financial resources were made available by wealthy, patriotic individuals. Geography also favoured the US in the sense that none of the conflict came within its borders.

In the appendices, there are examples of American production of weapons. In 1945, the US had a cumulative total of eleven an a a half million tons of warships, and increase of nine million tons since 1941. In 1945, the US had considerably more warships than the rest of the world, combined. Similar gains were achieved in aircraft and tank production. Kennedy argues that this increase in productivity resulted in the US becoming the world leader with about 50% of the world’s GDP.

This book makes clear that, given the right resources and motivation, major changes in the world order are possible in a short time period. And it leaves me with a question: If NATO really wants to defeat Russia in Ukraine, if it gathers the necessary military hardware and if the West keeps its sanctions in place, will Russia become anything other than a weak, failed state?

Opening Paragraphs

Those of us who write have had it explained to us – not to say ‘driven into our heads’, that the first paragraph of our novels must contain a ‘hook’ for the reader, must be concise, interesting and well-written. If that’s the case, what do you think of this opening paragraph:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west, the foothills and the distant Rocky Mountains that were long ago born from the earth in cataclysm, now dark and majestic against a sullen sky. It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass. The word cataclysm is a synonym for disaster or upheaval but also for revolution, and he is the leader of the greatest revolution in history. The greatest and the last. The end of history is near, after which his vision of a pacified world will endure forever.

The question was posed by Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers in his Friday email a couple of months ago. Before I tell you who is the author of this paragraph, let me give you Harry’s take on the paragraph.

Harry says: “I hope you agree that the sentence is bad. If the sentence just ran like this:

The triple-pane floor-to-ceiling windows of Hollister’s study frame the rising plain to the west.

– you could just about digest it. Even in that much abbreviated form (14 words versus 39) you’re being asked to compose these elements:

The windows are triple-paned

  • They run floor-to ceiling.
  • They are in the study belonging to someone called Hollister.
  • A rising plain is visible through the windows.
  • The plain runs west from the windows.

The full version of the sentence, however, adds in these additional elements:

  • There are foothills.
  • And the Rocky Mountains.
  • The Rocky Mountains were born long ago, and in cataclysm.
  • These mountains are now looking dark and majestic.
  • The sky is sullen.

This is quite clearly an awful lot of ingredients, particularly in an opening sentence. Worse still, the sentence shifts focus. The first part of it is clearly talking about windows. The last part is talking about mountains. What are we meant to be focusing on? It’s just not clear. (Or, as it happens, even correct. The Rocky Mountains weren’t born in cataclysm. They formed when two tectonic plates ran gently together, thereby pushing the earth upwards. That process ran for about 30 million years and is extremely slow, not even one millimetre a year.)

Oh yes, and if we were being mean, I think we’d suggest that the adjectives (dark, majestic, sullen) are all rather shopworn in their obviousness.

OK. So we don’t like the first sentence. The second sentence feels a bit better:

It is a view to match the man who stands at this wall of glass.

The feeling engendered in a competent reader is likely to be one of extreme awkwardness – like you’re talking to a boring man in a pub, and he leans in too close, and his breath smells of beer and bacon-flavour crisps, and he tells you something which you know to be untrue of the mountains outside, and you notice that his toupee has slipped. You want to get away, but there’s something desperately adhesive about the whole situation.

Clarity (and an exit from the pub-situation) comes with the remainder of the paragraph. This chap at the window is a revolutionary. He has Dr Evil style plans for the planet. Paragraph two talks about his need to kill someone. Paragraph three discusses his intention to make the kill himself.

Overall? Your impression?

I think you’re going to agree with me that the writing is awkward. Needs improvement before it goes to a literary agent.

The trouble is, we’ve just discussed the opening paragraphs of a Dean Koontz novel, The Night Window, and guy has sold 450 million or more novels worldwide. So he’s doing something right.”

Dean Koontz

“I most certainly know that I could never bring myself to write those sentences. Yet perhaps their badness is part of what attracts Koontz’s readers. Here are some possibilities:

1. The first sentence is overfilled with information, but perhaps that presents Koontz as a fount of knowledge – establishes him as some kind of authority.

2. For that reason it doesn’t matter that his geology is dubious or that his vocabulary-facts are roughly ninth grade.

3. His readers are probably interested more in grand external story (the biggest revolution in history) than in fine interior details. The fact-first presentation style somehow authorises those preferences. The subsequent material about Hollister’s plans to kill people confirm that we’re in graphic novel/James Bond territory, not anything more refined.”

Finally, Harry makes the point that it’s important, as a writer, to be true to yourself. “Dean Koontz has been true to himself and to his half-dozen pseudonyms.”

Review: Great Circle

I have to admit that sometimes I find that the novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize disappointing, But, this time – 2021 – I found one that’s delightful. Great Circle is the third novel from Maggie Shipstead, whose two previous novels were very well received. Ms Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stamford. Judging by her website, she is very well travelled, having completed numerous assignments for Conde Naste Travel. This doubtless came in handy, as the locations in Great Circle include Hollywood, New York, the North Atlantic, Hawaii, Alaska, South Africa, New Zealand, Sweden, Missoula Montana, Seattle, Antarctica, and various locations in England.

Interestingly, the book does not appear to be based on a real-life event. I cannot find any record of ‘the first polar great circle flight – by man or woman. In fact Ms Shipstead says that the original inspiration for the novel was seeing a statue of Jean Batten in Auckland, New Zealand. Batten was the first woman to fly solo from England to New Zealand. Ms Shipstead appears to have selected the DC3 as being the first affordable, non-military aircraft which. with the technology available in 1950, could have been able to make the flight.

Maggie Shipstead

There are two protagonists in this story: Marian Graves, a driven, thrill-seeking woman who is in love with flying, and Hadley Baxter, a successful but selfish and amoral Hollywood star. Marian and her twin brother are rescued from a sinking passenger liner in the North Atlantic by their father, a widower, who is sent to prison for abandoning his ship. The twins are raised in Missoula, Montana by a neglectful, ne’er, do well uncle during the Great Depression. Marian becomes enchanted by barnstorming pilots and at the age of fourteen learns to fly. She becomes a bush pilot, flying alcohol from Canada to the States during Prohibition. Her financial sponsor becomes her domineering husband, but she breaks free, and travels to England where she joins a group of female pilots who ferry war planes from place to place. She then decides to pioneer a polar great circle route in an airplane. The records seemed to indicate that her aircraft, the Peregrine, went down somewhere between Antarctica and New Zealand.

Hadley Baxter, who had had a long run in a popular romantic series, is persuaded to play Marian in a forthcoming film about her life. She becomes fascinated by Marian’s story, and begins to investigate it. This leads to her finding out what actually happened to Marian.

This story is like a jigsaw puzzle whose many colourful pieces finally fit neatly into place. There are numerous supporting characters, all of whom are unique, well drawn and who build our interest in the story and help define the protagonists. Clearly, the author has done her research. The many details of aircraft, flying, film-making, painting, and the numerous out-of-the-way places are clear and credible. Underlying the fabric of the story is the image of a circle – completed or broken – as it can be applied to human life.

The only problem I have with the book is the character of Hadley Baxter, who seems too superficial and self-absorbed to play Marian Graves. In a way, Hadley’s character takes some of the shine off of Marian. Perhaps someone more serious, naive and curious would have been better.

You won’t be able to put it down!

Review: The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East

This book caught my eye when there was a piece about it in my alumni magazine. Its author, Janine di Giovanni was a war reporter for nearly 30 years. She is currently Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is the author of nine previous books, and has won more than a dozen prizes, including a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Janine di Giovanni

This book focuses on four countries/ regions of the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Gaza. In each case, Ms di Giovanni has spent time in the area as a correspondent, and in each geography she provides a historic account – not only from a religious perspective – but also from political, economic and social points of view. What follows then is her personal experience of individual Christian people and their faith during her visits. These individual stories and her responses to them make this book much more than an interesting piece of research. It is also alive with human emotion.

The point of the book is that Christianity is becoming a rarity in the region of its birth. Many Christians have left the Middle East because their personal safety or wellbeing is under threat, and many have been killed by religious hatred.

Ms di Giovanni, herself a devout Catholic, does not apportion blame for this evolution – most of which has occurred in the last century. She simply reports the reactions to the actions of others, without naming other faiths as the initiators. Nor does she suggest remedies. She lets the facts speak for themselves.

The book is well-written, the dozens of individual stories are engaging as well as sad. But this is not a sad book. It is wise and very readable.

Review: The Boys in the Boat

I was given this book (a New York Times no. 1 bestseller) by one of my sons-in-law who rowed crew at university, but didn’t know that I had done some rowing, although I was never very good. In spite of the pain that one suffers when one is racing in an eight-man shell, it can be a truly addictive sport. And it can be very exciting for spectators cheering their boat, particularly during the last minute of a race.

This is an historic novel, and, paradoxically, quite suspenseful, written by Daniel James Brown. On his website he says: “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. I taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. I now write narrative nonfiction books full time. My primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life as vividly and accurately as I can. I live in the country outside of Seattle, Washington with my wife, two daughters, and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees. When I am not writing, I am likely to be birding, gardening, fly fishing, reading American history, or chasing bears away from the bee hives.”

Daniel James Brown

This book is about the eight-man (and a coxswain) crew from the University of Washington which won the Olympics in Nazi Germany in 1936. It is a true and memorable story, though almost none of us alive today have any memory of the event, and few ever heard the story. The central character is Joe Rantz, a poor, but tall and strong boy, who is beginning his freshman year at the University of Washington in the Depression of 1933. We learn about his checkered family background and his decision to row in an eight-man shell, of the difficulties he went through to win a place on the freshmen’s no. 1 boat. From that point, Joe struggles to win a seat on the junior varsity boat, the Washington varsity boat and the US Olympic boat, in all that time never losing a competitive race. The competition included the University of California crews and the best eastern crews: Penn, Navy, Cornell and Syracuse. There are plenty of obstacles that Joe and the rest of his crew have to overcome: financial worries, exhaustion, family relationship issues, training problems, and more. Each major race they face is clouded with uncertainty, but, since it’s a true story, we know in advance the real outcome, yet we live through the tension with Joe and his teammates. In Germany, for example, the final race seems to be stacked against the Americans: the Germans and and the Italians are given the two most favourable lanes; the Americans, the least favourable lane. Moreover, the American stroke (the stern-most oarsman who sets the pace) was ill.

Apart from the vivid writing and nearly constant tension maintained throughout, one has to marvel at the extensive and detailed research which the author had to do: interviewing Joe’s daughter, fellow crewmen, dozens of others and reading reams of records. Through it all, he is able to capture the magic that an eight-man crew can create when they are in the ‘swing’. There is plenty of captivating rowing folklore here. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting book.

Literature vs Generic Fiction: What’s the Difference?

The Reader Views blog of January 30, 2022, written by A J Smee, answers this question on four dimensions.

A. J. SMEE has been an international teacher for over twenty years, specializing in environment, languages, philosophy and design. He holds an advanced degree in Environmental Studies and an MA in Political Philosophy. His passion for learning and experience has carried him around the world, living and teaching in numerous countries in South America and Asia. He lives internationally with his wife and cats.

A J Smee

Mr Smee says, “Understanding the underlying purpose of these two different genres is a starting point. Broadly speaking, genre fiction aims to entertain, and there is a technical toolbox that accompanies this type of popular fiction, which reaches into movies as well. But literary fiction probes deeply into our humanity, demanding more of both the author and the reader. What differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction can be summarised by four hierarchical points. As an author, if you write literary fiction or would like to venture into the genre, adhering to these targets will help you to penetrate the genre’s true depths.

  1. Dealing with Social Constructs

In some respect, good literature will contend with existing social constructs, economic, and social systems that we have created to help advance and establish social order. The caveat, of course, is how the protagonist fits into these systems and how these systems are failing her. The character’s confrontation with this world is what, in part, defines the actions of the protagonist; her response to the world is, in part what drives the story. Consider the social constructs that are most compelling to address and you’ll likely find a good literary story to write about.

2. The Human Condition

As the protagonist confronts the social situation, she is forced to discover the best and the worst of humanity. This may be evident from various sides. Antagonists that embody or advance the established systems often exhibit some element of human virtue that are most unbecoming, clashing with the protagonist’s ideals and forcing her to reconsider established beliefs. Out of this come actions and reactions that exhibit the behavioural tendencies of our humanity. Why we do what we do is a common thread that the reader is forced to consider in these literary stories.

3. Internal Struggle and Compromise

As stories in the literary genre are character driven as opposed to plot driven, much of the conflict should be centred around the internal struggles of the protagonist. Ostensibly, this leads the story and helps define it as literature. Committed to dealing with the conflict of the situation, the character must manage the internal frailties of her own moral and ethical fabric. How she comes to terms with her flaws or how she discovers aspects of herself that help her to overcome the conflict demonstrates the growth of the character. The depth of this character arc hinges of the authors ability to develop the internal conflict of the protagonist.

4. Style in Writing

To generalise, genre fiction is created to target specific audiences that would be most entertained by that type of writing and storytelling. Because of this, certain expectations about language, grammar and the story must be upheld. This constraint around the technique of storytelling in genre fiction has evolved mostly because of commercial factors; the author must comply with audience expectations. The literary genre has greater flexibility in this area, as the audience comes to applaud digressions from the norm if they are done effectively. This may include the complexity of language (although I don’t consider this a critical condition); a play with language that influences the effect on the reader; originality in exploring time, backstory and memory; or innovative ways to put the words on the page. And for the author, this can be liberating and creative in terms of how they choose to get their story across to the reader.”

“Whichever genre you prefer, some writing in the literary genre can prove to be an enlightening and useful endeavour. Not only can it aid in the author’s process of self-discovery, it hones an ability to write more complex characters, easily translating to other genres you write in. The literary genre most definitely presents other challenges to your writing, but some honest effort will surely improve your skill and technique as a writer.”

I think this is an excellent analysis.

How Many Pages in a Book?

In yesterday’s email, Harry Bingham of Jericho Writers discussed this question. Here are the excerpts of what he said.

“The length of your manuscript matters. Partly, there’s just a crude commercial standard, varying somewhat by genre, as to how long a book needs to be. Subject to one major qualification (more on that later), the crude commercial standard is a thing of iron. You need to live within its constraints, or not be published.

“Let’s start with the Crude Commercial Standard. Every market for books has a set of largely standard prices. In the US, for example, a standard hardcover novel will retain at about $25. The same book with paper covers will sell at about $16-17. The cost of manufacturing a 200-page book is very largely the same as manufacturing a 400-page one. Most of the actual cost of the book lies in things like the author’s advance, the editorial process, the publicity and marketing, and so on, most of which are largely independent of length. That’s the main reason why price doesn’t vary much with quantity.

“But customers don’t think like that. If a customer notices that Someone Dies on a Train by Chris Agather is 400 pages long and selling for $25, they’ll resent paying the same price for the 200-page Someone Dies on a River by Aggie Christopher. Readers will buy the first book and ignore the second, while the latter’s publisher will learn not to put out a 200-page book.

“At this point, most actual readers will want to scream at me that some of their favourite books are very short. And OK, they are. But the customer hesitating between Someone Dies on a Train and Someone Dies on a River doesn’t know much about the quality of either book. The one certain piece of data is that the longer book will deliver more hours of reading than the shorter one – and for the same price. So (subject to the big qualification we’ll come to later) very short books don’t sell. They, mostly, aren’t even published.

“Following this logic, the Crude Commercial Standard therefore says that commercial novels need to be a minimum of 70 or 75,000 words to sell. Literary novels might start a bit smaller – say, 60,000 words or even 50,000. Nevertheless, the damn things need enough heft to satisfy the reader’s demand for value. The CCS doesn’t really have a firm upper end. There are sites on the internet which will tell you that 120,000 words is a hard upper limit, but it really, truly isn’t. My first book was more than 180,000 words long when it was published. The entire editorial process with HarperCollins didn’t shave more than a few thousand words from the original manuscript – and that shaving came mostly from me, not them.

“Likewise, epic fantasy fiction is meant to run long. Plenty of big historical fiction runs long. Plenty of thrillers run long. And of course, children’s and YA books run short. In every case, you just need to figure out how the CCS affects your particular market. OK. So much for the basics.

“The more Zen point is this. A professional reader – a Jericho editor, a skilled mentor, or a literary agent – will be able to read a synopsis and feel how long the book should be. Some stories feel like 80,000 words ones. Others feel like they need 120,000 words or more. I don’t pretend that this is an exact science, but it’s a real one all the same. I remember once reading a manuscript which was really good. A love story, with some extra trimmings, set in a great location, with good characters and some strong writing. That story should have been easy to sell. But it was 120,000 words long and the (fairly simple) story called for 80,000 words, or 90,000 tops. I told the author to delete text without removing content. That feels like a puzzling instruction – but I meant it literally. If you have five sentences of description about (say) a Victorian horse-market, you will almost certainly find that you can convey all the relevant atmosphere in three. If you have four paragraphs describing a rail journey from Vienna to Trieste, you can probably handle that in one or two. Authors who tend towards the prolix will also find that an eighteen-word sentence can be reduced to twelve without actually saying anything materially different. The mantra has to be, “Reduce length, maintain content”. If you do that, you’ll find you actually enhance your content, because you’ll be deleting the least effective words / sentences / paragraphs, so the impact of what’s left will be all the greater.

“(I should also say that although it’s much more common for people to need to cut their work, it can operate the other way round as well. Sometimes a writer delivers a book that’s fine – just too short. Journalists in particular, trained in being sparing and factual, can be guilty of this. The trick here, once you’ve recognised the issue, is to figure out where the book is missing. It’s often textural stuff: descriptions of place, of feeling, of character nuance.)

“The author of that 120,000 word book struggled at first to do what I’d asked. The manuscript came back with maybe 2,000 words shaved off it, then – after I’d yelled at her again – another 5,000 words. It was only after the book went out to agents (and secured plenty of interest, but no firm offers of representation) that the writer sat down and really properly addressed what I’d asked her to do originally. The book came down to well below 100,000 words, and it wasn’t just shorter. It was denser, it was better, it was richer, it was more alive. That book secured an agent and, subsequently, a book deal. It deserved to. The book had found its proper weight and, at its proper weight, sold easily. Oh yes, and the one big qualification when it comes to the Crude Commercial Standard? Simple. The better the book, the less the CCS matters. If you are an author of genius, then write whatever the heck you want. The market will find a way to sell it. “

This seems to me a very useful discussion of how long a manuscript should be.

The Book Tok Phenomenon

The February 1 issue of the Daily Telegraph carried an article by Anita Singh under the title “‘Book Tok’ inspires young readers to get reading.”

Muck Rack says that Anita Singh is “Daily Telegraph arts and entertainment editor. TV critic. Bradfordian. “

Ms Singh writes, “The rise of Book Tok is driving teenagers and young adults into bookshops in numbers not seen since the Harry Potter years, according to the head of Waterstones. Sales are booming after being recommended by influencers on Tik Tok, the social media app – but some classics are also becoming unlikely viral sensations. ‘These last three or four weeks in the United States, James Joyce’s Ulysses had been a significant seller because on Tik Tok, the kids are getting excited about it,’ said James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones and chief executive of the US chain Barnes & Noble.

“The #BookTok has tag has had 37.4 billion views and popular influencers tend to be young women, mostly recommending books by female authors. Mr Daunt said they were helping to make bookshops popular with young people, reminding him of the decade 1997-2007 which saw publication of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. ‘It’s back to that kind of energy in our stores. Our challenge now is that we absolutely have to keep those customers, as we did with the Harry Potter generation. It stepped booksellers up and it stepped book sales up,’ Mr Daunt told a bookselling conference in Italy.

“Waterstones runs its own Tik Tok account as a marketing tool, and Mr Daunt explained: ‘It’s about fun and enjoyment and enthusiasm and the people doing it brilliantly are of the same generation – it’s our young booksellers, and we let them get on with it.’ He joked: ‘We have generally found that the people with blue hair do better than the people with sensible haircuts.’

“Barnes & Noble has dedicated a section of its website to books recommended on Tick Tok. Even W H Smith groups some of its books under the tag ‘Tik Tok made me buy it.’

The New York Times reported on the phenomenon with the headline ‘How Crying on Tik Tok sells books, noting that tear-jerking novels were particularly popular.

“One of the most popular British ‘Book Tok’ stars is 22-year-old Abby Parker, who has amassed 428,000 followers. She told Amazon last year: ‘I’ve always dreamed of sharing my love for books with the world and Tik Tok has finally been my gateway into doing just that. Getting completely involved with the book community this past year has been truly one of the greatest things I’ve done in my life.'”

I think we should congratulate Abby and her colleagues for spreading her book enthusiasm to young people.

Modern Despair with Dostoevsky

There is an article in the Daily Telegraph on 30 January this year by Craig Simpson with the title: “Prophet of Despair Dostoevsky hits a nerve with readers in ‘irrational, egoistic’ times”.

Craig Simpson reports on arts and entertainment for the Telegraph.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote of ‘the pleasure of despair’, and book sales reveal British readers are buying into his brand of agreeable anguish. The Russian existentialist oeuvre is the fastest growing market for Penguin Classics, ahead of more genteel favourites like Austen and Dickens, with sales of his novels doubling in five years.

“Sales of Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground have quadrupled, propelling Dostoevsky from close to 40th on the list of bestselling classics authors to number 4. While the clamour for the 19th-century author’s ‘gloom and nihilism’ is ‘mysterious’ to publishers, experts suggest that pessimistic modern readers have found a ‘prophet’ in him.

“Kevin Birmingham, author of literary biography The Sinner and the Saint, said: ‘The appeal is that Dostoevsky’s view of human nature seems more apparent now: we’re irrational, egotistic and self-destructive. We spite ourselves, we crave freedom even if it leads to our detriment, and our perverse impulses are at the heart of civilisation. Readers of Dostoevsky’s novels would not be surprised by global affairs over the last several years. These are all Dostoevskian. There is an abiding fear that there are no foundations. no ultimate sense of truth or justice, and this is something we’re grappling with these days. No doubt there’s another era of optimism and confidence on the horizon, and Dostoevsky won’t fit so well with that.’

“He is currently fitting very well with the mood of readers, according to the Penguin Classics team, and an increasing audience for angst which has seen sales for the author’s works increasing 177 percent since 2016. His life experiences, Russian Orthodox beliefs, and insights on irrational human behaviour fed into works from Poor Folk to The Brothers Karamazov before his death in 1881. The renewed appeal of his intense novels led to a 60 percent sales growth for Penguin Classics in 2021 alone.”

If Dostoevsky is up, dystopian novels should also be booming!

Behind The Great Gatsby

Sean Smith has an article in the October 16, last year, copy of The Independent which describes how F Scott Fitzgerald’s personality and life experiences defined the plot and the characters in The Great Gasby.

Sean Smith is a writer and freelance journalist who specialises in op-eds and features on a wide variety of subjects. I have abbreviated his article as follows:

“Gifted, charismatic and impoverished, F Scott Fitzgerald fell hopelessly in love with rich socialite Ginevra King while still an undergraduate at Princeton. When the affair inevitably failed, her father was quick to admonish the aspiring writer. “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” Had he heeded that advice, Fitzgerald may well have led a longer and happier life but he wouldn’t have gone on to write the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Although he was desperate to break into the inner circle of the Waspish, protestant elite, Fitzgerald’s limited means and Irish Catholic roots would cast him as a perennial outsider or “a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich man’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton,” as he later acknowledged. But his sense of exclusion would also provide his motivation and subject matter: “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich and it has coloured my entire life and work.”

After being rejected by Ginevra, a heartbroken, Fitzgerald dropped out of college and joined the army in the vain hope of seeing action overseas before the end of the war. As a young officer, Fitzgerald was stationed at Camp Sheridan in Alabama in March 1918 for basic training. History looked set to repeat itself when he unwisely became infatuated with wealthy southern belle Zelda Sayre, who could take her pick from the wealthy young officers who flocked to her family porch.

But Fitzgerald became her most persistent gentleman caller and he would later use the courtship as a model for Gatsby’s youthful pursuit of Daisy. The rule that officers had to wear uniforms at all times, even while socialising, meant that he could disguise the extent of his threadbare poverty from Zelda. Gatsby later benefits from the same “invisibility cloak” with Daisy.

After being demobbed from the army in February 1919, Fitzgerald proposed to Zelda, who made it clear that she had no intention of being poor: “I’d just hate to live a sordid colourless existence.” In the novel, Daisy dispatches Gatsby less brutally but ostensibly for the same reason.

For Fitzgerald it was far from plain sailing. Having failed to secure a writing job with every newspaper in New York, Fitzgerald eventually settled for an advertising role which paid just $90 a week, hardly enough to think of marrying a girl like Zelda.

In the evenings, Fitzgerald wrote short stories with limited success. When Zelda rebuffed a further proposal in June, Fitzgerald fell into despair and a month-long drinking bender only paused by the introduction of prohibition on 1 July 1919.

Depressed to the point of suicide, Fitzgerald resigned his job returning to his midwest family home in St Paul, Minnesota, to rework a previously rejected manuscript into a new novel called This Side of Paradise, which he sent to a publisher more in hope than expectation. When they wrote back with their intention to publish, everything changed.

Zelda, delighted that the sudden prospect of fame and fortune pushed Fitzgerald through the threshold of eligibility, accepted his new proposal with brutal pragmatism. “I hate to say this but I don’t think I had much confidence in you at first. It’s so nice to know you can really do things.”

This Side of Paradise was an overnight sensation that would make Fitzgerald the prince and chronicler of the jazz age. But Fitzgerald never forgot or forgave the terms of Zelda’s conditional acceptance and confided in friends that he was struggling to recapture the thrill of their initial courtship.

But in private, their alcohol-fuelled rows convinced friends that their marriage would be short-lived. Friends also noticed how theit celebrity lifestyle and Zelda’s expensive tastes made it difficult for Fitzgerald to find the time, space and sobriety to produce work of any real substance.

Fitzgerald was running up huge debts paying for hotels, jewellery, travel and extravagant parties, which he financed by churning out short stories for magazines. Financially, he seemed to be constantly running just to standstill.

Novels were lengthy investments of time and effort with no guarantee of financial success but commercial short stories were a sure thing that kept his creditors at arm’s length.

Fitzgerald quickly came to resent cranking out light and frothy dross to a prescribed formula: “I’ve made half a dozen starts yesterday and today and I’ll go mad if I have to do another debutante which is what they want.”

In contrast, the extravagant Zelda welcomed the lucrative fees offered by the magazines although she later acknowledged the strain it placed on their relationship. “I always felt a story for the [Saturday Evening] Post was tops, a goal worth seeking. It really meant something you know – they only took stories of real craftmanship but Scott couldn’t stand to write them.

The Great Gatsby’s recurring theme of selling your soul for financial remuneration was beginning to stir in Fitzgerald’s imagination. Exactly a century ago when their only daughter Frances was born, F Scott Fitzgerald was struck by his wife’s welcoming words: “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I’ll hope she’ll be a fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” Three years later, he lifted them verbatim into the mouth of Daisy Buchannan in The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald felt helpless and resented the way his living costs limited the quality of the work he could attempt. “I can’t reduce our scale of living and I can’t stand this financial insecurity. I had my chance in 1920 to start my life on a sensible scale and I lost it and so I’ll have to pay the penalty. Then perhaps at 40 I can start writing again without constant worry and interruption.”

In September 1922, the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck in Long Island to be close to New York, where Fitzgerald’s disastrous first play, Vegetable,was being staged.

Its failure incurred enormous costs and Fitzgerald was forced to clear his debts by producing magazine short stories on an industrial scale, writing for 12 hours without a break and creating entire tales in a single sitting. He confided in a friend: “I really worked hard as hell last winter – but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.”)

And yet somehow throughout this period Scott and Zelda were still partying hard, spending a staggering $36,000. The parties at Great Neck were to furnish Fitzgerald with much of the raw material for The Great Gatsby and the fictional setting of West Egg – the suburban stepping stone for those aspiring to join the establishment elite in East Egg.

But the decadence was unsustainable. Indebted and exhausted, the Fitzgeralds decamped to France to take advantage of the advantageous exchange rate and to finally give Scott Fitzgerald the time and space to write the serious novel he’d been craving to tackle for so long.

Zelda’s hackles were raised because she could sense that she had become the inspiration for a cautionary tale of idealism corrupted by materialistic greed: “Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy. He’s horribly intent on it and has built up a beautiful legend about himself which corresponds somewhat to the old fable about the ant and the grasshopper. Me being the grasshopper.”

Perhaps that resentment fuelled her affair with French aviator Edouard Josanne in July 1924 while Scott was working on a first draft of The Great Gatsby. The affair was undoubtedly a traumatic turning point which Scott later acknowledged. “That September, I knew something had happened that could never be repaired.”

Fitzgerald even stopped drinking and experiencing what alcoholics call a moment of lucidity, redrafted the relationship between Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchannan into sharper focus. The character of Daisy is drawn in a new light – part Ginevra and Zelda, utterly charming but profoundly insincere – capable of capturing the heart of a naïve young man but completely unworthy of a wiser man’s love.

Although Daisy is infatuated by Gatsby, just as Zelda was smitten by Fitzgerald it becomes clear that her true soul mate is the establishment itself, personified by her entitled and arrogant husband Tom Buchannan.

Fitzgerald casts Gatsby as a surrogate for himself – an idealistic and innocent bystander destroyed by his inability to truly understand the rich and their selfish instinct for self preservation .

Drawing on his own personal experience, Fitzgerald specialises in drawing characters who yearn to break into the ranks of the rich and powerful. Through his vivid depiction of the Wilsons, the unhappily married couple who run the gas station in Ash Valley, Fitzgerald captures the sense of life literally passing them by.

By 1925, Fitzgerald could already sense that there wasn’t going to be a fairy tale ending. The brevity of The Great Gatsby suggests a genius writing at full gallop, making the most of his moment of lucidity to produce his masterpiece before succumbing to the financial allure of Hollywood and his rapid descent into alcoholism.”

Not many writers have a life as emotionally riven and torn as Scott Fitzgerald’s, but he poured all of his feelings, observations and experiences into a great novel.