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Is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald A Literary Scam?

June 14, 2021

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was panned by reviewers when it first came out, and it sold relatively few copies. Now The Great Gatsby is required reading for students, many of whom already don’t like to read. So what changed along the way?

Did the original reviewers and buying public have it right? Or have recent generations of readers just been smarter by recognizing the genius of The Great Gatsby??

I ask these questions because of a book I’m browsing through, Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins.

It’s one of those books that takes anecdotes and tries to force them to fit the points the author is trying to make. I’m not even going to explain the author’s point about F. Scott Fitzgerald because it has nothing to do with my own rhetorical questions.

Still, I’ll give the book some credit. Here’s an excerpt:

*****

The Great Gatsby was published on April 10, 1925, with one New York paper headlining its review: “F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s Latest a Dud.” The rest of the literary world was equally critical, with H. L. Mencken calling it “no more than a glorified anecdote” and referring to the author as “this clown.” A bit more bluntly, Ruth Snyder wrote, “We are quite convinced after reading The Great Gatsby that Mr. Fitzgerald is not one of the great American writers of today.” Gatsby did not achieve the success its author had hoped for, selling fewer than half as many copies as any of his previous novels (53).

*****

Again, what has changed since 1925? When I first read The Great Gatsby in the 1980s, I thought it was overwritten for such a short novel and not as insightful as teachers claimed it was; I agreed with Mencken’s opinion without even knowing who H. L. Mencken was.

A part of me believes that pop culture is a test to see what the public will accept. For example, Bob Dylan was an adequate song writer, but there’s no way he should have been allowed to sing. Maybe, just maybe, Bob Dylan was a test to see what the public would accept.

And maybe, just maybe, similar powers in the literary world wanted too see if they could take a substandard literary piece and make the public think it was brilliant. Maybe they believed that if they could trick the public into buying The Great Gatsby, they could trick the public into buying anything.

I can’t get too angry with the literary powers in this case; at least The Great Gatsby is short.

2 Comments
  1. With all respect to Jeff Goins, (whoever he is) sometimes the difference between starving and being the next Andy Warhol is about luck and being in the right time and place. The Great Gatsby was a travesty as a novel but the paperback as a medium was coming into its own, was relatively new, and was giving the lower classes the ability to buy and read literature in a way that they hadn’t before giving this novel the eyes it would have never received otherwise. Also, by 1945, 123,000 pocket-sized copies of Gatsby had been shipped to American soldiers further increasing its popularity and nostalgia. Under American Capitalism it’s almost never about “talent,” it’s about price and packaging, and Gatsby was successful because of this and being in the right time and place.

    • I like cheap paperbacks as much as anybody else, and I even own a cheap smelly paperback copy of The Great Gatsby, but I still don’t like The Great Gatsby. I wonder who decided to push this travesty of a novel on the public and tell us it was great.

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