Actually, ‘The Great Gatsby’ Is Not Trash

This post is in response to this Vice article by a white dude whose books I’ve never read. I can’t make a judgment on his own literary skills (a lot of writers I respect follow him on twitter? that’s all I can go off?). Maybe Blake Butler is a really cool dude.

But Blake, I feel about you the way you feel about Will. I just don’t care.

Unfortunately, you, like many white men, have taken your view and shoved it in my face, and now I have to sit here amongst the shit and write a blog post about it because I’m angry.

Because The Great Gatsby is not trash, and what Blake has done here is conduct a really terrible reading of the book (the kind of reading you’d expect from a tenth grader) and then complained about it in the hopes that it would make a good hot take for vice.com.

He starts out his article by saying that the writing is “not what I would call great – or even necessarily sharp – writing, but the mirage of such.”

I decided to take a look at my well-loved copy of Gatsby to find what Blake considers to be a mirage of great writing. I didn’t find any mirages, but I did find these:

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But okay. Sure. The book’s not poetic. “What foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” is definitely not poetic, and in fact, it’s just a mirage of great writing. (This concept of a mirage is interesting – all writing is a mirage, insofar as a mirage is, you know, “something that appears real or possible but is not in fact so.” So if my writing were considered a mirage of ‘great writing’ then I would be pretty damn honored.)

Pray tell, Blake, what else do you dislike?

“Carraway is a young, well-to-do white guy who takes it upon himself to affectively mansplain his basic life plan to the reader.” Considering that Blake is himself a man (and a white one to boot), I assume that he’s never been mansplained to, and as such cannot be faulted for his blatant misuse of the term here. If Nick describing his life and events that happen to him is mansplaining, then are all books not mansplaining? Nice try dropping a buzzword, Blake.

Blake takes issue with the fact that Nick isn’t like, a full person, which used to be one of my problems with the book too – but when you consider the fact that Nick is really just an avenue through which this story can be told, you realize that it doesn’t matter that you don’t give a shit about him. Nick’s hot take is about as useful as Blake’s hot take. (Like, the fact that Nick says Gatsby turned out alright in the end – you mean everything he worked his whole life for had failed and he died in his empty pool that he bought to impress a girl who wouldn’t leave her husband for him is ‘alright’? [To be clear, I know that Nick isn’t necessarily referring to Gatsby’s physical, or even mental, state here, but what’s in his heart – after all, he refers to Gatsby’s inexhaustible need for something, his constant ‘reaching toward,’ the ‘foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams’ as something that ‘preys’ upon him. So then the real Gatsby, we must assume, is beneath the ‘Great’ Gatsby that he’s built, and that’s the Gatsby Nick is referring to here.])

Blake says that “Looking back, we shouldn’t see the flaws in these characters’ outlooks or practices as caricature, or even critcism.” This is interesting considering that that is almost certainly how we should see the flaws in these characters’ outlooks. He says this based off of a quote by Fitzgerald that he was painting “a sincere and yet radiant world.” I’m not sure why the idea of sincere discounts any possible caricature or criticism for Blake.

Blake makes his first valid criticism by suggesting that the plot is bad. Here, he isn’t wrong. Plot-wise, Gatsby is lacking something. But then Blake tries to boil the plot down to this: “Eventually, there’s a car crash and some murder, but even that seems only there to force the story to a head, to wield its point-which, I guess, is that life is short and no one’s happy? Well, no shit.”

This honestly sounds like the title of a tenth grade English paper about Gatsby. “Life is Short and No One’s Happy: A Willfully Obtuse Reading Of The Great Gatsby, By Blake Butler.”

I would argue that no one who’s ever read Gatsby with the intent of understanding it has ever thought that ‘life is short and no one’s happy’ is the point of the book.

Blake calls the book “lame and sexless,” which led me through an interesting series of thoughts which started with “yeah there should be sex in this book” and ended with “I don’t want to read a sex scene between Nick, a boring straight man, and Jordan, a lesbian.”

My personal favorite part of Blake’s article is when he says the following: ‘Did I mention that several of these characters speak like white nationalists? “It’s up to us, who are the dominant race,” says Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, “to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”‘

First of all, Tom Buchanan is an awful person and Scott Fitzgerald hates him. Also, I hate him. Also, everyone who’s read the book hates him. That’s because he was written as an awful character. Again, I’ve never read Blake’s books, but now I don’t particularly want to since he doesn’t seem to write characters that he doesn’t agree with, and that sounds boring.

I probably wouldn’t even be writing this if Blake didn’t end his article by saying that “The Great Gatsby is not only not a great novel, but one by which the continued CPR over its legacy has only done us all a psychic damage, both literarily and as a culture.”

That’s just rude.

Overall, Blake’s argument seems to hinge upon his desire to dislike the book, which resulted in a terrible reading of it, and which then resulted in a terrible Vice article. Going after the white nationalist thing towards the end of the article, once he’s made all of his comments about personal beef with Fitzgerald’s craft, indicates that even he probably doesn’t believe that it’s a problem to have characters who are shitty people and believe in shitty things. Really, Blake’s biggest issue seems to be that he just doesn’t like Fitzgerald’s writing.

Which is fine. But the inflated self-importance that led to an entire article written about how righteous his anger about the book is was just…annoying.

The most unfortunate thing is that he kind of makes a sort-of good half-point at the end. “Reread The Great Gatsby as an adult who has read outside of the canonical framework we’re presented and you’ll realize why so many young people hate to read.” I agree that Gatsby shouldn’t be taught in schools, especially when it’s accompanied by The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, A Separate Peace, and The Grapes of Wrath (as it was in my 11th grade English class). Blake is absolutely right to read outside of the literary canon, because the canon is whitewashed and irrelevant to most students’ experiences.

Fitzgerald was a problematic person who abused alcohol and his wife and cheated on her (seriously protect Zelda forever). But he was also a good writer. The Great Gatsby is a great book and, yes, it is a novel about American life. But it doesn’t paint the only image of American life. It should always be paired with books by people of color, queer people, and – gasp – women. The American experience is more multifaceted than Fitzgerald himself could ever have understood.

So, Blake, I think it’s fine that you read a book that you didn’t like  (and dare I say, didn’t understand). But the real point of your article shouldn’t have been about Gatsby at all. Maybe what you meant to say was “The focus on books by white men has only done us all a psychic damage, both literarily and as a culture.” There’s your hot take. But, as a white man, it’s probably not one you should write.

on writing.

First, a note: some time ago, I lost my copy of Stephen King’s book, On Writing. The contents of it are what the title would suggest, and it’s the single best book about writing that I’ve ever read. It inspired me endlessly as a high school student, first discovering that I’m good at words, after spending childhood writing for the sheer love of it.

When I found that my copy of On Writing was lost, I nearly cried. It felt like a metaphor, or something. But life’s not like that, and I assign meaning where there is none. Just because I’ve lost Mr. King’s book doesn’t mean I have to lose my own.

Second, a history: I’ve written three books for NaNoWriMo. The first, when I was 15, was called – aptly – Fifteen. It was a series of short stories about 15 year old girls at different points throughout the 20th century – and it was pretty damn fun to write. I did so well at NaNo that first year that I finished five days early. To be fair, it was a gentle wade into the difficulty of the challenge, because I wasn’t technically writing a novel. The experience was so much fun that the following year, when I found out that the Pitch Doctors were coming to a nearby bookstore to hold one of their pitch contests – where contestants have 1 minute to pitch their novel, and the winner receives a meeting with an agent – I decided to go. Here’s a video of my pitch – beware, I’m talking really fucking fast and the beginning is an extremely narrow-minded view of female adolescence that the rest of the pitch – and the book – challenges (whatever, I have a lot to say about Fifteen and it’s for another time and place).

Anyway, I won the contest and was offered a meeting with an agent, but I decided not to do it. At the time it was a decision that a lot of people (namely, my mother) criticized, but I knew that I was so young, and I didn’t want to put something out there that wasn’t my best work. It was then, I think, when I came just a little bit close to the possibility of actually publishing a book (and I want to be clear – I know a meeting with an agent wouldn’t have ended with me publishing a book, but it would have been the first step in a process that I wasn’t ready to start). I realized that I was young, and I didn’t know things. I was acutely aware of the fact that my thoughts, while valid, were half-formed at best. And I didn’t want them out there forever, when they were so subject to change.

Ever since then, my relationship with writing has been different. I still love writing, and I enjoy it when I’m actually doing it, but before and after I sit down and write something, I’m terrified. Writing is simultaneously my favorite thing to do in the world, and the thing that scares me the most.

I wrote two more NaNo novels, and haven’t written any since 2013 – and that was four years ago. I know four years isn’t, cosmically speaking, a long time, but the amount of times I’ve started to write a book since then is a little ridiculous.

I started college as an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing, all set to become a creative writer and for that to be the only thing I ever did, ever. But before the end of my first semester, I changed my major to Communications. To be fair, that was my best decision in my college career. I wouldn’t have liked being an English major as much as I like being a Communications major (which is a lot). I’ve learned lots of new types of writing, and I’ve improved my writing tenfold since I started college.

But I write a lot less creative stuff than ever before. That’s something that’s a little hard to admit, because I pride myself on being a creative writer, first and foremost, because it’s what I’ve always been and what I’ve always planned on being.

And that still stands. I still plan on being a creative writer. But I’ve realized lately that being a creative writer is always more of an eventuality than an existing thing. I’m like, Oh yeah, I love creative writing, I’m going to write a novel. I’m going to write a novel. I’m always going to write one. As soon as… something. I’ll write one in the summer. I’ll write one after this job ends. I’ll write one when I don’t have so much schoolwork. On, and on, and on, and it’s not because I lost my copy of On Writing. The reason, by the way, that I don’t buy a new one is because I’m still waiting for my old copy to turn up, even though I’ve scoured my room and it’s decidedly not there.

So what am I waiting for, then? Am I waiting for the ultimate inspiration to strike? Am I waiting for someone’s permission to start sucking? When I first watched this video years and years ago, I was pissed. I was like, Um, no, I don’t suck, I’m amazing. I’m so good at writing. I should get an award.

And then I did get an award, and I got an opportunity to meet with an agent, and I passed it up. I got a whiff of what it would be like to have people reading my books, and it filled me with fear – fear of sucking, of saying the wrong thing, of being stupid, of being offensive, of being hopeless, of not saying exactly what it is that I want to say to the universe.

I know I’m a good writer. I write poetry people like sometimes. I write short stories people like sometimes. I write articles and essays and things that people like sometimes. All of that is cool.

But what I want more than anything in this whole sparkling universe is to write another goddamn novel.

And I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it without having the first clue where On Writing went. Without thinking about an agent, or an audience, or my past self, or my future self. My present self is the only one here right now, and I really, really, really want to write another novel.

Even if it kind of sucks.