On being devastated, F Scott Fitzgerald’s heart and national narratives

imagesThe wonderful Elizabeth Lhuede says something in her wrap of her ‘year of reading books by Australian women‘ that struck me on the spot and hasn’t left me since.

In ‘a confession’, she admits that despite calling herself a ‘”Devoted Eclectic”, I’m not very eclectic in my reading tastes. My interests? They’re eclectic … But my reading? Not so much …’ The books she loves are ‘intense, heartbreaking stories’.

And then she said: ‘I enjoy being devastated’.

So do I. That is exactly what I look for in my reading. And I was reminded of it yesterday when I read Maria Popova’s blog post ‘F Scott Fitzgerald on the Secret of Great Writing‘. In 1938 Fitzgerald’s family friend, student Frances Turnbull, sent her latest story to Fitzgerald. He wrote to her:

Dear Frances

I’ve read the story carefully and, Frances, I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present. You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.

You can read the rest here.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is one of my all time favourite novels and there is no doubt that Scott paid for it with his heart. It devastates me more every time I read it – and I’ve read it many times. I cannot wait for Baz Luhrmann’s film with Leonardo diCaprio (love Leonardo). The Great Gatsby is a DEVASTATING love story and, true to the cliche, for me it is THE story about America.


I don’t want to preempt my future blog about The Great Gatsby by writing more about it now – another devastating American novel is up next (Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun) – but The Great Gatsby makes me think of national narratives, which reminds me of George Monbiot’s brilliant and provocative thoughts this week about Tony Abbott, climate change and the Australian bush fires.

In Heatwave: Australia’s new weather demands a new politics Monbiot says ‘Climate change denial is almost a national pastime in Australia’ and discusses Tony Abbott’s denial in particular. He says:

‘To ask [Abbott] and others to change their view of the problem could be to demand the impossible. It requires that they confront some of the most powerful interests in Australia … It requires that they confront some of the powerful narratives that have shaped Australians’ view of themselves, just as we in the United Kingdom must challenge our own founding myths. In Australia’s case, climate change clashes with a story of great cultural power: of a land of opportunity, in which progress is limited only by the rate at which natural resources can be extracted; in which this accelerating extraction leads to the inexorable improvement of the lives of its people. What is happening in Australia today looks like anything but improvement.

‘This, I think, is too much for Abbott to take on: as a result he has nothing to offer a nation for which this terrible weather is a warning of much worse to come. Australia’s new weather demands a new politics; a politics capable of responding to an existential threat.’

I think Australia’s new weather demands more than a new politics. I think it demands a new national narrative, as Monbiot implies. Or, perhaps, a new transnational narrative, one that positions us beyond the nation, on planet Earth.

I was very taken by poet and academic Peter Minter’s resistance to the word ‘global’ as a way of thinking about the idea of ‘post-nation’, which he discussed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival last November. He said he preferred the word ‘planetary’ to global, because he associates global with the Euclidean attempt to divide up space. I agree. The word ‘global’ is not only associated now with ‘capitalism’ (whose growth paradigm is at the heart of climate change), but is derived from ‘globe’, a geometric abstraction. I think we need less abstraction (one of economics’ most powerful and most misleading tools, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb so compellingly shows in The Black Swan) and more particularity, more earthing.

So I’m all for new narratives which rewrite Australia and take us beyond the idea of nation. Plant us firmly on planet Earth. (And I think Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria does just that.)


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5 Responses to On being devastated, F Scott Fitzgerald’s heart and national narratives

  1. Loretta - The Curse of Millhaven says:

    Covering quite a bit of ground here Bookish Girl! I too look forward to seeing the new adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’. One essential problem or difficulty with the story is the motivation for Gatsby’s love? She [Daisy?] is hardly portrayed as a women of desirable talents. From what I can gather Gatsby’s love for her is more of an ideal? The original, with Robert Redford, was awful partly for its inability to justify this love. As for climate change well nobody can conclusively say what is going on, not even the scientists. I’ve always considered maintenance of the biosphere as a key principle to living on Earth and I’m always dumbfounded by anyone who cannot conceptualise the planet as a finite entity. We’re sending probes out beyond the solar system and you’re having trouble getting your head around a ball only 13,000km round? Whether climate change is happening or not who, aside from economists and big business, could mount an argument against a cleaner more sustainable world?

  2. Thanks Loretta (Curse of Millhaven – now where have I heard that recently?! haha (assuming I’m right)). Yes, I totally agree the original film was awful, neither Redford nor Farrow up to their fictional counterparts. Gatsby’s love for Daisy (yes) is complex, as all great loves are, part real, part dream, part memory, part passion for lost first love, driven by his need to prove himself to her, to himself, etc etc. Sigh. In the novel he seems to think her breathlessness and musical voice are ‘desirable talents’, as you put it. The trailer makes the new film look promising.
    Yes, I also agree that no one can really say what’s going on with climate change, but I think most sensible people agree the climate is changing. How much is due to human activity is the question. And yes, you touch on a question I think is FAR more urgent and significant when you say ‘I’m always dumbfounded by anyone who cannot conceptualise the planet as a finite entity.’ That would be most economists. What I think is clear is that we cannot go on indefinitely with their infinite growth model on this finite planet. We’re tearing the planet apart while trashing it.

  3. Economist says:

    You seem to be confusing economists with capitalists 😦 Economists were the first to declare that resources are finite, hence its designation as the “dismal science” because it declared that population growth would outstrip resources. Economics is an academic discipline and it covers all areas of the political spectrum/various stances on the environment/development etc. To try to equate economists with climate change sceptics is just ignorance.

  4. Yes. Thanks for your comment, Economist. I did say ‘most’ economists – but perhaps I should have said ‘some’. Or qualified it more. Perhaps ‘neo-liberal’ economists? Or ‘growth’ economists? Or, as you suggest, ‘capitalists’.
    I wasn’t equating economists with climate change skeptics in my comment above – or not intentionally. And I certainly don’t equate them in my blog post. (I do actually have an economics degree and am aware of the breadth of the political and other spectrums it covers.) I’m sorry if it seemed I was equating them – and sorry for your 😦 …

  5. Pingback: Wrapping 2013: down the rabbit hole – and two Christmas stories | bookish girl

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