F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Today’s Lesson is taken from The Gospel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night, Book I, Chapter XII. Fitzgerald’s work must properly be described as a Gospel, even if the news he brings is so melancholy it is difficult to describe as good. How can we describe the force of prose like this except in terms of revelation?

The semi-booth gave on the vestiaire and as Rosemary hung up the receiver she heard two low voices not five feet from her on the other side of a row of coats.

“—So you love me?”

“Oh do I!”

It was Nicole—Rosemary hesitated in the door of the booth—then she heard Dick say:

“I want you terribly—let’s go to the hotel now.” Nicole gave a little gasping sigh. For a moment the words conveyed nothing at all to Rosemary—but the tone did. The vast secretiveness of it vibrated to herself.

“I want you.”

“I’ll be at the hotel at four.”

Rosemary stood breathless as the voices moved away. She was at first even astonished—she had seen them in their relation to each other as people without personal exigencies—as something cooler. Now a strong current of emotion flowed through her, profound and unidentified. She did not know whether she was attracted or repelled, only that she was deeply moved.

Rosemary Hoyt, Fitzgerald’s eighteen-year-old starlet, isn’t the only one to be moved here. We move—a very long way down—with her. In this novel,  not one breath, not one heartbeat of Nicole or Dick Diver seems to escape us. Wherever they fall, we fall too. No other novelist I can recall gifts us their characters’ every move in this way, or so sensitises us to their pain. I can’t quite tell you how he does this, except that the technique has something to do with reversals. Here, Rosemary, in love with Dick (and also a little in love with Nicole) eavesdrops as if she were witnessing an extramarital affair. What she discovers is a marital desire so desperate (“Oh do I!”) the words used to utter it drop like discarded clothing to the ground and only the ‘tone’ is left (what a sleight of hand on Fitzgerald’s part: to strip from us words and leave us with only the breathing pitch and weight of two turned-on human voices). The satin surface Fitzgerald’s prose is torn and we plunge into a kind of terror. So this is what desire is, Rosemary discovers, and she, like us, hardly knows what to do with the revelation. Dick and Nicole’s desire moves away from her, in its rolling storm, and now she is ‘breathless,’ she is ‘moved.’ Whatever Dick and Nicole had has struck her, and because Fitzgerald is so precise with his imprecise abstractions (‘tone,’ ‘unidentified,’ ‘did not know’, ‘deeply moved’)  the lightning jumps straight from Rosemary to you.

Fitzgerald can do these fierce and airy things because he is primarily so earthy, sensual and fleshy. He spends most of the time giving you the sad joy of feeling a world blossoming under your outstretched fingertips:

Dorothy Perkins roses dragged patiently through each compartment slowly waggling with the motion of  the funicular, letting go at the last to swing back to their rosy cluster. Again and again these branches went through the car.  (Book II, Chapter VIII)

Feel that? If I raise my hand to my face right now I swear I almost get the scent of those old-fashioned pink roses, and I get Fitzgerald in a funicular somewhere, being brushed against by rose after rose, doused in pollen— caught, possessed by roses dancing. Sentences like that tell you how a man lived. If he perceived roses (with touch, scent, sound, sight, almost with taste) in this way, how could he even bear to breathe?  The overheard conversation near the vestiaire shows he could hardly stand it. The sensual world drops away, leaving him with longing, insatiable and vast.  In that scene, it’s as if we see him falling out of the frame of the dear world: and, grasping our hands, he takes us with him. He is Rosemary, Dick, Nicole, his astonished readers. No wonder Fitzgerald drank: he drank to blur a world that hurt him second by precious, agonizing second.

Tim Lott is an unhappy man. According to a recent Telegraph article, he feels that the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction is ‘sexist and should be scrapped.’ The Telegraph goes on to detail the reasons for his ire at the ‘discriminatory, sexist and perverse’ award.

His main claim is that women are no longer a ‘mistreated minority’ in the literary world. On the contrary, he argues, women dominate the literary industry as writers, publishers, agents and readers. In fact, he goes on to argue, it is men who are now discriminated against. But it is not merely the case that women oppress men in the literary marketplace: according to Lott, ‘Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.'(1)

What Lott appears to be suggesting is that there is some kind of female conspiracy going on, a conspiracy against male writers. It begins, he seems to suggest, with those seditious individuals, female English teachers (of which I am one) who foist–shock horror–books by women on poor downtrodden boys, thus alienating them from the pleasures of reading, and by extension, discouraging them from becoming authors. Then an army of female writers, publishers and readers finish the job, stifling male creativity, drowning out male voices.

Hang on a minute.  Lott’s myopic, poisonous outburst deserves a little more scrutiny. Let’s deal with those seditious teachers first. It is true that the majority of English teachers are women (this is certainly the case in my department). It is also true that the majority of graduates studying English are women. There is evidence, too, that boys’ literacy lags behind that of girls. English teachers up and down the land can hardly fail to be aware of this: OFSTED inspect the way schools try to raise literacy levels in boys; in interviews, headteachers ask prospective English teachers how they intend to address the issue in the classroom; and any English department worth its salt plans into its lessons ways to raise boys’ levels of achievement in reading and writing.

In fact, what this often means in practice is that we English teachers habitually teach topics that are designed to appeal to boys and read stories/plays/poems that are predominantly about boys and are written by men. Take Tulip Touch as an example. Here’s a novel for teenagers that is by a women (Anne Fine) and has female protagonists. Our department bought a class set of this novel, but had to abandon teaching it in year 8 in favour of Holes, which is by a man (Louis Sachar) and is predominantly about a bunch of criminal, alienated boys. Tulip Touch was deadly in the classroom. Not because there is anything wrong with the book, but because boys often switch off or feel insulted if they have to sit through anything that is about or seen through the eyes of women. Girls, however, do not revolt or cause riots if they have to read about the lives of men or look at the world from their perspective. They accept all this submissively, without a murmur. They are still trained to do this sort of thing– even now, even in 2008.

Other authors I teach to years 7-11 are David Almond, William Nicholson, William Shakespeare, Willy Russell, Simon Armitage, Carol Ann Duffy, Tatumkhulu Afrika, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Grace Nichols, Nissim Ezekiel, Doris Lessing, Sylvia Plath, Ben Jonson, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway. I may have left out 2 0r 3, but the ones I have omitted are men. Men outnumber women on this list by quite a long way. And this is not my choice of authors, by and large: many on this list are in the prescribed AQA A GCSE syllabus anthology. For the most part, I teach what I am told. I try to teach equality, non-sexism, those sorts of things. I would be ashamed of myself if I did not. But I do not predominantly teach female authors and I spend my working life trying to help the young men I teach gain a good education despite the sense of alienation many of them feel. But more than that, I try to treat them as human beings who matter to me. I am by no means the only female English teacher in the UK who takes this attitude to the teenage boys she teaches.

If Lott’s rather sloppy spenetic assertions about the teaching of English are without foundation, his other arguments about the power of women in the literary marketplace appear to stand up to a little more scrutiny.  It is true that many writers are women, but, interestingly, Lott doesn’t cite any statistics on the incomes of female versus male writers, so it isn’t clear whether male writers are paid more than female writers or vice versa. But let’s assume that women writers are the dominant force in writing and publishing. Let’s assume too that women writers are even, on occasion, given generous advances, receive (mixed gender) prizes, command the bestseller lists. If all this is genuinely the case, there is still no reason to ditch the women-only Orange Prize.

Why? You only need to take a look at the soon-to-be launched ‘Sexism in the City’ report, compiled by the Fawcett Society for some overwhelming reasons. Despite forty years of equal pay legislation, women are still chronically underpaid, discriminated against and harrassed in most spheres of work, whether they work as cleaners, call-centre workers or city brokers (I urge everyone to follow my link to the Fawcett Society’s report to assess the details). So if women are fairly represented in the literary industry, this fairness is an anomaly–an extremely important one.

Writing allows women a voice, an identity. It’s a tool that makes the invisible visible, the silent vocal. And this is why the Prize should remain. It should remain as a symbol that celebrates women’s identities and talents.  But the Prize should also act as a thorny reminder that women’s ‘lott’ is often, at best, to be ghettoized, patronised, and controlled and at worst to be impoverished, beaten, even raped and murdered.  It’s important, too, that the Prize should be something that women writers sometimes spurn, because when women novelists refuse to have their work considered for The Orange they remind us that to win it is to be branded a woman writer (always a perjorative label). A.S. Byatt doesn’t want her books to be considered for the award because she doesn’t want to be considered A Woman Writer. That fact in itself bespeaks an injustice, one that we should all be angry about: woman is still subsidiary, expendable, secondary. To be a woman is still felt by many women to be a handicap, a limitation. ‘Civil Orange’ or ‘Rotten Orange’? The jury’s split, for good reason.

1) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/18/norange118.xml

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/55063-more-criticism-of-orange-prize-.html

2) The Fawcett Society sets out its case at: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/documents/Make%20Some%20Noise%20-%20short.pdf

However, here are a couple of ‘bites’ from the report:

  • Only 11% of FTSE 100 company directors are women
  • 30,000 women lose their jobs every year in the UK simply for being pregnant
  • Two thirds of low paid workers are women
  • Women working full-time are paid on average 17% less than men
  • 18% of sex discrimination compensation awards are for sexual harassment

(the above statistics are from: http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/index.asp?PageID=621)