A dead man writing

Column by Hallie Beard, Opinion Editor

This week, The New Yorker released a previously unpublished story called “The I.O.U.” by the great late F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby” – you know, that book you read the SparkNotes for in high school (shame on you all).

Fitzgerald was a fine writer, and I’ve read a few of his other novels, short stories and essays – most people would agree none of his other works are as good as “The Great Gatsby,” though they’re all extremely similar in plot. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a one-trick pony, but his writing is fairly monochromatic.

The new story is pleasantly surprising, but not life-changing; amusing, but not particularly memorable. A few pretty sentences stand out as classically Fitzgerald in their dreamy, pastoral simplicity and saccharine over-sentimentality (“The garden of Dr. Harden was full of sunshine and blossomed with Japanese magnolia trees dropping pink tears over the grass.”), but some stand out as in-need of revision (“He looked up. In his thin face were the eyes that are seen in only two sorts of men: those who are up on spiritualism and those who are down on spiritualism.”  Clever, sure, but isn’t the repetition of “up” a bit messy there?).

While I could probably spend the remainder of my column picking apart which sentences should have been reworked, I’ll spare you. Instead, I’ll explain my concern about post-mortem publishing.

The New Yorker doesn’t include additional information about the story or its publication – we don’t know why the piece was previously unpublished, who had ownership of it before or who began the process of getting it published in 2017. We don’t know to what extent Fitzgerald had already edited and revised it (or what kind of editing it went through prior to publication).

Most importantly, we don’t know if Fitzgerald ever wanted it published.

Did I violate the author’s wishes by reading a piece that, in his mind, was unfinished and unfit for public reading? Were there a smattering of awkward sentences he would have deleted if he knew someone would read it?

There are plenty of works we read today that were published posthumously, and many of them are considered essential reading. “The Diary of Anne Frank,” for instance, is a monumental piece of writing that has been adapted into countless other forms of media (plays, movies, etc.) and is a historical gem. No one wants their diary read, sure – but Anne Frank wanted to be a writer, so can’t we assume she actually would be delighted to have her work read as widely as it is today?

“A Confederacy of Dunces” was published in 1980 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981, but its author, John Kennedy Toole, had committed suicide in 1969. He couldn’t get the work published, and it wasn’t until after his death that his mother found a copy of the manuscript and got it published. It’s a tragic story, but he actually did want the book to be read, right?

In Toole’s case, there’s no question that he wanted it read. The question is whether or not the book was ready. I agree with David Llewellyn, author of the WordPress blog “A Forest of Beasts” when he says, “The tragedy of ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ is not that publishers failed to recognize its genius, but that the author didn’t live to work with an editor bossy and skillful enough to whip the thing into better shape.” Llewellyn notes that the work is “more like a polished and very promising first draft than a finished novel.”

He’s not wrong – the novel does need more revising, and it’s a shame the author couldn’t witness the success it had even in its original form. Who knows how much better it would be if Toole had found the right editor and publisher to improve it during the 1960s.

Now, of course, we know Fitzgerald is not a tragic one-hit-wonder. He enjoyed more than enough fame and wealth for his writing in his time, so there’s not much that hinges on his mediocre story being in The New Yorker now. Even so, though, I can’t fight the feeling that if it didn’t see the light of day during his active writing career, it probably wasn’t supposed to.

Maybe I shouldn’t have read the story, then – I’m not sure. I didn’t read Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” out of respect for, admittedly, what I assume she wanted while she was younger and more mentally sound, and to preserve my love for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

On the other hand, I just got my hands on “A Prayer Journal,” a collection of intimate, diary-like prayer entries written by the Southern Gothic fiction queen, Flannery O’Connor. I have no idea whether or not Ms. O’Connor would have wanted her personal litanies and lamentations published and read. But they’re incredible, and I feel no regret having read them.

Where is the line between author intention and audience enjoyment? The world may never know. And maybe it’s not supposed to. Right?