To one who has spent his professional life in the world of fiction the request to “write an introduction” offers many facets of temptation. The present writer succumbs to one of them; with as much equanimity as he can muster, he will discuss the critics among us, trying to revolve as centripetally as possible about the novel which comes hereafter in this volume.
To be begin with, I must say thet I have no cause to grumble about the “press” of any book of mine. If Jack (who liked my last book) didn’t like this one—well then John (who despised my last book) did like it; so it all mounts up to the same total. But I think the writers of my time were spoiled in that regard, living in generous days when there was plenty of space on the page for endless ratiocination about fiction—a space largely created by Mencken because of his disgust for what passed as criticism before he arrived and made his public. They were encouraged by his bravery and his tremendous and profound love of letters. In his case, the jackals are already tearing at what they imprudently regard as a moribund lion, but I don’t think many men of my age can regard him without reverence, nor fail to regret that he got off the train.To any new effort by a new man he brought an attitude; he made many mistakes—such as his early undervaluation of Hemingway—but he came equipped; he never had to go back for his tools.
And now that he has abandoned American fiction to its own devices, there is no one to take his place. If the present writer had seriously to attend some of the efforts of political diehards to tell him the values of a metier he has practised since boyhood—well, then, babies, you can take this number out and shoot him at dawn.
But all that is less discouraging, in the past few years, than the growing cowardice of the reviewers. Underpaid and overworked, they seem not to care for books, and it has been saddening recently to see young talents in fiction expire from sheer lack of a stage to act on: West, McHugh and many others.
I’m circling closer to my theme song, which is: that I’d like to communicate to such of them who read this novel a healthy cynicism toward contemporary reviews. Without undue vanity one can permit oneself a suit of chain mail in any profession. Your pride is all you have, and if you let it be tampered with by a man who has a dozen prides to tamper with before lunch, you are promising yourself a lot of disappointments that a hard-boiled professional has learned to spare himself.
This novel is a case in point. Because the pages weren’t loaded with big names of big things and the subject not concerned with farmers (who were the heroes of the moment), there was easy judgment exercised that had nothing to do with criticism but was simply an attempt on the part of men who had few chances of self-expression to express themselves. How anyone could take up the responsibility of being a novelist without a sharp and concise attitude about life is a puzzle to me. How a critic could assume a point of view which included twelve variant aspects of the social scene in a few hours seems something too dinosaurean to loom over the awful loneliness of a young author.
To circle nearer to this book, one woman, who could hardly have written a coherent letter in English, described it as a book that one read only as one goes to the movies around the corner. That type of criticism is what a lot of young writers are being greeted with, instead of any appreciation of the world of imagination in which they (the writers) have ben trying, with greater or lesser success, to live—the world that Mencken made stable in the dayswhen he was watching over us.
Now that this book is being reissued, the author would like to say that never before did one try to keep his artistic conscience as pure as during the ten months put into doing it. Reading it over one can see how it could have been improved—yet without feeling guilty of any discrepancy from the truth, as far as I saw it; truth or rather equivalent of the truth, the attempt at honesty of imagination. I had just re-read Conrad’s preface to The Nigger, and I had recently been kidded half hay-wire by critics who felt that my material was such as to preclude all dealing with mature persons in a mature world. But, my God! it was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.
What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally would make another novel!
I think it is a honest book, that is to say, that one used none of one’s virtuosity to get an effect, and, to boast again, one soft-pedalled the emotional side to avoid the tears leaking from the socket of the left eye, or the large false face peering around the corner of a character’s head.
If there is a clear conscience, a book can survive—at least in one’s feelings about it. On the contrary, if one has a guilty conscience, one reads what one wants to hear out of reviews. In addition, if one is young and willing to learn, almost all reviews have a value, even the ones that seem unfair.
The present writer has always been a “natural” for his profession, in so much that he can think of nothing he could have done as efficiently as to have lived deeply in the world of imagination. There are plenty other people constituted as he is, for giving expression to intimate explorations, the:
— Look—this is here!
— I saw this under my eyes.
— This is the way it was!
— No, it was like this.
“Look! Here is that drop of blood I told you about.”
— “Stop everything! Here is the flash of that girl’s eyes, here is the reflection that will always come back to me from the memory of her eyes.
— If one chooses to find that face again in the non-refracting surface of a washbowl, if one chooses to make the image more obscure with a little sweat, it should be the business of the critic to recognize the intention.
— “No one felt like this before—says the young writer—but I felt like this; I have a pride akin to a soldier going into battle; without knowing whether there will be anybody there, to distribute medals or even to record it.”
But remember, also, young man: you are not the first person who has ever been alone and alone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with a new introduction by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Modern Library, New York, 1934).