Teaching Gatsby

MAKING CREATIVE CHANGE PART II

MOST WRITERS are the product of the stale way literature is taught.

Much emphasis on themes and sentences. A great example of this is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, a favorite of high school teachers and freshman-level college American lit profs. Along with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, the most over-taught American novel ever.

Yet none of the instructors approaches what Fitzgerald was doing with it that gives the story and the main character their sense of mystery. What’s taught instead are its themes: “The American Dream”– striving after “the green light” blah blah– along with the book’s lyricism. Fitzgerald’s beautiful passages, particularly the opening and closing. “The well-written sentence.” What’s missing?

For starters, Fitzgerald combines pop elements with the literary. Gatsby, after all, is a gangster. The lyricism is used carefully– much of the story is propelled by simple declarative sentences. Like a baseball fastball following a series of off-speed pitches, the occasional lyrical sentence stands out.

Most important though and seldom examined is the book’s structure. The serious writer, when confronting the novel, needs to approach it like an engineer. How does it really work?

Take the book apart and you find it has a complex structure– the story of Jay Gatsby put together using the narrator Nick Carraway’s own impressions combined with rumor, speculation, and hearsay. Beyond this, the narrative doesn’t stick strictly to the present, but gives the reader, in segments, a great deal of backstory. Jumps into glimpses of the past.

Examining the thematic instead of the technical is fine if you’re an English professor, but writers looking to reinvent the art need to seek all possible examples of structural innovation, which can be utilized, refreshed, or merged, toward the goal of creating a more exciting product.

Which will be discussed in future parts of this impromptu series intended to explain a little of what we’re up to in the New Pop Lit development studio.

-K.W.

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