A LETTER FROM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD:
(Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters; Image: F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
In 1938 the world was preparing for World War II. Fitzgerald lived in Culver City, California and was about to lose his very lucrative $1,250 per week contract with MGM as a screenwriter for the movies. On the 9th of November, 1938, a young woman named Frances Trumbell, sent the famous writer a story for review. That same night Germany looted and burned 7,500 Jewish businesses on “the night of broken class.” The young woman, a sophomore at Radcliffe University, wanted feedback from Fitzgerald. Fitsgerald was not impressed, though he said her writing was “smooth and agreeable and some of the pages are very apt and charming.”
History does not record how the young woman reacted to his letter. We can only imagine that she abandoned further attempt to become a writer when he said, “it doesn’t seem worthwhile to analyze why this story isn’t salable.”
November 9, 1938
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.
This is the experience of all writers. It was necessary for Dickens to put into Oliver Twist the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his whole childhood. Ernest Hemingway’s first stories “In Our Time” went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known. In “This Side of Paradise” I wrote about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile.
The amateur, seeing how the professional having learned all that he’ll ever learn about writing can take a trivial thing such as the most superficial reactions of three uncharacterized girls and make it witty and charming—the amateur thinks he or she can do the same. But the amateur can only realize his ability to transfer his emotions to another person by some such desperate and radical expedient as tearing your first tragic love story out of your heart and putting it on pages for people to see.
That, anyhow, is the price of admission. Whether you are prepared to pay it or, whether it coincides or conflicts with your attitude on what is “nice” is something for you to decide. But literature, even light literature, will accept nothing less from the neophyte. It is one of those professions that wants the “works.” You wouldn’t be interested in a soldier who was only a little brave.
In the light of this, it doesn’t seem worth while to analyze why this story isn’t saleable but I am too fond of you to kid you along about it, as one tends to do at my age. If you ever decide to tell your stories, no one would be more interested than,
Your old friend,
F. Scott Fitzgerald
P.S. I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.