TAX TIME AND F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
by Janice Law
March and tax time approaches. As I tote up my slender profits, my thoughts turn to George Harrison’s funny song and to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Most people of a certain age will recall “The Taxman,” but Fitzgerald strikes a chord with writers, specifically short story writers.
Oh, sure, he wrote one classic novel, The Great Gatsby, most recently transformed into a new opera, and several good ones, including Tender is the Night . But short story writers are apt to focus on his tales of the Jazz Age and on his biography, specifically, on the vast amounts of money he made from “commercial” short stories.
Once upon a time, short stories were commercial. They went out into the world and returned large checks. Although today this seems like a fairy tale, it is absolutely true that in the golden years before World War II, publications like Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, and the old Cosmopolitan and Redbook, not to be confused with their modern incarnations, paid very well for short fiction.
When Fitzgerald had money, he wrote novels. When he needed cash, he turned to short stories for the slicks. He was at the top of the game: fiction, specifically short fiction, paid for a villa in France, treatment for his wife, Zelda, and the bar bill that eventually destroyed his health.
But even writers without Fitzgerald’s talent or ambition could make money from short stories. Pulps like the famous Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Amazing Stories fed a seemingly inexhaustible demand for short, lively fiction with an emphasis on those two staples, sex and violence. The weird and the exotic did all right, too.
Wikipedia reports that some of the pulps had as much as a one million circulation. If the pulp writer could not expect ruin on the champagne diet like Fitzgerald, he or she could expect a livelihood. Raymond Chandler was only one of many mystery writers who learned his craft working in the pulps.
Economically, the pulps are much missed, along with the television programs like Alfred Hitchcock Presents which purchased short fiction for anthology shows. Today it would be a very, very frugal writer – make that a live-off-the-land survivalist – who could exist on the remaining outlets for short fiction.
True, there are more opportunities than ever to see one’s work in print. Anyone with a computer can launch a story into cyberspace and a myriad of little electronic (and some print) magazines are looking for copy. What they don’t have are the million eager readers per issue who are willing to pay for their product.
Even surviving pulps like the beloved Dell Magazines line cannot claim a large circulation nor print more than a fraction of the professional output. As for the many “literary” magazines, few handle even unusual mysteries, and fewer still pay at all.
Moralists among us may consider how much modern short fiction writers have thereby avoided: the Riviera in high season, candlelit villas above the deep blue Mediterranean, dancing in taverns, Parisian café society. Thanks to the collapse of the short fiction market, we needn’t fear expensive holidays in Spain or dinners at the Ritz or stays at the Georges V. We’ve been kept from decadence and saved from too much good vintage and old whisky.
But is this enforced virtue a good thing? Besides regretting the Riviera, which must have been truly splendid before overdevelopment, I am sorry to see decently paid markets dry up for writers. One learns one’s craft by writing and getting published, and, I think, getting paid, which, like it or not, is the imprimatur of value in our society. The vast sums paid for work by the very few skew the aspirations of many beginning writers, all of whom think, why not me? Why not, indeed, except simple economics?
Instead of aspiring to be the next generation of Fitzgeralds or even of pulp wordsmiths, most writers today must have a Plan B. As I used to advise my students, the arts are an addiction; think how you are going to support it. Find a job you enjoy, develop a marketable skill, get a life that can nourish, but also support, your writing or painting or music. In short, if you’re serious, learn plumbing or marry money.
And, leaving aside mercenary marriages, this prospect is not all bad. While good writing and good ideas come from a combination of life and art, profitable formats congenial to writers are not always with us. The old women who told the first fairy tales around the fire side and the old men who created the American tall tales on their front porches did not get publisher’s advances or royalties or print publication.
Possibly it will be a long time before there is another golden age where a new generation of Fitzgeralds live the high life on short fiction. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the idea that, economically speaking, we are all poets now.