Late-1938, seeking feedback on her work, aspiring author and university student Frances Turnbull sent her latest story to a friend of her family, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is what he wrote back:
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.
My initial response to this letter was positive, but on re-reading I find it a bit snooty (and possibly even slightly prurient). I see no evidence that Frances Turnbull ever went on to publish anything. Too bad.
What are your thoughts?
(Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters.) Also, the wonderful blog, Letters of Note.
I left my comment earlier. Must have been deleted! I mentioned that F. Scott drank a lot of gin. He did. I also mentioned that Gore Vidal treated me the same way forty years ago when he read my first novel. I even quit writing for several years after that. None of this comment sounds offensive. Sorry if you took it that way.
Interesting, Frank! Did you keep Vidal’s letter? I’m not sure “offensive” is the right word, but rather—sympathy for the girl and, too, a question about whether that was good advice.
I like Shauna’s point. I also wondered if the “trivial” that he put down was like so much criticism of women’s writing as “domestic” simply because the sphere of men, whatever that’s considered to be, has historically and to this day, carried more social importance than the common experiences of women.
Because F. Scott and I share a birthday, I used to worship at his altar, personally and professionally. Now I realize that he was a hopeless alcoholic (read Beloved Infidel), who probably suffered much more than any sober writer would have to.
All true, but hardly encouraging. He’s asking her to shed her armor of respectability and while a man could do so, it may not have endeared her to those on whom she depended for survival. Best then to be silent. But I wonder if he received her story with a man’s name attached, would he have given the same advice? Shauna
Interesting perspective, Shauna. I wonder too. Imagine the letter Jane Austen would have written.