In defense of The Great Gatsby
A Vice article written by Blake Butler has been floating around social media the past few days, eliciting exactly what it intended to: sputtering outrage. The author took aim at The Great Gatsby, and everything from its haughtily dismissive title — "Actually, 'The Great Gatsby' is Trash" — to its late salvo of “fuck these people…their story, its author and the book itself” is designed to draw an angry response.
Butler attacks everything he can about the book outside of the paper it was printed on, and some of his arguments have validity — Nick Carraway is far too distant as a narrator, the prose isn't always perfect, the action moves slowly.
There's subjectivity in those claims, of course, and a blithe ignorance in his dismissal of the novel's famous ending. The overall sentiment is that this book has been forced upon us (true) and, if we pull away from the staid Western canon, we’ll see The Great Gatsby in its true light.
I’m inclined to defend Gatsby, even though I wasn’t affected by the novel in high school. Like a lot of kids, I read it without interest and didn’t find much about the story compelling. It wasn’t until after college, in the midst of reading Fitzgerald’s short fiction, that I decided to give it another shot.
That was a weird time for me. Going to college in Virginia, after a childhood spent among blended military communities, introduced me to a level of racism that shook me. My friends were mostly white men, and their casual racism was colored by disdain — particularly, disdain for anyone not straight, white, and male. I’m half-Hispanic, but I was uneasily accepted in their circles. When you’re not solidly in one world, you can travel through many.
And upon re-reading it, I realized The Great Gatsby brutally exposed the racists I’d known. The conceits of whiteness and avarice were decimated by Fitzgerald, rendered meaningless. Watching those facades drop, and then re-emerge in cowardice after Gatsby’s death, illuminated the emptiness of white, privileged racism.
Butler attacks this when he writes that the author intended that “we shouldn’t see the flaws in these characters’ outlooks or practices as caricature, or even criticism," given Fitzgerald's stated fondness for the world he'd created.
That’s probably true, but it doesn’t matter.
It’s not uncommon for writers to fall in love with even their abhorrent characters, to see beauty in them in the same way parents devotedly love their problematic adult children. Writers, after all, are somewhat blind to our creations. As Lorrie Moore wrote in “How to Become a Writer”: “Writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written.” In many cases, asking a writer to define their work is asking for an interpretation you’ll find lacking.
Butler’s argument also references the sentiment that canonical literature, which has famously been dominated by white males, is inherently lacking in some regard. As a result, movements to read diverse books have necessarily sprung forward, and defenders of the canon promptly (and often clumsily) attack those movements.
Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than going by one of these polar mindsets and robbing myself of the chance to read, say, Melville and Morrison. Making a concerted effort to expand your worldview is the precise reason why we read, and why we should read everything we can, regardless of how ruthlessly someone critiques it.
And that ruthlessness is what struck me most about Butler’s article; not the precarious argument, but the attitude. The natural extension of an angry sentiment like “fuck these people…their story, its author, and the book itself” is "and fuck you, too, if you disagree."
This is the depressing era in which we now live, the absolutist approach that has pervaded our culture and refused to allow any sort of nuance. Reasonable people used to be able to disagree. But now? “Oh, you like The Great Gatsby? Fuck you, you’re wrong. Now CLICK HERE to sort of find out why.”
The Great Gatsby may not be the Great American Novel; realistically, Americans are far too diverse and argumentative to ever decide on one. But it painted part of our landscape and, as we’re learning, that land changes at a slower pace than we previously thought.
Like much social commentary, Gatsby’s prescience will come and go. But maybe a century or so from now, some other confused 22-year-old will pick it up, linger over those last lovely lines, and find comfort that the harsh, shallow world Fitzgerald so accurately described was eventually destroyed.