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F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writers and Money

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

What Fitzgerald made on his essays. Read it and weep.

As I tend to do with all overly hyped things, I’ve been avoiding anything related to The Great Gatsby film… though I confess to having read the absolutely eviscerating review in The Wall Street Journal and A.O. Scott’s exceptional meditation on the movie and much larger themes in The New York Times.

Somehow, though, I found myself checking out a book of essays by F. Scott Fitzgerald this weekend. Actually, it wasn’t coincidental; I was trying to track down the full source of a quote I’d read recently. I wanted to read it within the context of the complete essay.

And so it was that I spent a lazy, rainy Sunday in bed, reading a pair of Fitzgerald pieces about money in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940. First up: “How to Live on $36,000 a Year.” The essay is totally tongue in cheek, but as my mother has said to me over and over again throughout the years, “Many a truth are spoken in jest.” In this essay, Fitzgerald explains that he and his wife find it impossible to live on just $36,000 a year. They’ve moved out of NYC proper and into the suburbs, where enterprising city butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers have decamped to take advantage of the status-conscious nouveau riche. The Fitzgeralds must, of course, employ help. And they must make frequent trips back to the city they’ve left in order to remain cultured. At the end of each month, they find they’ve spent $3,000 and can’t rightly account for at least $1,000 of that sum.

Keep in mind, this was in the 1930s. $3,000 was a lot of cash. $36,000 was practically mogul money… especially for a writer.

The essay is funny but also likely to be uncomfortable for many writers, who are notorious for having “money issues,” for being resistant to budgeting (especially when it comes to denying oneself an expense that might produce a story), and for regularly cashing in the meager savings one has managed to accumulate. It’s also oddly poignant to see, through Fitzgerald, how much time we spend waiting to be paid, and how much we pin our hopes and financial plans, such as they are, on the expectation of a particular financial return (that, of course, rarely materializes) for a work that’s “sure to be successful.” At the end of the essay, Fitzgerald is not just broke; he’s in debt. Zelda suggests that “[t]he only thing you can do… is to write a magazine article and call it ‘How to Live on $36,000 a Year.'”

The article was, by his account, received so well that he believed (rightly) it was worth anthologizing. It also warranted a follow-up essay, “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year,” because, of course, Fitzgerald is now broke and forced to economize.

Well, sort of… to economize in that New York City writerly sort of way, which is to say, subletting out your own home and moving somewhere cheaper for a season. Having heard about the affordability of the French Riviera, the Fitzgeralds pack their suitcases, withdraw $7,000 from the bank, and quite literally set sail. Living frugally on the Riviera, of course, isn’t any easier than living frugally on Long Island and to no one’s surprise but their own, they find themselves broke by the end of the summer.

If it all feels familiar, well, it probably is.

An appendix at the book’s end details the sums Fitzgerald was paid by each of the magazines that originally ran the essays included in the collection. What’s interesting (and disheartening for modern readers who are also writers) is that Fitzgerald really was making bank. Rates have hardly kept apace with what he made between 1920 and 1940… much less been adjusted for inflation and cost of living.

Bottom line: these essays are great. Spot on. Uncomfortably so. Get the book, read the essays, and then, maybe, think a little bit more about your own finances. How can you, as a writer, be more financially responsible?

I mean “me,” of course.

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