December 21, 2020   5 mins

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” You just have to look at how many writers have given us a variation on these words — Somerset Maugham, Iris Murdoch and Gore Vidal among others — to see how closely the literary world observes the exchange rate between failure and success.

In books, failure beats success: we all like a bit of schadenfreude, and it is frankly easier to write about loss and adversity than about life as a frictionless track. “Happiness writes with white ink on white pages,” according to the French playwright and essayist Henry de Montherlant, who at least gave his obituarists something to work with when he shot himself in the throat.

One writer of the 20th century captured both success and failure in a way that characterised not just his writing but his life and death. F. Scott Fitzgerald died 80 years ago today, suddenly, from a heart attack at the age of 44. To understand the man we need to remember the importance of aspiration in his life: it took him to Princeton University, to homes in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Long Island, to hobnobbing on the Riviera with Picasso and Cole Porter, and into marriage to society beauty Zelda Sayre.

In the late 1930s, Fitzgerald earned $91,000 in 18 months – $1.6m today. Yet he died believing himself a failure (“My God I am a forgotten man,” he wrote to Zelda months before his death), and the newspapers agreed. He was, as the Chicago Daily News put it at the time, “almost as remote from contemporary interest as the authors of the blue-chip stock certificates of 1929”. As a hack in his final years, “he was still writing good copy, but no one was mistaking a story writer for the Herald of an Era”.

With his success as an early chronicler, therefore effective creator, of the Jazz Age – the Herald of an Era after all – Fitzgerald was able to buy his way into the lifestyle he had always longed for. It was an ambivalent adoration: he wrote that even with “the jingle of money in his pocket”, he “would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class”. Nonetheless, he worked “for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them had brought into their lives”. The early success of his smash hit debut novel This Side of Paradise (1920) brought him to a world of “ineffable toploftiness and promise” and instilled in him the conviction, never quite eradicated, that “life is a romantic affair”. Yet within a couple of years he was an alcoholic, and his marriage punctuated with bust ups.

The balancing act of success and failure would follow throughout his life, and is given its finest artistic expression in his greatest and best-loved novel The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. Gatsby is a story of failure masquerading as success, about a man who invented his own past to win the love of a woman whose “voice is full of money”. The love is doomed, of course – romantically so – though that hasn’t stopped the modern appropriation of Gatsby as a sexy glamour theme for parties, by people who have forgotten or never knew that the story culminates in a car crash with a woman killed and her breast torn off, “swinging loose like a flap”.

By the 1930s, though, Fitzgerald was no longer a hot name — he had taken nine years to follow up The Great Gatsby with Tender is the Night, and the book had a mixed reception — and he descended into a period of alcoholic depression where he “cracked like an old plate”.

Fitzgerald took himself to Hollywood to earn his way out of debt. And for a time it worked: at his height he was earning $1,250 a week (almost $25,000 today), but by 1939 he was out of contract and fighting for scraps as a freelancer, and the royalties for his books were $13. To the writer Budd Schulberg, who worked on a script with him until they were both fired after two days of drinking, Fitzgerald had a “manuscript white” complexion, “the Ghost of the Great Novelist Past”.

Yet even here Fitzgerald was able to snatch success from the jaws of failure. At the weekends he wrote stories about a new character called Pat Hobby: a washed-up, alcoholic scriptwriter. And they are wonderful, easily his most purely pleasurable fictions, light and funny and sad despite being written in the last year of his life and under the drive, as ever, of the need for cash. He sold them to Esquire, his cable messages to his editor ever plaintive: “Again, the old ache of money. Again, will you wire me if you like it.” “I wish to God you could pay more money.”

The man who saw his life characterised by “some sort of epic grandeur” struggled to live up to his own vision, repeatedly turning success into failure and failure into success. Knocked by critics for his obsession with writing about aspiration and loss, he responded, “But, my God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.” His greatest and final reversal was the slow turnaround in his posthumous reputation so that now, 80 years after his death and 95 after Gatsby, Fitzgerald finally enjoys the impregnable literary reputation that eluded him in life.

Yet part of Fitzgerald’s appeal lies in the very failures that caused him such suffering: do we view him as all the more heroic for battling through his dips and troughs, or are we really congratulating ourselves for his posthumous resurrection? There is a connection, I think, to the literary world’s scepticism toward success and a corresponding weakness for failure, partly a refraction of what Martin Amis called the “intellectual glamour to gloom” and partly from a constitutional suspicion of materialism and commerce, our most dominant cultural markers of success.

In the literature of the 20th century, the life of a man of business (it was invariably a man) was worthy of contemplation only if it exposed the hollowness of his capitalist world, as seen in a rich vein of novels from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922) through Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road (1961). This trend reached its apotheosis in Joseph Heller’s misanthropic masterpiece Something Happened (1974) with its refrain “The world just doesn’t work. It’s an idea whose time is gone,” after which there was nothing left to say – though that didn’t stop lesser writers from trying.

This mistrust of success can go further. In literature, as in politics, ideas move from the fringes to the centre, which is why the work of small presses in finding new voices is celebrated. But this is sometimes accompanied by a disdain for the commercial success of mainstream publishing, which acts like a Premier League, snapping up the most popular of the writers discovered out at the edges.

This suspicion is misguided, given that success and failure are dependent on one another. Literature tends to see itself as countercultural, uninterested in bourgeois concepts like ambition. But to believe in its continued prosperity outside any commercial imperatives requires a wilful blindness that is… well, that is pretty common, to be honest, in our contemporary world of groupthink, filter bubbles and echo chambers. Fitzgerald might have foreseen this when he wrote of Gatsby that a key force in the novel is “those illusions that give such colour to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory”.

John Self is a literary critic. He lives in Belfast.