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The Great Gatsby: But First, a Word From Viagra

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About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

Huh?

Okay. Just Google "GMA Exclusive Look at The Great Gatsby" at ABC.com -- really, just the movie trailer for the stuttering re-remake of one of America's greatest literary masterpieces, now in the hands of Moulin Rouge's Baz Luhrmann. But only after being first subjected to a 30-second online commercial for Viagra, if it comes up in the rotation as it did for me. You read me right.

I've never seen a better case for ignoring a film, for the book.

Being Baz Luhrmann, for most people the only disconnect will be that his erst-muse Nicole Kidman is too old now to star as the object of Jay Gatsby's obsession, though I'm confident she could pull off the accent of Fitzgerald's entrancing, feckless Jazz Age aristocrat whose "voice is full of money."

Already at risk of banality here, I headed straight to my favorite emergency room, The New Yorker, where the April 3 post by Benjamin Lytal, "Beautiful Failures: Nabokov and Flaubert's Early Attempts," cleared my head with pure oxygen not just about the vital importance of writing to one's ability but doing so as soon as possible. Small comfort, however, knowing even Nabokov and Flaubert tried on the same fake costume of commercial rags we all pretty much have from time to time (what used to be called dues-paying).

As Nabokov and Flaubert -- known today mainly for their later works Lolita and Madame Bovary, respectively -- The Great Gatsby, considered his masterpiece, was not Fitzgerald's first published novel. However, it was my first exposure to his writing. When I closed the back cover on finishing it, I sat for a very long time, just holding the book, and committed to racing online the next morning for everything Fitzgerald had ever written as I had, for example, David Foster Wallace. The fact that Fitzgerald and Wallace both died tragically in their mid-forties due, in no small part, to compulsive substance abuse arising from irreconcilable psychocreative crosscurrents has my full attention, but not condemnation. I recognize their quality of writing as an out-of-body experience, however desperately one opts to get there to sustain it. Years ago, living in Beverly Hills, my device was to slice the most horrific photos of plane crashes, starving Third World children, Holocaust anniversaries, and the like from newsmagazines and drop them into what I called the pain file -- just to keep it real in one of the most surreal zip codes on the planet. Now, of course, one doesn't need to slice. One just does a keyword search.

Pressure to please the public -- fast and wildly profitably -- makes everything surreal, nowhere more than Hollywood and vicinity, going back as far as to the question of whether Shakespeare had a ghostwriter. William Goldman's memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade exposes the emotional bones this breaks in principled creators, whether coming up with original screenplays or an adaptation of a previously published work for the screen (for both of which Oscars are awarded and both of which are, in fact, collaborative in the manner that Kunta Kinte collaborated with white men). Well, it may be called "intellectual" property, but for branding purposes does Hollywood's opening weekend or Costco's purchasing algorithm care?

In a March 30 Wall Street Journal post, novelist James Patterson spills the great secret of how he can turn out a typical, for him, 13 new titles in 2013 alone, earning $80 million per year: He has a team of paid writers, in which the whole literary process comes down not to Kindle but to good old-fashioned, rabbit-ear antennaed, cathode ray tube television.

I have a number of writers I work with regularly. I write an outline for a book. The outlines are very specific about what each scene is supposed to accomplish. I get pages from [the collaborator] every two weeks, and then I re-write them. That's the way everything works. Sometimes I'll just give notes... Look, this is commercial fiction. It's a little different from really serious literature. There, the publishers or editors will wait until the whole manuscript comes in. With my work, I get pages early and if the story has gone the wrong way, or if it's losing steam, then I say, 'hold it -- let's talk. We're off track in terms of what should be driving this story ahead,' or 'I'm losing interest in the narrator.' Sometimes there's not enough tension. I'll do any number of outlines or re-writes on the pages. I've done as much as nine drafts of a book after the original comes in... Oh yeah. This is not easy. One of the hard things, and this relates certainly to commercial fiction as well as writing for television and movies, is just getting the voice down. Once the voice is there, it's easier. That's why you can have six writers on a TV show because there's a voice and a set of characters, and other writers can come in and conceivably do a good job writing in that voice and writing those characters.

And here I thought Shakespeare and Patterson weren't merely ingenious, but supernaturally prolific.

What's not a great literary secret is that depending, as usual, on whether you're, say, a Robert Redford (1974 version) or Leonard DiCaprio (2013 version) fan, Hollywood has never yet done justice to The Great Gatsby. My confidence is high that this will remain the case, since I can't reconcile the Viagra ad cueing the Gatsby re-remake teaser with the sensibility of Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning--.

With everything from Laurel and Hardy to Busby Berkeley (and yes, many very, very fine films) flooding the culture by the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, perhaps it was not just being a witness to Gatsby's unintended prophecy about receding idealism but having his own hand in it was what finally did him in. Two years after The Great Gatsby was published, he moved to Hollywood and took up screenwriting, including unfilmed work for Gone With The Wind. Not even he himself, hopelessly trapped between the morally negotiated business of green-lighted movies and Jay Gatsby's elegiac green light, can touch F. Scott Fitzgerald's immortality.

As tragic as that is, knowing he was losing his candlelit soul to today's cultural mores of online Viagra ads would have made it even worse -- a tragic joke.