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The Best Unfinished
Book I Ever Read

by Bill Kenower

It’s rare for a writer to have the opportunity to witness another writer, let alone a celebrated one, wrestle with a story, but it’s just such an experience you’ll be treated to if you pick up F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (or The Love of The Last Tycoon, as it was renamed by Mathew Bruccoli in his updated 1994 edition).  Written from the spring of 1939 until Fitzgerald’s death from heart failure on December 21, 1940, Tycoon tells the story of Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr and his ill-fated love for Kathleen Moore, a woman bearing a haunting resemblance to Stahr’s deceased wife.

The particulars of the plot, however, are not at issue here.  For one thing, the book was not finished.  In fact, because Fitzgerald was such a relentless re-writer not even one draft had been completed, although Fitzgerald had written copious notes and outlined the plot thoroughly as he saw it unfolding.  To the casual reader this aborted narrative might be unsatisfying, but as both a writer and a fan of Fitzgerald’s, I found it both satisfying and as interesting as anything I’ve read recently.  The book provides a great glimpse into the creative process, both through Fitzgerald’s published notes, and, synchronistically enough, the nature of the story itself.

It is, in a way, a great gift that Fitzgerald did not complete a rough draft of the novel.  This would have, no doubt, inspired a cobbled-together posthumous effort similar to those still somehow being offered by his contemporary, Ernest Hemmingway.  Instead, the editors­­—first Edmond Wilson in 1941 and then Bruccoli in ’94—were forced to make due with a fairly polished half-manuscript, a detailed plot synopsis and …the notes.

Both editions provide long excerpts of Fitzgerald’s very detailed notes.  These include problems with the already-written sections that he wished to fix (we are told, for instance, that in chapter II beside one particular paragraph Fitzgerald had written, “Only







fair”), as well as meditations on how he planned to handle the many as-of-yet unwritten scenes.  There are also various short one-line notes, such as “Action is Character” and “Don’t wake the Tarkington ghosts;” some lovely descriptions he seemed to be hoping to include, such as this one about an airplane trip: “My blue dream of being in a basket like a kite held by a rope against the wind;” and then, of course, his story notes, which include, in Wilson’s 1941 edition, a kind of story map which breaks the novel into Acts, Chapters, and Episodes, complete with their anticipated word count. 

Then there are elements of the book itself.  Although Stahr is technically a film executive, he also acts as a story advisor and editor.  Subsequently, there is much discussion throughout the novel about what makes for a good story; it is the creative process revealed, and we get to watch Stahr breaking down the daily rushes, dissecting scripts, even explaining to a novelist what makes a good movie. This makes for great reading if you’re a process junky like myself, particularly when coupled with the work-in-progress nature of the published novel.

Why am I such a process junky, and why do I so love to read about Fitzgerald’s musings on how to handle this scene or that paragraph? Because it is easy to forget, especially with an author of such mythic caliber as Fitzgerald, that works of art, especially novels, rarely spring wholly formed from the mind of the artist.  Rather, they are the product of a long series of choices—choices weighed, rethought, sometimes inspired, often corrected, frequently discarded—whose sum, once the artist declares, “Enough’s enough,” we call finished.  While his notes provide much wisdom into the nature of writing and story-telling in general, I think their greatest benefit is to remind all of us working today that once upon a time F. Scott Fitzgerald was just another writer toiling away at his desk, trying to say what he wanted to say.

Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.


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