Tender is the Prose

As part of my general research on the next Russell & Holmes novel, I re-read the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender is the Night.

And frankly, I found it very hard going.  Meandering plot, puzzling metaphors, characters distorted to fit into the roles he needs for them.

Start with his take on women.  The book is supposed to be about them—the girl who falls in love, the woman who goes insane—but even for a 1930s writer, he has a completely tin ear when it comes to how women actually work.  For example, here about the young (17 when we meet her) actress who falls in love with a married man:

Rosemary was from the middle of the middle class, catapulted by her mother onto the uncharted heights of Hollywood. Their point of resemblance to each other and their difference from so many American women, lay in the fact that they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man or not finding him.

Where does one start with such a statement? Were American women in fact unhappy about existing in a man’s world, or did they just shrug and get on with things? Is a good wife like a good courtesan? How does a person preserve her individuality through another person?
And later:

They came out of the neat restored trench, and faced a memorial to the Newfoundland dead. Reading the inscription Rosemary burst into sudden tears. Like most women she liked to be told how she should feel, and she liked Dick’s telling her which things were ludicrous and which things were sad.

Really?  So, girls—do we like to be told how to feel?  Or do most men like to believe we’re so childlike, we need to be led into such realization?

Then there are the sentences—dozens and dozens of them—that sound clever, and feel as if the author is proud of them, but are actually baffling.  Such as this, about Rosemary’s mother / stage manager:

One of her husbands had been a cavalry officer and one an army doctor, and they both left something to her that she tried to present intact to Rosemary. By not sparing Rosemary she had made her hard—by not sparing her own labor and devotion she had cultivated an idealism in Rosemary, which at present was directed toward herself and saw the world through her eyes.

Huh?  Or when the man Rosemary wants to seduce first kisses her in a taxi, then turns her down:

Her face drooped with dismay and disappointment and Dick said automatically, “We’ll have to simply—” He stopped himself, followed her to the bed, sat down beside her while she wept. He was suddenly confused, not about the ethics of the matter, for the impossibility of it was sheerly indicated from all angles but simply confused, and for a moment his usual grace, the tensile strength of his balance, was absent.

“I knew you wouldn’t,” she sobbed. “It was just a forlorn hope.”

Should I know what the tensile strength of his balance means?  Would any young woman actually say forlorn hope?  Did he think it clever to insert, after a long interruption, the blithe phrase “To resume Rosemary’s point of view…”  Is there some reason why Rosemary is sitting on the beach trying to avoid talking to one group of people while admiring another, and then suddenly she’s out in the water with one of the swimmers? “Nicole” goes from the most stable person on the page to a complete raving lunatic.  Some characters we find sympathetic, then they turn loathsome—and vice versa with others.

I do realize that literary fiction tends to have different rules from genre storytelling, but please.

Anyone else out there have problems with some of the classics?



  1. Suzanne Portello on October 5, 2019 at 12:17 pm

    Well, I definitely see what you mean about “Tender is the Night” but then, I was never one to claim that Fitzgerald created rich, complex female characters (or human beings in general – I think he had other fish to fry). In fact, it always surprises me when a “classic” (especially a white male classic) shows an ability to portray the human (especially female human) condition in a way that’s accessible to later readers. One such author who took me by surprise when I was still in my teens was Sinclair Lewis. I had a flurry of reading Lewis’ novels (after seeing the film of Elmer Gantry when I was maybe 15 or so), and several of the books struck me with their fully-fleshed portrayal of women – I’ll have to go back & re-read to figure out specifically which books & characters left me with this impression (Arrowsmith? Babbitt? Dodsworth?). The other 20th century “dead white male” whose characters seemed to resonate powerfully with “regular” Americans like my mother & grandmother was the playwright Arthur Miller – Willy Loman, aahhh…, now there was a character! Miller, though, maybe a more checkered relationship with women (?)

    • Laura Stratton on October 9, 2019 at 7:07 pm

      I often find that “classic literature’ or literature written in the early 1900s rubs me the wrong way. Often they are written in the language and ethics of their time. The language used is often racist, sexist, and anti-semetic. Sometimes I can overlook the dialogue because of the time period it was written in and the prevailing attitudes of the period. One example is “The Little House On The Prarie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In recent years, some readers have criticised her for her language about Native Americans. I still love those books and can overlook some of the language.

  2. Alice Wright on October 9, 2019 at 3:12 pm

    Oh God yes, most literary fiction either frustrates me, bores me to tears, or infuriate me. I gave up on it some time ago.

  3. Margaret Laing on October 9, 2019 at 3:17 pm

    Gag! I hope my assessment is right and Russell hates, hates, hates this! Meanwhile, maintaining one’s individuality through another person definitely sent my mind running to Russ and Holmes.

  4. Deborah Christman on October 9, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    You have beautifully articulated why I have never been able to read another of Fitzgerald’s works past The Great Gatsby. And I made myself get through that one. Yes, also, many of the “literary” stories may be well written, but I don’t want to read about what they are writing.

  5. Barbara on October 9, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    I think you and I are pretty much of the same age….and that we both read “the classics” a very long time ago….and it is hard to reread some which are now more like drivel… It’ s a bit like watching old movies ( try Bachelor Mother and try not to cringe…)… Still wonderful material for Russell!! And I’ll bet there are silk stockings! (Even with the hated garter belt)…..

  6. Teddi on October 9, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    I love much about John Steinbeck’s writing but his portrayal of women is just terrible. They’re either very good or very bad, or just an accessory to the story. It’s like he never had any relationship with real women. Some of the dead white male authors get around this by barely mentioning women or ignoring them altogether, making their narratives much less interesting. They would flunk the Bechdel Test.

    • Laurie King on October 9, 2019 at 6:36 pm

      Not only would they flunk it, they would not comprehend it.

  7. Sylvia4 on October 10, 2019 at 12:08 am

    Thank you, thank you, everyone for your comments above. All these years I’ve been afraid to say that I couldn’t understand what was so great about Fitzgerald’s books . . . and here it is all in your comments, my feelings exactly. All I can say is THANK YOU for making me feel that I’m not that stupid after all!!! 😊😊😊

  8. Dayna Foster on October 10, 2019 at 7:31 am

    In the past, I have been embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read many of the “classics” of American literature. The small taste I got in high school and college left me bored and wondering what all the fuss was about. I’m sure there are some great, readable classics out there that portray the kind of woman I want to read about, but I’m not willing to slog through any of them when there is so much more great reading to be done by modern authors telling engaging stories I can actually identify with. I read fiction for pleasure, and I’m not going to waste my precious leisure time on something that doesn’t bring me pleasure. I’m glad to know I’m not alone!

    • Laurie King on October 11, 2019 at 1:11 pm

      Yes, sometimes it’s worthwhile to tackle a story you have to work at, and other times it’s just depressing. And impossible to know without reading a couple of chapters–but yes, I’m at a stage where I don’t feel that it’s required to finish a book I’ve started…

  9. Karen on October 10, 2019 at 8:25 am

    When I finally read Kerouac’s On the Road after prodding by a boyfriend who idolized the man, I absolutely hated the way he wrote about women. I actually broke up with the boyfriend because it made me realize that Kerouac’s writing wasn’t the only thing he wanted to emulate.

    • Laurie King on October 11, 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Ha–no, Kerouac is not a person any sensible woman would care to make a life with.

  10. Holly Adams on October 10, 2019 at 10:49 am

    YES. I have never liked Fitzgerald–or Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams for those same reasons. There are a few ‘classics’ like work hard to get it right, and I am always happy when I come across them. For example, I had never read “Kim” by Kipling, thinking I would loathe it, until I read LRK’s “The Game”. I then listened to the audiobook narrated by Ralph Cosham–and loved it.

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