Professionals vs amateurs & Zelda Fitzgerald
It was all part of a debate that Peter Stothard, the Booker prize chairman, had raised. But as I go through my research of one of the muses I'm working on at the moment, Zelda Fitzgerald, I'm wondering if there's some kind of gender split going on here, and if I was too quick to rise to defend my position. Part of the problem for professional criticism, from my point of view and from others', is that not enough women do it - my literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, Katy Guest, has written before about not enough women coming forward to write for her. It would seem that more women than men would prefer to stay away from establishment organisations, claiming a different kind of space. A friendlier space, perhaps? Sometimes. But not always.
Zelda Sayre was born in 1900 in the American South. Before she was twenty, she had married F Scott Fitzgerald and taken his name - he was a rising literary star, having just published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to great popular and critical acclaim. They settled in New York and began to paint the town red - it was 1920, the start of the Jazz Age, and they enjoyed behaving badly. She was Scott's muse, but as one of her biographers, Sally Cline, has pointed out, that was hardly enough: "being a muse is not much of a job for a bright young woman, and Zelda grew bored..."
One of the things she did to alleviate her boredom, in spite of the reckless partying, when her husband was in his room writing and she had nothing to do and nowhere to go, was start to write herself. It took a while - Scott earned a lot of money from his books and short stories and another novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, came out in 1922. It was this book that alerted her to just how much her husband was using of her own material - lines from her letters and her journal cropped up in the novel to such an extent that Zelda, commissioned to write a review of the book for The New York Tribune under the heading 'Friend Husband's Latest', commented: "Mr Fitzgerald...seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home." Two more magazines commissioned features from her after this review appeared, and she wrote four features in all (paid for, although one of them didn't make it to publication).
What Cline pinpoints though, as Zelda begins her tentative career as a writer, is the split between this sense of professional and amateur writing. Scott was the 'professional' writer - he earned the most money from his work and he was considered the serious artist. Zelda was not either of those things - Scott viewed her as an 'amateur', even as he encouraged her at the beginning, and he felt perfectly entitled to lift her words from her private papers if he felt like it and use them in his fiction. When she later used material from their personal life for her own novel, Save me The Waltz, he went berserk, saying that he was using it for his novel, and he insisted that her publisher remove entire sections of her work. The irony of his position seemed to escape him. Or perhaps it didn't.
Zelda was never quite able to see herself as a professional writer, possibly because of her husband's reaction to what she was doing. Possibly also because most of the time, her work was published under their joint names, and sometimes just his name was used. It's a situation women can barely comprehend today, and yet I wonder now if we've completely eradicated that - if perhaps her tentativeness is reflected in the small numbers of women coming forward to try and review professionally for newspapers, as Katy Guest once complained - in spite of the large numbers writing their own blogs and reviews. How to explain that anomaly?
I don't think any of the women writers I know personally would view what they do as 'amateur', especially when some of them are the main breadwinners in their households with their writing (hey, I'm the only breadwinner in my household, so I don't have much choice but to see what I do as 'professional'!). I think what bothered me most about Zelda's life story (apart from the tragic road down mental ill-health and her early death in an asylum), was the gender split it seemed to signify - that 'professional' was masculine and 'amateur' was feminine. If Zelda and Scott were both alive today and writing reviews instead of novels, would Zelda be writing an (unpaid) blog while Scott earned money writing for broadsheets?
This isn't to put blogs or bloggers down - but I do wonder where the accumulating number of blogs, especially those written by women, will take us, and I do hope it isn't down the road marked 'amateur'. Women have often kept out of men's way, carving their own alternative paths because they don't want to have to take on alien behaviours and attitudes. This can be a hugely positive thing - there a whole alternative literary history of women taking that other path. For too long, women were 'amateurs', keeping their poems and their stories away from paying editors, sticking to diaries and letters for expression. But the 'professional' path belongs to women, too.