Tuesday 14 May 2013

The Gatsby Academy

Now, prompted by the above photo on the Faber Academy site, I have a new angle: it’s a costume drama. In a stately home a primary and a secondary and a guest tutor and two guest speakers will impart wise words to 15 selected writing students. Selected on the basis of submitting 1,000 words of prose and a cover letter detailing writing experience (‘if any’), but chiefly on their ability to pay £2,000 for the two-week ‘Writer’s Summer School’ (just one writer?). ‘Accommodation not included’. I’m mildly interested in what they’ll all be wearing.

(‘40 hours of teaching’: that’s £50 per hour for each student in a class of 15. ‘25 hours of designated writing time’: but you do get a view of fields and sheep, I imagine. ‘Nearly 20 hours of feedback time’: which brings down the cost per hour, but call the total 55 hours and it’s still around £36 per hour. I could buy many books for the cost of one hour. And you still have to pay for your bed & board.)

The Faber Academy courses – the Guardian Masterclasses too, which have similar fees (£350 for a weekend course on ‘Getting your book published’, £220 for a ‘one-day workshop’ on ‘Secrets of successful self-publishing’) – are insufferably exclusive. They are a money-spinning sub-section of celebrity culture: offering personal contact with semi-famous authors and agents, they sell the promise (absolutely no guarantee) of entry into a certain social/literary network. Don’t. Especially if you’re paying to learn how to ‘craft a pitch to catch the eye of your future publisher’, don’t. For a finished book that has gone through all the hurdles, many reputable publishers pay less than the course fee, and some no advance at all.

The costume-drama comparison comes to mind partly because this week we’re being saturated with publicity for the new film of The Great Gatsby (1922). I like the book, the 1920s dresses too, and especially I like the scene in which a bunch of rich people (I’m quoting myself here, from Recessional) ‘hire a room in the Plaza Hotel – Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan and Nick – where “opening the windows admitted only a gust of hot shrubbery from the Park” and they bicker about a man called Biloxi and whether Gatsby is really an Oxford man and whether Daisy ever really loved Tom, even when she married him, and then they get in their cars and drive back to Long Island, killing Tom’s mistress on the way’. But it’s not that good. Nick, the bonds-salesman narrator, is compromised and ineffective and bland to a degree that undermines the fine writing of the famous ending and this wasn’t, I think, the intention. (If there has to be another film re-make of Gatsby, transferring the basic story to a different class, a different time, might be interesting; but the backers wouldn’t be happy about losing the costumes, the music.) Compare, for example, James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936).

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