Harness The Imagination, Fuel The Tank

by | Oct 29, 2009

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

Law professor William J. Quirk, writing in The American Scholar, examined F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tax returns from 1919–1940 and came away with a detailed portrait of a rich man–perhaps unexpectedly, for Fitzgerald portrayed the rich from close physical proximity, but with (mostly devastating) emotional distance.

Quirk’s direct examination of the writer’s records indicate:

  • Until 1937 he kept a ledger—as if he were a grocer—a meticulous record of his earnings from each short story, play, and novel he sold. The 1929 ledger recorded items as small as royalties of $5.10 from the American edition of The Great Gatsby and $0.34 from the English edition.
  • The publication of This Side of Paradise when he was 23 immediately put Fitzgerald’s income in the top 2 percent of American taxpayers. Thereafter, for most of his working life, he earned about $24,000 a year, which put him in the top 1 percent of those filing returns. Today, a taxpayer would have to earn at least $500,000 to be in the top 1 percent.
  • His best novels, The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender Is the Night (1934), did not produce much income. Royalties from The Great Gatsby totaled only $8,397 during Fitzgerald’s lifetime.

Fitzgerald wrote short stories for magazines to earn money which provided him the freedom to pursue less well paying but artistically significant works. He also moved to Los Angeles and wrote scripts for the studios. During his Hollywood years, he was never paid less than $1,000 a week. By contrast, Warner Bros., in the 1940s, paid William Faulkner $300 a week.

Also by comparison, I received a check in the mail from Google today for $100.73. According to Technorati, I’m among the 28% of bloggers, a.k.a. writers, who make some amount of cash from their efforts today. That’s a lot of people making a little bit of money, when the trick–one clearly mastered by Fitzgerald–is to be one of the few writers making lots of money.