IMPORTANT: This is about the book Gadsby By Ernest Vincent Wright, not The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Legend says a man once ripped a piece of twine, tied down the E key on his typewriter, and proceeded to write a 50,000 word novel without the letter E. Original copies of his literary masterpiece now sell for thousands of dollars. He assured his own rise to fame, and everything went smoothly until someone opened his book.
Lipograms are a form of constrained writing where the author avoids using one or more particular letters in the piece. While the gimmick entertains audiences, the piece must still be worth reading. The author can get away with less meaningful work, since purpose is contained in the style, but no amount of dropping letters alone makes literature worth reading.
Typically, a story resolves near the end. Instead, Wright wrote Gadsby like a drawn-out sitcom. After resolving the issue in roughly 10 chapters, he proceeds with 30 more chapters that all revolve around everyone being happy, with no major conflicts ever presented afterwards. Kids grow up and get married. A man that has never worked in politics becomes the mayor with little hassle. A zoo magically opens. Almost every chapter presents a neat and tidy event ending with celebrations from everyone, and Wright could easily end the story there, but he doesn’t, so the book drags on, and the only reason you’re still reading is because you want it to end.
Applying any amount of critical theory, feminists will have an absolute field day exploring the infinite ways Wright seems to bring up gender norms. Every other chapter finds a way to assert the backwards notions of women necessarily being small and weak and good at cooking and taking care of children while the men are big and strong and good at building. Some may argue Wright’s use of gender roles is expected, since this book was written in the 1930s. With historical context and the advent of World War II, attributing women’s value to having small statures and delicate hands and homemaking was incredibly backwards, with countless women working industrial jobs during the period of wartime economy.
As if that wasn’t enough, Wright’s inflated ego shows through in his writing. Naturally, Wright is the first-person narrator, depicted as a historian describing the town. Despite separating himself from the events of the story as this all-seeing onlooker, his frequent interjections make you wonder if he’s too convinced of his own story. For example, in chapter VII, he makes a disturbing quip about passing up kissing a snake to instead kiss Lucy, a fictitious child, while he is still the adult historian describing the story.
I pushed through the book, hoping to gain some linguistic insights. While I give Wright mild credit for calling flowers “blossoming plants” and turkey “Thanksgiving National Bird,” I cannot forgive his egregious errors. Despite Wright’s claims of not using the letter E, the original publication contains three instances of the word “the” and one instance of the word “officers,” totaling 4 E’s in the body of the text.
Historical records describe Wright’s attempts at publishing all failing, and he had to turn to self-publishing through Wetzel Publishing Co. After reading this book, I finally understand why. Gimmicks won’t save your story, and twine won’t hold down your typewriter’s E key.