“It fulfills all the requirements of fiction: it is one long sweet lie,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The I.O.U.,” a previously unpublished short story that came out posthumously Monday in the New Yorker. The quote comes from a conversation between two of the short story’s central characters — a fraudulent publisher and the man who his publishing house has publicly pronounced dead in its most recent nonfiction book. Here, Fitzgerald offers a taste of his self-aware sense of humor in his ability to poke fun at the publishing industry.
According to the New Yorker, Fitzgerald wrote “The I.O.U.” in 1920 for fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Fitzgerald dubbed many of his own short stories “trash,” sending these texts to publishers for fast-profit. By the time he wrote “The I.O.U.,” Fitzgerald had become fairly well-known, acquiring the means to focus on novel writing. He rescinded the initial submission of the story’s manuscript, claiming he planned to add some revisions before publishing. He then abandoned the story altogether and turned to writing the “The Beautiful and the Damned.” In 2012, Fitzgerald’s estate sold “The I.O.U.” to Yale, along with 14 other of his unpublished short stories, which will come out Apr. 25 in a collection called “I’d Die for You: And Other Lost Stories,” edited by Anne Margaret Daniel.
“The I.O.U.” revolves around a New York City publisher who recently released “The Aristocracy of the Spirit of the World,” an autobiography written by character Dr. Harden. The book recalls Dr. Harden’s communications with his nephew, Cosgrove Harden, which occur after he was supposedly killed in World War I. Cosgrove, who is, in fact, very much alive, discovers the falsified text claiming his death in a chance encounter with the publisher on a train. Upon confrontation, the publisher defends his decision to market the text as nonfiction, claiming, “non-fiction is a form of literature that lies halfway between fiction and fact.” Following this episode, journalists swarm the publisher, exposing the fraud.
Since the story’s publishing, many media organizations have drawn a parallel between this fabricated autobiography and the contemporary infiltration of fake news.
This story exhibits many of the themes for which Fitzgerald is well-known. He develops a character who, like himself, has been thoroughly impacted by World War I. The central conflict revolves around the publisher’s desire to commodify a soldier’s story, reducing contemporary tragedy into material for the “Great American Public” to devour. Fitzgerald too made his living off of stories about World War I, which — through the lens he casts in this story — makes for an uncomfortable reassessment of his later novels. This concept reflects the post-World War I culture, which is haunted by new revelations on the human condition and the issue of how to address large-scale tragedy in the media. Fitzgerald meanwhile examines his own pertinent moral discomfort in balancing art and profit through his characters.
In his witty short story, presented as a conversational narrative punctuated with dramatic irony, Fitzgerald does not fail to touch on his most recurrent themes — love and death.
Fitzgerald often juxtaposes humorous dialogue and underlying morbid material to highlight the comical aspects of the existential crises that were known to plague the author. For example, Cosgrove and the publisher later request that Dr. Hardin dies within ten years to keep reputations safe in the wake of fraud. “Humor is out of place in this discussion. If you’ll make an honest agreement to die, with no mental reservations — ” he requests.
Fitzgerald closes the piece with the publisher’s hopeful and ironic call for manuscripts about love, which he feels confident will sell better. “Love is a sure thing — it takes a living man to love,” he says. Again, Fitzgerald discloses what could be a baser motivation for the content of his books such as “The Great Gatsby” or “Tender is the Night.” Is love the driving force behind Fitzgerald’s work or just a way to turn a profit?
In Fitzgerald’s typical fashion, the concise short story plays with existential crises in the midst of interpersonal interactions in post-World War I America. Though the story is lacking in Rosemary-style romance, East Egg alcoholism or corrupted heirs, readers instead encounter a quippy, sardonic reflection on the literary world, which showcases Fitzgerald’s immense skill in writing on dynamic themes that appeal to the contemporary reader. Whether the story reveals Fitzgerald’s discomfort with the politics of the publishing world or with his own motivations in writing to cater to his readership, the story ultimately offers new insight into a writer that has almost become a character himself in the literary canon.