Anne Tyler, on the eve of the release of her latest novel, French Braid, spoke of her astonishment at the way the issue of “appropriation” was taking over literature. Would this, she asked, stop her, a woman, from writing male lead characters which she had so often done?

I first heard the term, “cultural appropriation” when the American writer Lionel Shriver spoke of it at a literary event in Australia. Cultural appropriation, I learnt, is writing of the experience of a minority group to which the writer does not belong. Shriver had a black woman in her novel, which was objected to. What did she know of the experiences of a black woman? Does this mean, Shriver caustically retorted, that she, Shriver, could write only of 5-feet-2-inch women living in North Carolina?

More questions crop up: What then of writers like Pearl Buck who wrote of China and the Chinese, of Rudyard Kipling, Paul Scott and MM Kaye, who wrote of India and the Indians? Does that mean that people have to create characters who belong to the same country, the same religion, the same class as they do? And in India, can a writer write only about people who belong to the same caste? (Interestingly – and paradoxically – I have had reviewers asking why I write about privileged, meaning educated women, and not about their domestic staff).

It gets increasingly absurd as you go on and cultural appropriation begins to look more like political correctness than a literary theory. Besides, to tell a writer what to write or not write about is to cut at the very base of creative writing.

This partly invites the question – where does a novel come from? Damon Galgut, the 2021 winner of the Booker Prize, said, “I write from my experiences, I write from what I know.” But I am sure these words have been picked out of a larger context, for there is so much more to a novel than just these two things: There are ideas, memories, dreams (even nightmares), personal history, the state of the society the writer is living in, the times and so on. Above all, there is imagination.

For a writer, imagination is the crucial factor that knits things together, bridges the gaps and goes beyond the façade and into the silences. And imagination it is that allows a writer to dip into the ocean-deep treasure trove of human experiences. No writer can be, or is, limited only to her/his own experiences.

Mine, not yours

There is, however, the curious case of a writer, F Scott Fitzgerald, who claimed that his experiences were entirely his own and that they could not be used by anyone else. A case that was more complicated because it was his wife, Zelda, with whom he battled when he charged her with using his experiences in her novel.

A married couple has many shared experiences, but Scott insisted that only he had a right to use them in his writing. She could use neither his experiences, nor their shared experiences; these were his “material”. In fact he went on to say that she had no right to her own experiences, or to her own life, either. These too were his material.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had a glorious beginning to their married life. Young and extremely good-looking, they were both high-spirited and unconventional, Zelda even a little wild. Besides, Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a brilliant success; it sold a huge number of copies.

The couple dazzled and charmed New York. It was the Twenties of the last century, a time immediately after the end of World War I. Young people lived lives of reckless pleasure, as if to forget those who had died during the war. Scott and Zelda were in the forefront of the pleasure seekers. They became symbols of the age, and Scott the spokesperson of it.

He named it the Jazz Age and girls like Zelda, Flappers. “I want her to be a Flapper,’ Zelda said of her daughter when she was born, “because Flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.” Scott and Zelda, along with a group of writers and Scott’s Princeton friends, lived it up, they had wild all-night parties. For the first time writers were written about as if they were celebrities. Much later, when things went badly for them, Scott said “We were the most envied couple in 1921 in America.”

But Scott’s second novel did not do so well. The couple was living way beyond their income and now they had a child. They decided to go to Paris where they hoped living would be cheaper and Scott could find more time to write. Later, they moved to the Riviera, where a group of expatriate American writers and artists were living. Hemingway, who had just started writing, was one of them. Scott got down to writing his novel, but Zelda, left alone for much of the time, had an affair with a Frenchman. Things were never the same after that.

The relationship deteriorates

Scott’s third novel, The Great Gatsby, got great reviews and praise from writers like Edmund Wilson, Gertrude Stein, and TS Eliot. Eliot’s words of praise, that “this novel was the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James”, elated Scott. But, as his publishers said, if the reviews were superb, the sales were uncertain.

Now Zelda decided she wanted to get into ballet. They went back to Paris and Zelda, consumed by the desire to excel at ballet, threw herself into it with a frightening intensity. Her behaviour started becoming weird, she had violent mood swings. Scott had to keep a careful eye on her, because she had become prone to hysterical attacks. They were fierce fights between the two; Zelda had become suspicious of Scott and even charged him with being a homosexual, of having a relationship with Hemingway.

Finally, she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, a mental illness about which not much was known at the time. For Zelda it was the beginning of a life of moving in and out of institutions for the mentally ill. And for Scott, a constant struggle to earn enough money, a struggle against alcoholism, a struggle to write.

As they kept moving between the US and Europe, Zelda’s condition, as well as their relationship, deteriorated. It was when they went back to the US – Scott to Hollywood hoping to earn more money, and Zelda to an institution yet again, that Zelda wrote a novel. She sent it to Scott’s publishers Scribner’s and to Scott a little later.

When he read the manuscript, Scott was livid. He castigated everyone – his agent, Zelda’s doctor and most of all Zelda herself. Save Me the Waltz, was an autobiographical novel, the story of a beautiful girl from the South, who married an artist (a painter). Their married life was almost a replica of Scott and Zelda’s life. There were very strong echoes in her novel of Tender is the Night, which Scott was then writing; chunks of material came out of his novel. Scott’s rage was so great that Zelda’s doctor decided they would have a meeting between Scott and Zelda, with him, and a stenographer who took down everything said.

The document makes for very painful reading. And for someone living in today’s world, shocking as well. Scott was furious that Zelda had used what he called “his material” of their life together. It was part of the novel he had been writing for years, but which, he said, he had been unable to complete because of Zelda’s obsession with ballet, and her mental illness. Meanwhile Zelda had written her novel in three months.

Unreasonable demands

He was the novelist in the family, he earned the money that supported them. He was the professional, Zelda was only an amateur who had nothing much to say. Going back to an idea which must have been outdated even then, Scott told Zelda that his interests should be her primary concern. He spoke of the fact that he was the highest-paid short story writer in the world, that he had a huge following. “I am not paid a huge price for nothing,” he said.

He became melodramatic and spoke of Zelda trying to build a “dubitable” career out of “living matter chipped out of my mind, my belly, my nervous system, and my loins.” He spoke cruelly of Zelda being a third-rate dancer and third rate writer. She in turn spoke of his alcoholism which was his real problem, she said he had always been neurotic about “his material”. Finally she asked him, “What do you want me to do?”

Stop writing, stop writing fiction, he said. He went on to say that she could not write about psychiatry, about the Riviera, or Switzerland where she had first been treated. He insisted that her ideas had to be submitted to him, that everything she wrote had to be given to him first. And he would handle her contract.

As for Save Me the Waltz, she had to cut out large portions of it which were close to his novel. He would mark these portions; only then could it be published. As Scott went on with his diatribe, Zelda said over and over again that it was better to be buried in an institution than to “live like this”. She said she would edit only for “aesthetic” reasons. But, ultimately, she had to give in to his demands. The novel was edited to Scott’s satisfaction and, when done, he told his editor, “Now it is a good novel.”

But it was a flop. It sold very few copies. The publishers did not even copy edit it, it went out with all the typos and spelling errors intact. One of the conditions in the contract called for any royalties the book earned to be repaid to the publisher, in lieu of what Scott owed them. In the event, there was nothing for anyone, only a very small amount for Zelda. All the anger, the anguish, the cruelty was for nothing.

Who was the appropriator?

Feminism fuelled a new interest in women’s lives and resurrected women who had been neglected and ignored. Even when they were written about, there was an obvious bias in the way they were viewed. Hemingway’s portrayal of Zelda in A Moveable Feast, was “brutal”, according to Hadley, Hemingway’s wife. Women’s biographies tried to right the injustice done to women.

The theory was floated that it was Scott who was really the plagiarist, not Zelda. Scott was charged with using Zelda’s words, both spoken and written, in his novels. Like Zelda’s words after their baby was born, “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool”, words which were given to Daisy in The Great Gatsby.

And Zelda, in an interview after Scott’s second novel, spoke of the mysterious disappearance of her diary and her letters after marriage, of finding words and sentences in Scott’s novel that seemed familiar to her. But Zelda was not complaining. At the time, she associated herself with Scott’s work, with his success and glory.

When Zelda was asked by a magazine to write some short stories about young women, though the stories went under both their names, Scott confessed to a friend that he had very little to do with them. When the magazine offered much more money for a story if it went under Scott’s name alone, Zelda’s name was dropped and the two shared the money. They were partners.

However, with Save Me the Waltz, even Zelda’s biographer Nancy Mitford thinks that Zelda was not as innocent as she made herself out to be. For, in a letter to Scott after their blow-up, Zelda wrote, “I was afraid we might have touched on the same material.” Scott, too, in spite of his fierce anger against Zelda, admitted in a more rational moment that they ruined themselves through “Zelda’s megiomaniacal (sic) selfishness and my insane indulgence in drink.”

Yet Scott was not entirely callous. He did care for Zelda, he called her “my invalid”. He never divorced her, though he could have easily done it. He wrote to her regularly, he organised an exhibition of her paintings. In a poignant and honest letter to her, he spoke of how much (or rather, how little) money he could give her. His words, “You will be a poor girl for a while, there is nothing much to do about it,” shows his regret that he could give her no more.

But, as he clearly told her, their daughter’s education was his first priority. He became a single parent to their daughter after Zelda’s illness and was deeply involved in her education. He also prodded the girl to visit her mother as often as she could. However, when it came to his work, he was ruthless. By attacking Zelda’s novel, he was protecting his own, Tender is the Night, which would come out only after Zelda’s novel. By which time, there would be nothing new in Scott’s novel for a reader.

One can sympathise with Scott, who was frustrated that he could not write because of the calamity of Zelda’s illness and the collapse of their marriage. His writing mattered to him above all else. Nevertheless, in today’s world, it is hard to accept Scott’s idea of Zelda’s work being his property. Scott’s claim seems perilously close to the still-held idea that a man has a right to his wife’s body and therefore there cannot be such a thing as marital rape.

His argument that he owned Zelda’s mind, her creativity, as well as her life and their life together, is as hard to accept as the idea that a woman surrenders her body to her husband with marriage. But Scott and Zelda’s case was unique; it is impossible to generalise from it.

Their conflict soon ended. Scott had a cardiac problem. He was, however, sanguine. He told Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood columnist with whom he had developed a relationship, that the doctor had said that the heart was the only organ that could regenerate itself and that it would go on until the race was run. His heart had run its race and he died at the early age of forty-four. Zelda died some years later. It was a terrible death. She was burnt in a fire that engulfed the institution where she was being treated.

In the end, the question that the Fitzgeralds grappled with – does a husband have a right to his wife’s life? – found its own answer. It is not the material but how the material is used, how it is dealt with, that matters. Between the epigraph of The Great Gatsby (a poem written by Scott himself and credited to a fictitious poet) and the beautifully poignant ending is the tragedy of a man who pursues the dream of a woman.

Scott speaks of the futility of the dream, of the “orgiastic future” which keeps receding year by year. Scott’s dream was to become one of America’s great writers. He didn’t get much time. He died leaving behind just five novels and one incomplete one. Immediately before and after his death, his reputation as a writer sagged.

Today, The Great Gatsby is still alive, still read, still loved and admired. It is a cult book, a classic, one of the contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, something America is constantly looking for. Scott was bitter about having to write short stories to make quick money, bitter about the kind of work he did in Hollywood – he called himself a literary hack. But, perhaps, unlike Gatsby, his dream was waiting for him to catch up with decades after his death.