The New Tooles: E-publishing and Suicide
edited: Thursday, November 08, 2001
By J. Knight
Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2001
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Would e-publishing have saved the life of (posthumous) Pulitzer winner John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide over the failure of his novel to attract a publisher?
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The New Tooles:
Epublishing and Suicide
By J. Knight
You may have heard of the writer John Kennedy Toole. He wrote two novels, one of which, A Confederacy of Dunces, won a Pulitzer Prize and is said to be in the hands of Steven Soderbergh for a possible film version. The other, his first novel, The Neon Bible, was made into a movie in 1995.
Toole has become something of a legend in writing circles because of the tragic nature of his death. Despairing of finding a publisher for A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide in 1969. His mother persevered in promoting a smudgy carbon copy of the manuscript. It was published in 1980 by Louisiana State University Press and won the Pulitzer the following year.
The full story, of course, is more richly textured than the literary fable. He fought other demons besides rejection: a domineering mother, discomfort with his alleged homosexuality, money troubles. And it isn't as if A Confederacy of Dunces was universally rejected. In truth, Toole appears to have submitted it to only one publisher, Simon and Schuster, where the novel attracted the attention of noted editor Robert Gottlieb who championed the book but wanted some editorial changes. Toole didn't care to make to make those changes and withdrew the manuscript.
One can look back upon the early and mid-sixties (Toole completed A Confederacy of Dunces in 1963) with a great deal of nostalgia. It's doubtful that Toole could even place his manuscript under the nose of an editor at today's Simon and Schuster without literary representation. Who, today, would give more than a passing glance at a smeary carbon copy before dropping it unread into the return envelope? As recently as earlier this year, the aspiring writer had as little chance of breaking into the book business as your average air guitarist has of becoming a rock star.
Rock stars, in fact, stood a better chance of publishing fiction than an unknown writer. Jimmy Buffett could get published, as could Britney Spears. Even blowing a major court case was a better wedge into publishing than merely writing a good story, if Marcia Clark may be brought into the discussion.
Then came ebooks.
I faced a Toolian depression when my novel Risen failed to engage a print publisher, not because it was a lousy book (on the contrary, editors had very kind words to say about the sample) but because I, a new writer, didn't have the name recognition it would take to march Risen off bookstore shelves in short order. The typical print book has about three weeks to attract a large audience before being yanked from the shelves and returned for credit.
Risen has since been picked up by Time Warner Books' ebook division, iPublish. In September it appeared in Palm Reader format and was three weeks on the Ten Bestsellers in Horror list at Palm Digital Media. Like the characters in Risen, I feel reborn.
I have to wonder: If epublishing had been around in 1969, would John Kennedy Toole have lived? Would he have been encouraged to persevere in his quest for print publication? Would he have found the feedback from reviewers and fans to be sufficient fuel to keep his hopes alive? Would we have another dozen or so books by this extremely talented writer to enjoy today?
It's no use to play "what if" about John Kennedy Toole, of course. What is important is that today's potential-Tooles have an avenue of expression that no previous generation has enjoyed. Ebooks. Epublishing. Print-on-demand.
Suddenly, it's a great time to be a writer.
J. Knight is the author of Risen, a supernatural thriller that can be sampled at http://www.atombrain.com.
© 2001 Jan Strnad