As I mentioned in my last blog post, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969), committed suicide at thirty-one. His demise can be credited to one rejection from a major publisher.
Toole’s rejection—given by Simon & Schuster’s senior editor, Robert Gottlieb—went like this:
… with all its wonderfulnesses, the book—even better plotted (and still better plotable)—does not have a reason; it’s a brilliant exercise in invention, but unlike CATCH  and MOTHER KISSES and V and the others, it isn’t really about anything. And that’s something no one can do anything about.
One would think with the word “wonderfulnesses” as a descriptor, Toole would have no problem finding a publisher. However, his award-winning novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was not published until after his death.
His mother, Thelma Toole, grieved for two years after his suicide and then busied herself finding a publisher. Over a period of five years, she sent it to seven publishers. All rejected the manuscript.
Then in 1978, nine years later, she pursued author Walker Percy until he surrendered to her numerous phone calls, letters, and final plea. She pushed her way into his office and demanded he read the manuscript. He expected it to be bad. Instead, he commented:
In this case, I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity; surely it was not possible that it was so good.
Though the road to publication took another three years, A Confederacy of Dunces attracted literary interest and, in 1981, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Toole’s novel sold over 1.5 million copies and has been translated into 18 languages.
The Power Of One
It took only one—one, someone—who admired Toole’s novel for it to find success.
If the story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.
And here I make a rule—
a great and interesting story is about everyone
or it will not last. —John Steinbeck (1902-1968) East of Eden
Gottlieb’s rejection of Toole’s novel was based on his claim that the story, “isn’t really about anything.” If we follow Steinbeck’s advice, then we make our stories about everyone. Perhaps, then we find our one.
Is This Wrong?
Examine some of today’s best sellers. Though they are not necessarily considered well-written in the literary sense, they have appeal.
- Twilight by Stephanie Myers: The appeal—Teenagers looking for love in all the wrong places, including Vampires and Werewolves. What teen doesn’t look for love? And the more forbidden, the more appealing.
- Fifty Shades by EL James: The appeal—Women’s unrealized sexual fantasies, or sexual fantasies they never even imagined, played out on the pages of a book all safe and private.
- Divergent by Veronica Roth: The appeal—Being different, not fitting into an accepted norm.
- Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: The all-time appeal—Fighting against injustice.
Steinbeck’s great literary masterpieces found audiences among the working class and echoed opposition to such civil injustices as racism, loneliness, and treatment of the mentally ill. This in turn, brought to the forefront an individual’s battle for personal independence.
This may not be everyone, but it is many.
In utter loneliness, a writer tries to explain the inexplainable.
And sometimes if he is very fortunate and if the time is right,
a very little of what he is trying to do
– John Steinbeck, Journals of a Novel: The East of Eden Letter