The quality of a literary work often has nothing to do with how often it is rejected by editors or how many copies it sells. This thought consoles me in my own pursuit of fame and fortune, especially fortune in these days of troubled finances. But for a writer one follows the other. Or vice versa. To illustrate my point I offer you four examples from the annals of recent and remote literary history.
John Kennedy Toole began working on a novel while in military service. After he was discharged he finished it at his parents’ home, and eventually sent it to the publishing house of Simon and Shuster. The novel made it all the way to the desk of the senior editor, but he expressed misgivings due to various flaws that he pointed out to Toole in a letter requesting revision. Negotiations followed but the differences could not be resolved. Toole put the novel aside, discouraged and despondent. This rejection helped tip him over the edge into depression which eventually led to his suicide. He stuck one end of a garden hose into the exhaust pipe of his car and the other end into the car window and died through inhaling the fumes. Two years later his mother found the manuscript of his novel in his room and began to send it around to publishers, feeling that if the novel were successful it would vindicate her son. It was rejected by one publisher after another. Finally she sent it to the acclaimed National Book Award winning novelist Walker Percy, who read it and loved it. After three more years he managed to get it published by a small university press. The next year, in 1981, the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It has now sold well over a million copies and is considered a comic literary masterpiece.
Herman Melville achieved early fame for his first three novels, though the income was not enough to support himself and his family. He moved to a farm in Massachusetts where he divided his time between managing the farm and writing what would later be considered his masterpiece, “Moby Dick”. This and his other later works were not well received, however. His finances waned, and he suffered from family problems, alcoholism, and depression. By the time he died at age 72 he was almost unknown as a writer. The initial 3,000 copies of “Moby Dick” did not even sell out in his lifetime. Now he is celebrated as one of the greatest American writers, and “Moby Dick” is thought of by many as one of the greatest novels ever written.
From the past we move ahead into the present. The Pulitzer Prizes for 2013 were recently announced, and the winner in the history category is a work called “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam” by Fredrik Logevall. It is just the sort of history book I love: I haven’t read it yet but it looks to be a fascinating study of the buildup to American involvement in the Vietnam War, beginning in 1919 at the Versailles Peace Conference and concluding in 1959 with the deaths of the first American soldiers killed in the conflict. I recently read an article on another site that listed the sales of the Pulitzer Prize winners before the awards were announced. You know how many copies this book sold before it won the award? Forty (40) copies total.
And we conclude with a story that many people now know, but it is a marvelous tale of obscurity to success that deserves retelling. I can identify with it because I am living now as a single parent responsible for three of my sons, carving out time to write whenever I can. This single mother, considering herself a failure, deeply depressed, living on welfare, nevertheless persevered in working on her first novel wherever she could, often in cafes, until it was finished. Then she sent it out and it was rejected by a dozen publishers before being accepted for an insignificant advance. Even after the book was accepted she was urged to get a day job, being told that she would never be able to make a living solely as a writer. This woman was J. K. Rowling, and that book was “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. The Harry Potter books have now sold over 400 million copies, and Rowling is one of the richest women in England. And she continues to write.
I think of stories like this whenever I check my sales figures and see no progress, or whenever I wonder if I am the only one on this earth that thinks my books have any merit. I don’t really want to be a celebrity, but in order for my books to sell well a certain notoriety goes with the turf. I long for my fortunes to change and for the money to flood in, so that I don’t have to balance my children’s every request with a perusal of the available finances. But I know in my heart that my literary output is the best work I can do. I have no control over whether anyone else ever agrees or not. Such is life in the creative arts.
I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words. I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible. If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories. Thanks!