The reluctant agent

Since paperbacks are so horrendously expensive in NZ, I tend to stick to what I know I’ll like and save the ‘brave’ purchases until I have gift vouchers to spend. So I love it when someone trusts you enough to lend you their books. Often you’ll find yourself delving headfirst into territory you’d never usually consider if you were buying the book yourself and spending your hard-earned cash.

One such book I’m reading at the moment came to me via a friend at my Ceroc class whose tastes in reading matter are vastly different from mine. I’ve lent him Anne Rice’s Memloch The Devil so hopeful that will broaden his horizons a bit – in a good way, I hope! And he’s also doing me the great favor of reading my latest wip – I always like to get a man’s perspective on my writing… someone other than my husband’s, since he kinda has to say nice things or he gets to sleep on the couch! Anyway, this particular book my friend lent me is ‘A Confederacy Of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole. It had a long road to publication which is both tragic and a testimony to belief and persistence and perhaps most importantly of all, politeness.

Here’s the back cover blurb: “Meet Ignatius J. Reilly: flatulent, eloquent and pretty much unemployable…The ordinary folk of New Orleans seem to think he is unhinged as well. Ignatius ignores them as he heaves his vast bulk through the city’s fleshpots in a noble crusade against vice, modernity and ignorance. But his momma has a nasty surprise in store for him. Ignatius must get a job. Undaunted, he uses his new-found employment to further his mission – and now he has a pirate costume and a hot-dog cart to do it with…”

I’m sure we’ve all bought at least one of those ‘literary’ masterpieces that reviewers have raved over, only to stick the book unfinished at the back of the bookshelf and bemoan the waste of $24. This one seems to have transcended that particular problem. The front cover quote from Rolling Stone states: “Every reviewer has loved it. For once, everyone is right.” Well that just says it all.

Anyway, regardless of what I personally think of the book, the point of this post is how this particular novel came to be published. Its author, Mr Toole had a master’s degree in English from Colombia University and taught at Hunter College and the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He wrote this book in the early sixties and was so depressed by his failure to get it published, he committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty two. A tragedy in every way, shape and form. Here’s the story of the persistent mother and the reluctant agent who helped bring Mr Toole’s story to light.

Mr Walker Percy was teaching at Loyola in 1976 when he began to be hassled by telephone calls from an unknown woman. To quote Mr Percy, “What she proposed was preposterous. It was not that she had written a couple of chapters of a novel and wanted to get into my class. It was that her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it. Why would I want to do that? I asked her. Because it’s a great novel, she said.”

Yeah, yeah. Not an auspicious beginning, huh? Telling an agent or editor ‘it’s a great novel’ wouldn’t get us anywhere these days! Mr Percy freely admits in his foreword he’d become very good at getting out of things he didn’t want to do. “And if there was ever something I didn’t want to do, this was surely it: to deal with the mother of a dead novelist and, worst of all, to have to read a manuscript that she said was great, and that, as it turned out, was a badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon.” Unfortunately for the polite Mr Percy, the lady was persistant and eventually both she and her son’s hefty manuscript were duly admitted to his office.

As with most agents and editors we submit to these days, usually the first paragraph is enough to tell them how bad -or good! – a writer is. Mr Percy’s only hope now was that he could read a couple of pages and they would be bad enough he could send this woman away in good conscience. His real fear was the beginning of the ms might be just good enough he’d have to keep on reading. His worst fears were realized.

“In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enought 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.” He then writes of gaping, grinning, laughing out loud, shaking his head in wonderment. And I know exactly what he means.

So without Mr Toole’s mother’s unfailing belief her son had written a great book and her persistence in insisting on an appointment with Mr Percy, without Mr Percy’s inherent politeness in actually taking the time to bother to read it despite his misgivings and his belief it was indeed a great book, this “garganuatan tumultuous human tragicomedy” would not have been published and made available to a world of readers. And in 1981, A Confederacy Of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Have faith, believe in yourself and be persistent. Great writing will always win out… eventually.


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