I like this piece by Oakland, California literary agent Andy Ross entitled “My Stern Lecture to a Client” for two reasons. First, it dispels the myth that once you sign with an agent it’s all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not, says Mr. Ross. It’s a still a crapshoot. Hedge your bets and remember his sage wisdom: Once the manuscript goes out to a publisher, hope for the best, but expect the worst. Shit happens. Life can fall apart in the blink of an eye. Fortunes can change for the stupidest reasons. Books get published every day by authors who’ve had a lobotomy and can’t spell their name correctly. Alternatively, books don’t get published every day even though they’re works of art that could electrify entire nations.
Then there’s the money, advances to authors for the publication of the physical and electronic book versions and the optioning of rights for movie purposes. How much will this be? asks the excited author to his or her agent. Who the hell knows? Can you predict the temperature in your city exactly 576 days from now to within a few degrees? As Mr. Ross says to clients about this issue, “I’m an agent, and I don’t have secret alchemical wisdom. I can’t turn lead into gold.”
Maybe he should read The Alchemist? Who knows. Not I, says I.
And there’s no better legend about this whole racket going on in the publishing worlds of New York and London (and Toronto, New Delhi, Sydney and Auckland to a lesser degree) than the story of John Kennedy Toole, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces and the inspiration behind my own short story, A Novel Idea.
Toole finished his now famous/infamous second novel in 1963. Upon his return to New Orleans from Puerto Rico, where he’d recently been discharged from the U.S. Army, Toole began editing his manuscript. Eventually, however, he gave up on finishing his pièce de résistance as he succumbed more and more to his mental illness. By 1969, Toole would be dead, a 31-year-old English professor who had driven out to the middle of nowhere, stuck a garden hose in his exhaust pipe, and fallen asleep in the driver’s side seat, never to wake up again.
An only child, Toole’s mother Thelma was devastated. It wasn’t until 1972, however, that Thelma Toole found a carbon copy of the final draft of her son’s book and began the excruciating process of trying to get it published. She failed the first time. And the second. And again and again, ad nauseam. For seven straight years she failed. Nobody would listen to her pleas until a college instructor in New Orleans named Walker Percy gave her the time of day. As he later put it:
…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.
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
In 1980, Louisiana State University published a limited print run (500 copies) of John Kennedy Toole’s now-beloved novel at Walker’s behest. A year later, it would become the third – and most recent – posthumous winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s since been published in 22 languages and is now in its 30th edition.
The lesson here is clear. You may have to kill yourself to get published. You may have to relinquish the idea that you’ll be able to enjoy any material success or emotional fulfillment in this lifetime for the sake of literary posterity. But if you have a dedicated mom who’s got time on her hands, you might just win the Pulitzer.
Hope for the best, expect the worst. Amen.