John Kennedy Toole wrote a brilliantly funny novel about New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces, but every publishing house turned it down until, in despair, he committed suicide at the age of 31. His mother sent a smudged carbon copy to the great southern novelist Walker Percy, who arranged for its publication in 1981. The novel eventually won the Pulitzer Prize.
In an indictment of the American publishing industry, Percy lamented in the book's introductionthat there would be no more novels from John Kennedy Toole.
The pendulum has now swung the other way. Anybody can be self-published online. As reported today in Arts & Life, a thriller writer named John Locke has sold his one-millionth book on Kindle. The fictional hero of his series of seven books is Donovan Creed, "an ex-CIA assassin and freelance hitman". Hardly the stuff of deathless literature.
The old system of acquiring an agent and finding a publisher certainly sifted out literary chaff. The book publisher also brought a writer together with his editor. Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe freely acknowledged their huge debt to the legendary editor Max Perkins. The new internet writers don't have editors.
E-books are cheap. John Locke's thrillers are sold for 99 cents (Dh3.63). Ignatius Reilly, Toole's wonderfully earthy and acerbic protagonist, would have had something very cutting to say about that.