Somehow it amuses me to imagine all the wonderful books from the past that, if they had happened to arrive over the transom of a UK publisher in the last several years, would have either been ignored, rejected, or, perhaps worse, butchered and hacked at to make their contours fit some perceived quick-profit trend.
Robert Pirsig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, or its sequel, LILA, with that blend of philosophy and narrative that millions of readers enjoyed so much…I can hear the modern editors’ screams now as they open the package or “file” containing such work.
And then there are the literary mavericks of yesteryear, like the Scottish Highland novelist, Neil Gunn, who wrote 10 or so social realist novels which kept the editors and critics very happy…until he unfortunately took receipt from a friend of a copy of ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY by Eugen Herrigel. This injection of Eastern philosophy influenced Gunn so much that his next 10 novels were NOT so liked by the 1950s editors and critics, or perhaps even by the majority of the public who had loved his first 10 novels…
Much like Thomas Hardy after the public reception of his final novel, JUDE THE OBSCURE, Gunn reacted by declaring he would never publish another novel, and, like Hardy, he kept to his word, putting out only one more book, when he was 65, THE ATOM OF DELIGHT, describing it as his "spiritual autobiography".
It is so easy to see how the opportunities of epublishing, the possibility contained within it to establish direct contact with whatever minority (perhaps a very substantial minority) of readers who would absolutely love these more distinctively flavoured works, could have rescued and sustained Gunn, or even Hardy, rather than have them abjure the publishing or writing of fiction altogether.
Also rescued by epublishing, if we could only devise a way to go back in time and snatch him from the limits of his circumstance, would be the great New Orleans novelist, John Kennedy Toole.
Toole finished his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, at age 24, only to embark on 8 years of heartbreak (including the protracted, teasing correspondence with CATCH 22’s powerful New York uber-editor Robert Gottlieb) during which he tried again and again to have his novel published, even to the extent of embarking on revisions he did not believe in, only to have them rejected also…until in despair and humiliation he committed suicide aged 32.
Was that novel suppressed and unpublished because of a lack of quality or a paucity of readers who would later love it? Or for the lack of it “really being about anything” which the great and powerful New York editor Bob Gottlieb asserted?
No, history proves that was not the truth. 11 years after Toole’s death, his mother took the book to famous author, Walker Percy, who very very reluctantly took a look at the faded carbon copy she presented…until he realised upon reading that it was a masterpiece and campaigned for its publication in 1980, only to see the book go on to receive the Pullitzer Prize for Literature in 1981, and be loved by millions of readers around the world ever since...
Epublishing might literally have saved John Kennedy Toole’s life.
It’s impossible for me to think of Toole without Mikhail Bulgakov coming to mind.
Perhaps Bulgakov is Toole’s Russian anarchic counterpart.
Mikhail Bulgakov's THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was not published until Bulgakov’s wife got it into print 27 years after the author’s death.
In Bulgakov’s case the suppression of his great novel drove him so far from the path of self-preservation that, during the period where dozens of Soviet writers in Stalinist Russia were being murdered for their writings (as documented in THE TERRIBLE NEWS) Bulgakov wrote to the government in complaint at his work’s suppression! Resulting, bizarrely, in a return personal phone call from Stalin three weeks later, and Stalin’s offer to Bulgakov of work in the theatre, but not of his novel’s publication.
How important was it to Bulgakov that his novel, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, be published?
He was still working on it when, terminally ill, he had to retire to bed permanently. He kept working on it, dictating corrections to his wife, after he had gone blind. He worked on the book right up to his death aged 48, the dream of that book alive in his eyes perhaps as he took his last departing blind blink.
Had he despaired though, like Toole, at not seeing his novel published through eight years of work on it?
Oh yes. Once, he set the book on fire, burned it, to be done with it.
Only to later rewrite the novel from memory, from his subconscious, from his soul, entering the line into the book, “manuscripts don’t burn”.
And yet, after he died, it still took his wife 27 years to get the book published in Moscow.
Inhuman lengths of time, and inhuman suffering really, lying behind some of our world’s greatest novels. And both books containing scenes of great comedy!
Lastly, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa should not be forgotten here.
Lampedusa was reading the rejection letters from the leading 1950s Italian publishers for his novel, THE LEOPARD, while on his deathbed.
“Too old-fashioned,” an editor wrote to the dying Lampedusa.
“This novel is not publishable,” said another.
Wonderful last words to read for Lampedusa, about the only novel he ever wrote.
But were the editors right this time?
No, Lampedusa’s novel, THE LEOPARD, published posthumously in 1958, became the top-selling novel in Italian history, never out of print since its publication, and also regarded artistically as one of the greatest ever Italian novels.
It is a huge thing then, not just a convenience for authors who have been abused on a lesser scale than Toole and Bulgakov and Lampedusa…an enormous thing, a privilege for us, to be writing now when the epublishing door is opening a way to readers that for long and long was a completely lockable and locked door to many.
There are still threats on the horizon, those that would love to censor the internet or literature itself and return things to a deadly status quo…but again, that makes our job even clearer, the job that Toole and Bulgakov struggled so hard and bravely to fulfil…to do honest, quality work that we love and believe in…and to seek ways to pass it on to readers, by whatever method…always trying to keep open that sacred window of transmission, whatever and wherever it may be…our way then of fending off that next Dark Age that we surely sometimes sense could come…whether it’s a Dark Age of censorship…suppression of work…proscription of certain books or voices…control of content…or whether it’s just the gradual succumbing to a general and longstanding process now of dumbing down and homogenization…
We’ve been handed the baton by gentle saints and brave giants who’ve gone before, to fight against these petty evils, word by word…book by book…and…hehheh…like Toole and Bulgakov and Lampedusa also knew right to their dying bones…it’s the best fun in the world too, isn’t it?