I have this idea of writers in the first half of the 20th century: completing their art, packaging a copy carefully, sending it off through the mail to a publishing house (or two or ten), and waiting to be discovered by an editor (or their assistant). By the 1960s, however, publishing had become an industry (small presses aside), where literary agents became the buffer between artists and the increasingly profit-searching publishing companies who drew a stern line between "publishable" and "marketable". How many amazing pieces of literature have been lost because they weren't deemed marketable? About as many pieces of trash published yearly because they will make money.
By 1964, the tide had definitely started taking that sharp turn from creative to commercial. One young writer had spent the previous year on a U.S. military base in Puerto Rico with a lot of time on his hands and a new typewriter. He believed in his novel so much, he only sent it to one publisher. An editor at that publishing house was impressed, amazed and very encouraging…at first. But under closer examination, he believed the novel had problems. It was a treasure of rich characters, but the plot was loose, as meandering as the Mississippi River as it flows past the French Quarter. The editor wanted to know the point of the novel, but the author conceded with no reservations: it wasn't about anything. Just life, just people, just a sense of place and time.
Ultimately, that wasn't enough for the editor; the novel was not published; and five years later, the author was found dead on the Gulf Coast, a hose tied from the tailpipe leading back into the car.
The fact that this eventually had a happy ending could never erase the tragedy of any artist whose work is rejected and they feel it is a personal sign from the gods. It's a modern-day miracle the author's mother found the manuscript ten years later and relentlessly bothered anyone and everyone who could recognize her son's talent. That she got the attention of an established Southern author was borne of luck and determination along the journey to the book's publication and subsequent awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.
As much as the world now celebrates A Confederacy of Dunces and its author, John Kennedy Toole, underneath remains a dark, cautionary tale about not only the harsh realities of making the transition from art to product, but also the sometimes (often) fragile states of the artists drowning in its wake. Artists are not only now required to be brilliant and talented, but they must also have amazing traits in self-marketing and business acumen, always be agreeble to alter their work to "appeal" to a wider audience. I suspect there are many brilliant novels sitting in drawers and boxes the world over, created by artists too sensitive, too hapless, not savvy enough to navigate the rivers of commercial art.
Or perhaps they don't want to. Perhaps the drive to create, as ceaseless as it can be, is strong enough that no one ever has to see the result. Some say writing is the purging of demons; once they have been purged, nothing more need be done with the project. If other people enjoy it - fine. If it can make money - all the better.
1964 drew a curtain on what was then known as the "literary establishment", probably the last era where the "writing life" was considered an admirable profession not only supported by a glamorous social network but also attached with some type of superior cachet. By the 1980s, hip lit was often nothing more than brief, staccato observation and blunt prose - worlds away from Toole's filigree of personality and description. It's tempting to believe had Toole lived today, he would have simply self-published on Amazon.com. The world seems to have curiously reversed itself, where anyone can first publish, but they immediately still have to have gifts of promotion, networking and relentless self-esteem to get an audience. Ironically, Toole was just the sort of person who would have liked nothing better than to spend his nights creating and his days marketing - he would have been a 21st century literary superstar.