When F Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 the minister presiding at his funeral described him as a ‘no good drunken bum.’ This robust approach to the art of the graveside eulogy didn’t catch on – but perhaps the most surprising thing it shows is that, though he’s now lauded as a literary great, Fitzgerald was thought of as being no great shakes at the time of his death.
This is the man who gave us The Great Gatsby – revered Jazz Age classic in which young women waft elegantly through glittering soirées ‘like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’
Gatsby wasn’t considered a classic at the time of its publication though, and its esteemed author died in poverty.
He’s not alone. Herman Melville, there’s another. Moby Dick is such a key text in American literature nowadays that it could be considered one of the twin pillars of the early American novel, alongside Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But when it was published it was thought confused and over-long. Its cause wasn’t helped by poor editing of the first edition which mixed up some passages and left others out entirely. Melville died in obscurity.
Imagine a world without him, no Ahab, no whale, we’d even have to get our coffee somewhere else – Starbuck is the first mate of the Pequod, Ahab’s Nantucket Whaleship.
And then of course we have A Confederacy of Dunces – now considered a modern classic it wasn’t even published in the lifetime of its author John Kennedy Toole.
Having written his comic masterpiece about the adventures of a larger than life grotesque in New Orleans he tried without success to get his work published. But it was rejected by various publishers who thought it ‘pointless’. Dejected by his treatment by the hands of an uncaring world Toole took his own life at the age of 31.
His novel would have remained in his bottom drawer if it hadn’t been for the hard work of his old mother who touted the manuscript relentlessly round publishers until it eventually found a home – and the rest is history. Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction.
So, don’t despair is the message to writers I suppose. If your literary gem doesn’t capture the public’s imagination at first then perhaps it may do later. Even if that rise to prominence is not something that you, the author, are around to enjoy. And the message to readers I guess is this – if you find a novel that isn’t on the best seller lists or the review pages of national newspapers, and think it brilliant, that’s maybe because the rest of us just haven’t caught up with you yet!
And hey – if you want to do some discovering of little known novels, why not start with mine Song of the Sea God.