Want to know how writers become famous?

John Kennedy Toole, who write Confederacy of Dunces.
John Kennedy Toole, who write Confederacy of Dunces.

MOST WRITERS have a dream of becoming famous.

Maybe rich.

But mostly famous.

One is generally responsible for the other.

I have researched the predicament and have discovered one great secret.

I know how readers can become famous.

At least, I know how a few of them did.

The genius of their words were overlooked.

Their books were generally ignored.

They suffered in obscurity.

Than it happened.

Here came fame.

Here came the riches.

Take Herman Melville, for example.

He wrote a rambling novel about a whaling ship, a renegade whale, and a madman named Ahab.

Melville’s work was routinely trashed by reviewers.

One wrote: “This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The style of this tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”

Nobody rushed to read it.

Nobody bothered to buy it.

In Melville’s lifetime, Moby Dick sold a scant five hundred copies.

Then something remarkable happened, and Moby Dick has been hailed as one of the world’s literary masterpieces.

What happened?

Melville died.

Emily Dickinson was a strange lady, a curiosity of literature.

She was a recluse, always dressed in white, a specter, a prisoner inside of her own home.

She wrote relentlessly, but her poetry broke all of the rules.

They contained short lines.

The punctuation was unconventional.

And so was her capitalization.

Very few of her poems even had titles.

They were simply random and passionate thoughts, pulled from deep within her troubled soul.

Her notebooks were filled with verse..

She published eight hundred of them in small, handmade booklets, but she never tried to sell them or even show them to anyone. They were her private collection, and she kept them private. A few poems were published in newspapers, but they were almost always printed anonymously.

Emily was an unknown and condemned to remain that way.

Then something remarkable happened.

Emily Dickinson became famous, and her poetry is considered to be among the finest in the English language. Her work is on virtually every high school reading list.

What happened?

She died.

Critics had read Kate Chopin’s stories about the inner lives of daring and sensitive women, and they thought she had a great deal of promise.

Then she produced her first novel.

It was called The Awakening, and the critics were outraged.

As one wrote, “One cannot refrain from regret that so beautiful a style and so much refinement of taste have been spent by Miss Chopin on an essentially vulgar story.”

The novel faded away quickly.

Some called it morbid.

Others simply described it as disagreeable.

It faded into oblivion.

It wasn’t long until The Awakening was out of print.

Then something remarkable happened.

Kate Chopin became famous, recognized as one of America’s first and finest feminine novelists.

The Awakening became one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed novels.

What happened?

Kate Chopin died.

John Kennedy Toole wrote his first novel, The Neon Bible, at age sixteen.

It was rejected.

It was too adolescent, the literary world said.

Come back when you have something better for us to produce.

Toole came back with Confederacy of Dunces.

He tied to sell the manuscript to Simon & Schuster, but the editor told him his comic novel was essentially pointless.

Toole re-wrote the novel, revised it, and tried to sell it again.

No one wanted it.

He fell into a state of depression.

He became paranoid.

He considered each rejection a personal criticism of him and his talent, provided he had any.

Then something remarkable happened.

Confederacy of Dunces was published and received the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

What happened?

Toole killed himself.

So I know how to sell a lot or books.

I know how to find fame in the writing game.

But I don’t guess I’ll be famous any time soon.

I don’t feel like dying today.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Secrets of the Dead.


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