A Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books. In this picaresque novel, John Kennedy Toole creates a vivid and hilarious world, the French Quarter of the 1960s, and populates it with unforgettable characters and fantastic scenes. His protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, perhaps the first slacker in American literature. He disdains work and the modern world, longing for the Middle Ages when his genius would be appreciated.
I read A Confederacy of Dunces in college and loved it from the very first pages. It’s a broad comedy, expertly told by someone who clearly knows every inch of his beloved New Orleans. Moreover, Toole was familiar with the slang and patois of the city’s residents. He portrays them as corrupt, flawed, confused – but always well-meaning, in their own way.
In the book, Ignatius J. Reilly is forced to leave his cocoon of Big Chief tablets and Dr. Nut, encountering the real world with various levels of misadventure. He stumbles from farce to farce, never really changing, as his overbearing mother grows weary of his inability to lead a normal life.
The book is wrapped up with a deus ex machina, like another great book from the 1960s, Catch-22. Both Toole and Joseph Heller created characters (Reilly, Yossarian) that were too big to be contained in a mere novel and essentially leap off the stage at the end.
After enjoying such a fantastic novel, how could you not want to recreate that experience? It inspired me to become a writer. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of the first books that I read where I thought to myself, “I want to do that.” I wanted to create a vivid dream, a comic romp, like Toole had done.
The title of the book comes appropriately enough from the satirist Jonathan Swift:
When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
For Toole and his book, it was not that dunces were in league against him. Instead, the dunces of the day failed to recognize his genius, much like Ignatius J. Reilly.
He wrote a brilliant book. But could never get it published.
A Confederacy of Dunces was memorably rejected by Simon and Schuster, with the note that the book:
isn’t really about anything.
Despairing of ever getting his book published, Toole committed suicide in 1969, at the age of 31.
Fortunately for readers everywhere, his mother found a smeared carbon copy of Confederacy. An overbearing mother, just like Reilly’s, she succeeded in getting the book published after forcing it on the novelist Walker Percy.
As I wrote recently for the Pink Line Project, Toole was unfortunate to live in the age of gatekeepers. The only way he could find an audience for his book was to run the gauntlet of editors and agents in New York. When he failed, his book was doomed – it would never appear in print. No one would ever read it. The ambition of his life was thwarted.
But what if Toole had another option? What if he could’ve ignored the publishers that rejected his book and published it himself?
If he were alive today, he could’ve published his book for free using Lulu or Amazon’s CreateSpace. His book would be in print, almost from the moment he finished writing it. Readers could order it online. Kindle owners could download the book instantly, text going directly from writer to reader, with no gatekeepers in between.
Would this have saved Toole? Perhaps reaching an audience, no matter how small, would have alleviated his despair. He felt powerless – he wrote a book, he needed someone to publish it and no one would. But if he had been able to take control of his own destiny, through self-publishing, he would’ve known that his book wouldn’t be lost. It would be read.
Maybe Toole would be alive today, in New Orleans, of course, a well-known comic author, someone who gave readings and taught at LSU. A French Quarter character, stepping out of the pages of A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s interesting to speculate what books he would’ve written after his masterpiece. Maybe, like Joseph Heller, he would’ve been remembered for his first book, not the lesser ones he wrote later. But he could’ve kept on writing, knowing that his work could find an audience.
Several decades in the French Quarter certainly would’ve provided him plenty of material to work with. Imagine, his dark essay on the legacy of Katrina might be online in the Atlantic. There might be an iPhone app devoted to his life and books. An illustrated and annotated version of A Confederacy of Dunces might be used in ads for the iPad. You could be downloading his short stories to the Kindle. Stories from the 70s and 80s.
Would self-publishing have saved John Kennedy Toole? All the options available to writers today would’ve provided an outlet for Toole’s boundless creativity. It would have allowed him to reach an audience. Self-publishing would’ve allowed him to bypass the editors that rejected his work.
I believe that the alternatives available now would have led Toole out of his dark wood of despair and into a more hopeful and successful future.