#2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces is a Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy considered by many to be the funniest goddamn book ever written. There have been attempts to make it into a film for decades, with the project passing from John Belushi, to John Candy, to Chris Farley, to Will Ferrell (the latest attempt has Zach Galifianakis rumored to star, and looking at that list, it makes us worry for his life).
But the story behind how A Confederacy of Dunces got published is almost as insane as the story itself (almost). It's a shining example of how, through hard work and unyielding perseverance, anyone can make their lifelong dreams come true.
A heartwarming tale of soul-crushing rejection.
Wait, no. It's actually sort of the exact opposite of that.
In contrast to the other entries on this list, when young struggling writer John Kennedy Toole shipped his precious manuscript off to Simon & Schuster, it immediately garnered the attention of the senior editor. That senior editor was Robert Gottlieb, and while he saw the novel's potential, he also thought it wasn't quite where it needed to be. So he embarked on a string of successive requests for revisions, which Toole readily complied with because, hey, if a big-time publisher shows interest in your manuscript, you damn well do as he says. But Gottlieb eventually lost interest in the book, writing:
"With all its wonderfulness ... [the book] does not have a reason. It isn't really about anything. And that's something no one can do anything about."
"Just imagine if it were a TV show. Who would watch a TV show about nothing?"
Again, it's feedback that in retrospect probably looks silly (starting from around the time it won the Pulitzer), but the point is, Simon & Schuster didn't want A Confederacy of Dunces, and nobody else did, either.
Five years later, the author killed himself.
And thus, Toole's ingenious, future prize-winning tragicomedy that wasn't about anything was relegated to a dusty dresser drawer in his mom's house. Toole's mother then set out on a seven-year mission to get her son's work published and prove to the world that he was the genius she believed him to be. When her submissions to publishers (pretty much all of them, with the exception of Simon & Schuster) resulted in rejection, she set her sights on esteemed author Walker Percy and (quite literally) stalked the man until he agreed to read the manuscript. Percy later admitted that he'd hoped that it was so bad that he could discard it after reading a couple of pages, but he found quite the opposite to be true -- after finishing the manuscript, he penned a letter to Toole's mother filled with basically every synonym for "extraordinary."
"I'd go on, but my carpal tunnel is flaring up, so I've enclosed a grad student to pick up where I left off."
Walker became the biggest proponent for getting the novel published, and he succeeded -- 11 freaking years after Toole's suicide. The world pretty much agreed that the book was fucking fabulous and tossed Toole the posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction as a consolation prize. Yay.
#1. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen
The little book of inspirational stories Chicken Soup for the Soul launched a ubiquitous brand -- the title has not only become one of the world's best-known phrases, but also spawned an entire series of over 200 books ranging from Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul, to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, to Chicken Soup for the Aspiring Meth Addict's Soul, with total worldwide sales of half a billion freaking copies.
Statistically, 2 out of every 3 written words are in a Chicken Soup book.
And what's not to like? They're thin little feel-good books that anyone can buy for their sister or grandma. That shit is like printing free money. Right?
The duo behind the book, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, shopped it around to over 140 publishers, and not a single one of them wanted anything to do with it. According to Canfield:
"They all said it was a stupid title, that nobody bought collections of short stories, that there was no edge -- no sex, no violence. Why would anyone read it?"
"The tits, man! Where are the tits?"
At one point, Hansen went so far as to collect preorders from people saying that they would buy the books. He'd walk into pitch meetings with a briefcase full of little coupons signed by guaranteed customers -- 20,000 of them -- and publishers still said no. Hey, do you know another industry in which you can present a distributor with tens of thousands of guaranteed sales and still get turned down? You probably thought we were setting up a joke there, but it's a legitimate question: Seriously, if you know, tell us.
In the end, the fate of the book came down to finding a publisher who was desperate enough. That publisher was Health Communications, a small company specializing in recovery books on subjects like alcoholism and drug addiction, and they were seriously hurting financially, because apparently no one wants to read about that stuff. When they saw Chicken Soup for the Soul, they immediately loved it and snapped it right up for a hefty advance of zero dollars. Then they watched as approximately every English-speaking person on Earth bought a copy.
"No, it's cool, we don't mind being murdered by the thousands. As long as you feel a little bit better about yourself."
And thus Health Communications was pulled back from the brink of bankruptcy, Canfield and Hansen became bajillionaires, and no one's grandmother ever had to go hurting for reading material ever again. The end.
For more fortunes found in the trash, check out 5 Pieces of Junk That Turned Out to be Invaluable Artifacts and 13 Things That Changed the World (by Getting Thrown Away).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Ballsiest Living Cheater (Who Never Broke a Rule).
And stop by LinkSTORM to see why Daniel's book started out as a Teddy Roosevelt/Abraham Lincoln fanfic.
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