Lee Sandlin on “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read”

I stumbled across writer Lee Sandlin’s website (www.leesandlin.com) and was delighted to find, on his “Enthusiasms” page, a list titled, “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read.” Lee is one of the finest essayists working in America today. His remarkable piece on the mythology of World War Two, “Losing the War,” is included in the recent compilation, The New Kings of Nonfiction (and also available online on his website). I couldn’t resist writing him to express my interest in the list and to ask for a few words about the books. I figured he would get back to me eventually, but a couple of hours later, back came an email with the following comments.

· Armed With Madness, Mary Butts

A deliriously unstable version of an English country-house story, about summer guests at an estate who think they’ve found the Holy Grail–something like a Virginia Woolf novel spiralling frantically out of control and throwing off startling ideas and images in all directions.
[Editor’s note: Armed With Madness and a companion novel, Death of Felicity Taverner, have been reissued in a one-volume edition by McPherson & Company.]

· Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

A unique fantasy novel from the 1920s, light-years away from Tolkien and his imitators, about a stodgy provincial country infiltrated by a sinister fairyland.
[Lud-in-the-Mist is in print from Cold Spring Press, with a foreward by novelist Neil Gaiman.]

· Memoirs of a Midget, Walter de la Mare

De la Mare was a conservative British poet who’s fallen into unjust obscurity; this is his longest and best novel, which treats a fairytale premise with fantastic intensity –as though a Hans Christian Andersen story had been rewritten by Conrad.
[In print from Paul Dry Books.]

· The Asiatics, Frederic Prokosch

The first novel of a young American writer, published in the late 1920s, highly praised by the likes of Camus, Gide and Mann, about a hitchhiker travelling across Asia; hallucinatorily vivid, even though you suspect (and Prokosch later admitted) that the author had never actually set foot in Asia.
[The Asiatics is in print from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, with an introduction by Pico Iyer.]

· The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker

A slow, evocative, and beautiful novel by a forgotten American regionalist, published in the 1950s, about the lifelong friendship between two women in Montana.
[The Curlew’s Cry is in print, as are all of Walker’s books, from the University of Nebraska Press.]

· A Legacy, Sybille Bedford

A richly imagined and elegantly told autobiographical novel about the intertwined lives of three European families at the end of the 19th century, which slowly turns into an understated parable about what the legacy of European culture really means; the sequel, Jigsaw, about a young woman’s sexual awakening on the French Riviera in the 1920s, is just as good.
[In print, as are a number of Bedford’s books, in attractive editions from Counterpoint.]

· The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner

This series by a British writer, ostensibly for children, is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the author’s family history, told through a succession of small, emblematic, fervently re-imagined moments of daily life.
[Currently out of print in the U.S., but it’s available as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic from Amazon.co.uk.]

· The Dead of the House, Hannah Green

I’ve never read anything like this book. What appears at first to be a shapeless and garrulous memoir of suburban America in the middle of the 20th century gradually reveals itself to be a visionary prose poem about the way time and history are interfused in the American landscape.
[In print from Turtle Point Press. Of the book, the normally-subdued Publishers Weekly wrote, “Green is known for being a perfectionist in her writing, and this long-out-of-print work is absolute proof. The characterizations are flawless, the descriptions excellent and the overall effect sublime.”]

· Peace, Gene Wolfe

An old man recalls his life in small-town Illinois, and his memories open up into a weird carnival of dreams and reveries; the best book I know of about the surreal underside of the American heartland.
[In print, although in an utterly unappealing edition, from Orb Books.]

· The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

A garish, dark, exhilaratingly original take on 1990s sci-fi cyberpunk, by a writer who seems to have since disappeared without a trace.
[Out of print and selling for as little as two cents on Amazon.]

Many thanks, Lee!

John Banville on “the Simenons”, from the L. A. Weekly

Covers from a collection of paperback Simenons

Source: “The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon,” L. A. Weekly, 28 May 2008, http://www.laweekly.com/art+books/wls/the-escape-artist-john-banville-on-georges-simenon/18984/

A couple of weeks ago, the L. A. Weekly published a long piece by Irish novelist John Banville on the non-Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Although best known for the 70-plus detective novels he wrote featuring the unflappable Inspector Maigret, Simenon published a nearly-equal number of masterful psychological dramas. These romans durs, or “hard” novels, are, in Banville’s estimation, “his finest work.”

Banville admits that when he first read one of Simenon’s novels, “I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style.” Nine of these novels have been reissued as part of the excellent NYRB Classics series. The typical roman dur is fast, intense, and brief–rarely more than 120 pages. The protagonist–almost always a man who has led a quiet, conventional life–is jolted out of his routine by an act of violence, a momentary lapse of judgment, a flash of passion, or an instant of craven selfishness or greed. A Dutch G.P. murders his wife; a Parisian fonctionnaire finds a briefcase full of cash on a train. A Belgian cafe owner finds himself separated from his family as they flee the blitzkrieg. Or, as in the opening lines of The Accomplices, a wealthy dairy owner causes a school bus to crash, killing and maiming the children inside:

It was brutal, instantaneous. And yet he was neither surprised nor resentful, as if he had always been expecting it. He realized in a flash, as soon as the horn started screaming behind him, that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.

It was not an ordinary horn that was pursuing him with a kind of anger and terror, but a mournful, agonizing howl such as one hears in a port on a foggy night.

At the same time, he saw in his mirror the red and black bulk of a huge bus bearing down on him and the contracted face of a man with grizzled hair, and he realized that he was driving in the middle of the road.

It did not occur to him to free his hand which Edmonde continued to press between her thighs.

Here we have all the classic ingredients of a superb Simenon: a trick of fate, an already-guilty hero (his hand between his mistress’ thighs), and a sense “that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.” Banville writes that, “Henri Cartier-Bresson used to speak of the ‘decisive moment’ when reality is caught in its unguarded essence, and it is on such moments that Simenon builds his fictions.”

For years now, I’ve been picking up Simenons when I find them in cheap paperback editions–which has become harder and harder. It rarely takes more than a night or two to finish them, but each is a headlong plunge into the dark side of otherwise ordinary characters. Andre Gide thought Simenon possessed enormous talent but frittered it away on these melodramas. “Gide,” writes Banville, “felt that he had not achieved his full potential as an artist, which may be true: If he had tackled his obsessiveness and found a way of slowing himself down, he might have written the leisurely and long-fermented work that Gide apparently expected of him.” But as Banville rightly concludes, “[T]hat book would not have been a ‘Simenon’, and it is in the ‘Simenons’,surely, that Simenon displayed his prodigious and protean genius.”


Some ‘Simenons’ to get started with

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

In print from NYRB Classics. A self-satisfied middle manager suddenly discovers that his boss has driven the company into bankruptcy. And then ….

Monsieur Monde Vanishes

In print from NYRB Classics. One morning, Monsieur Monde, a comfortable Parisian business man, walks out of his house as his wife is sleeping … and vanishes. And then ….

The Venice Train

Still out of print. A man finds a suitcase full of money belonging to a mysterious stranger. And then ….

The Murderer

Still out of print. A Dutch G.P. plots and carries out the perfect murder of his aging wife and gets away with it. And then ….

The Reader Online on “the most underrated novel in English”

In 1969 critic Laurence Lerner called Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters “the most underrated novel in English.” And Henry James wrote of it, “The hours given to the novel’s perusal seem like actual hours spent.” On The Reader Online, contributor Josie Billington writes a wonderful appreciation of the book, suggesting that,

… the relative neglect of Wives and Daughters might best be explained by the very quality which, for an admirer such as Henry James, gave it a right to the status of ‘genius’; that’s to say its subtlety and the corresponding absence of the kind of decisive life-moment or revelatory event which might compel a reader of a novel by George Eliot or by Charles Dickens.

The full piece can be found at http://thereaderonline.co.uk/?p=242.

The Outmoded Authors Reading Challenge

Source: http://outmodedauthors.blogspot.com/2007/08/welcome-to-outmoded-authors-challenge.html

Imani, a “Jamaican lost in Canada”, and a bunch of other Blogspot bloggers have joined together to issue “a reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the “in” crowd”. “The idea behind this challenge”, states the site, “is to give some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side.”

Their Rules and Requirements are simple:

  • The challenge will last for six months and end on February 29th 2008.
  • During that time you may choose to read however many books by however many authors you like.
  • For reviews or any author-related information or musings you think would be interesting, please submit it to the blog as well as to your own, if you like.
  • With each post you add the relevant tags/labels such as the author’s name (“Dawn Powell”), whether it’s fiction or poetry, a review or a news item (“news”), perhaps a quote from a good essay you found on one of the writers you’d like to share (“essay”) and so on.

The list of outmoded authors is posted on the right side of the blog, linking to sites or pages with information about each. It includes such well-known, but certainly less-read, authors as Walter Scott, Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy — and such truly little-known and largely unread writers as Alfred Chester and the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda.

I encourage all fans of neglected books and authors to participate — as the site says, “Owning a blog isn’t required.”

2blowhards.com on Neglected Author Francis Iles

Source: Francis Iles, “Before the Fact”, from the 2blowhards.com blog.

Michael, one of the anonymous Blowhards, writes a long and thoughtful piece on the works of Francis Iles, who wrote several examples of the genre known as the “inverted mystery,” a forerunner of the psychological thriller in the 1930s, before disappearing from the publishing scene completely.

Iles is not utterly neglected, as his novel Malice Aforethought is in print again as a reissue, thanks to a 2005 BBC miniseries.

However, Michael lights upon another Iles work, Before the Fact, by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 film, “Suspicion”, for which it was the source. The basic story, as Michael describes it, has become familiar to us: “a marriage between a charming cad who is also a sociopath, and a mousey, somewhat priggish, and well-off woman.” Joan Crawford chewed up the scenery in the mid-1950s with a similar premise in “Autumn Leaves” (OK, so the Cliff Robertson character was a psychopath instead of a sociopath … the point is, it’s a much-beaten path).

As usual with a familiar story, it’s the telling that makes the difference. Michael delights in Iles’ ironic twists of phrase:

Armed as you are with foreknowledge of what’s going to come, some very simple sentences can make you guffaw: “On the whole, Lina enjoyed her honeymoon,” for example, was one. That “On the whole” hit me like the punchline to a dirty joke. Poor old Lina … She just couldn’t see it coming, could she?

“On the whole” … it reminds me of “Little did he know …” from “Stranger than Fiction. The third-person omniscient voice does allow an author to play God in such devilish ways. In the end, Michael is so impressed by Iles’ success in his telling that he wonders aloud, “Why isn’t Before the Fact widely recognized as one of the most amazing book-fictions of the 20th century?”

Neglected mysteries publisher Crippen & Landru have reissued The Avenging Chance, a collection of short stories Iles published under his real name, Anthony Berkeley Cox.

Movies can sometimes lead us back to long-forgotten gems. Julian Fellowes’ excellent 2005 movie, “Separate Lies”, for example, leads us to Nigel Balchin’s intricate psychological thriller, A Way Through the Wood (reissued and retitled “Separate Lies” to make the journey easier) … although Clive James did not think it one of Balchin’s best novels when he wrote “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin” a few years ago.

“Who is Harry Sylvester?” from First Things

Source: “Who Is Harry Sylvester?”, by Philip Jenkins, from the March 2007 issue of First Things: the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Dayspring'“If the Ministry of Truth had devoted their full attention to obliterating the memory of Harry Sylvester, his elimination from the public consciousness could not have been more total,” writes Jenkins in this profile of a neglected American novelist. Of Sylvester’s three novels on Catholic themes, his three Catholic novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney, he writes, “To read them today is to recognize their relevance for modern audiences. In the mid-1940s, a generation ahead of their time, Sylvester’s novels were already exploring such themes as Catholic social activism, church involvement in civil rights, Christian mysticism, and Hispanic religious practice.”

A few traces of Sylvester can be found online, even though Amazon shows only one out of three of the above titles available in used copies:

In American Novelists of Today (1951), Sylvester’s biographical sketch states,

Mr. Sylvester’s first three novels present a comprehensive treatment of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Strong elements of anti-clericalism mark his serious work, but his central and pervading theme has been that of growth, spiritual and intellectual, and the various ways and the events by which he feels it is sometimes achieved:

  • Dearly Beloved, his first novel, is an ironic and realistic portrayal of the psychological and social problems of a young man, John Cosgrove, who allies himself with a Jesuit priest in an effort to improve the conditions of poor fishermen in St. Mary’s County, Maryland….
  • Dayspring concerns Spencer Bain, an anthropologist, who visits New Mexico to study the Penitentes, a group of Roman Catholics who practice flagellation. He participates in their religious services with strong intellectual reservations, but comes to feel a steadying influence upon his life as a result. Some critics consider the book the first serious novel concerning “grace” by an American.
  • Moon Gaffney traces the career of the son of a Tammany Hall politician in New York City. The young man, who has been reared strictly as a Roman Catholic, is ambitious to become mayor. Yet his friends with social insight and liberal ideas lead him to take a vigorous stand for progress.

  • A Golden Girl (1950) is a sharp departure from the earlier novels and reflects Mr. Sylvester’s two visits and a period of residence in Peru. It concerns Therese Morley, an American girl of exceptional vitality and intuitive honesty, who has misused her talents.

Which forgotten novel do you love?, from the Guardian Unlimited

Source: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/09/plucked_from_obscurity.html, Guardian Unlimited Books Blog, 2 September 2007

Following up on The Observer’s feature, “How did we miss this?”, in which 50 contemporary novelists were asked to name the books they considered most “shamefully undervalued,” its literary editor, Robert McCrum, took to his blog to invite readers to recommend their favorite “obscure, half-forgotten, probably out-of-print titles.”

As in The Observer feature, the recommendations include a fair number of in-print, critically recognized, and well-established books neglected only in the assessment of those who proposed them: The Bell Jar? In the Heart of the Country? Le Grand Meaulnes? They may not be Moby Dick, but they’re certainly not “obscure, half-forgotten,” or out-of-print.

But it’s worth a look for the genuinely obscure works that pop up in and amongst these:

• Bernard Gilbert’s “Old England” series

Gilbert “envisaged a sequence of 12 books each in a different form : poetry, drama as well as prose” depicting aspects of “Old England.” In a 2006 post in the Codisdead, writer and artist Herbert Read’s review of one of these books, Old England: A God’s-Eye View of a Village, is quoted in which Read wrote,

His book is so completely planned and neatly executed that it comes into the category of those works of science that in conception give evidence of a poetic mind…. In our own time it will stand as a diagnosis of the diseased heart of the country. In another age it will mean as much as, and even more than, Piers Plowman means to us.

Thinks I to Myself, by Edward Nares

First published as “Says I, Says I” by “Thinks-I-to-Myself Who”, this “Serio-Ludicro-Tragico-Comico Tale”, popular in the early 1800s, is a tongue-in-cheek “autobiography” penned by an English clergyman. The narrator fills his story with all sorts of asides and commentaries, such as this lament upon the decline in the servitude of servants:

It used formerly to be a matter of convenience for any master or mistress to communicate an order or direction through a third person: to tell the butler, for instance, to tell the coachman to wait at the table, or the footman to ask the groom to carry a letter to the post; but this round-about mode of communication is now properly put end to; Mr. Butler no longer dare presume to tell Mr. Coachman to wait at table, nor Mr. Charles the footman Mr. Bob the groom to carry a letter to the post; Mrs. Housekeeper to tell Miss House-maid to help her prepare the sweetmeats; nor the nurse to ask the laundry-maid to bring up little Miss’s dinner.

The full book can be read online or downloaded from Google Books.

• Katharine Topkins’ All the Tea in China

Poster christopherhawtree writes of this 1960s novel,

Nothing like it. Seething, erotic, with an extraordinary meditation upon a woman’s view of depressing a car’s throttle pedal, something I have never seen mentioned anywhere else (it’s hardly a subject one can broach in polite company). Topkins wrote “Kotch”, filmed with Jack Lemmon, and later wrote novels with her husband. I lent my copy to somebody at Virago – it screams out to be a Modern Classic, but I never got it back… It’s not quite Lolita but getting that way. A wonderful novel.

“How did we miss these?”, from the Observer

Source: http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,,2160644,00.html, The Observer, 2 September 2007

“[B]ooks that seem to speak only to you are, in some ways, the most treasured,” writes Robert McCrum, The Observer’s literary editor, in his introduction to a recent cover feature. The magazine’s editor asked 50 contemporary novelists to name “the novelist or poet whose work they believe to be shamefully undervalued.”

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Balloonist'Their responses show that undervalue, like value, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Given the wealth of academic attention paid to Flannery O’Connor’s work and the fact that A Good Man Is Hard to Find, it’s hard for me to agree with M. J. Hyland’s nomination of the book. For several other writers, it’s the work, not the author, that’s undervalued: Thackeray, Samuel Johnson, and Edith Wharton are secure in their respective spots in the literary canon, but Pendennis, Rasselas, and The Reef are hardly the titles most likely to be associated with them.

Only few genuinely neglected titles pop up on this list. Philip Pullman proposes The Balloonist, one of the many out-of-print wonders by the late MacDonald Harris, of whom he writes, “Actually, it’s almost impossible to read any of Harris’s first pages without helplessly turning to the next, and the next.” Although Julien Green’s Midnight (recommended by John Mortimer), Hans Fallada’s The Drinker (Beryl Bainbridge), and Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s Viking saga, The Long Ships (Michael Chabon) are all now out of print, each has had one or more reissues within the last decade or so.

The most significant aspect of the feature is its demonstration of the resurrection of works of the English novelist and short-story writer, Elizabeth Taylor, “the author of some of the finest and subtlest English novels of her time,” in McCrum’s assessment. Three novelists nominate her works, which can now enjoy a revival on the order of Barbara Pym’s in the early 1980s, thanks to new editions of such works as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Angel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, and In a Summer Season from Virago Modern Classics and a 2005 film of “Mrs. Palfrey.”

Save These Books!, from Salon.com

“Save These Books!”, from Salon.com, December 1997

Way back in its early days, Salon.com asked some of its contributors and other writers to share their thoughts about a favorite book that has fallen out of print. The feature included over twenty short essays on a hodge-podge of volumes ranging from The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (now back in print) to The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, Joseph Wechberg’s contribution to a Time-Life cookbook series from the late 1960s. Of her selection, Diane Johnson writes,

People did not seem to like Nigel Dennis’s A House in Order as much as his earlier Cards of Identity, a novel much admired in the ’60s but now, perhaps, nearly as obscure as the strange little parable that followed, which I have loved since I read it when it came out, in 1966, but have lived without, unable until now to find a copy in libraries or second-hand bookshops. I had even begun to think I had invented this novel in the ensuing 30 years.

My remembered novel is a soothing allegory of order and serenity, concerning a man who isolates himself from the chaos and terror of the actual world when he is confined during a war to a greenhouse, and occupies himself with cleaning it up and growing a garden of flourishing plants. I understand now what attracted me then — it was the making of order out of chaos that, as the mother of young children, I envied. At the time, I saw no way out of personal household chaos, no way to achieve the single-minded and solitary pleasures of a grand project.

Luc Sante celebrates David Maurer’s The Big Con (also now back in print with an introduction by Sante), which he described as “a small masterpiece of the American language, veined with grifter lingo and populated by such characters as the High Ass Kid, the Seldom Seen Kid and the Narrow Gage Kid, whose ‘height was just the distance between the rails of a narrow gage railway.'”

Perhaps the most idiosyncratic suggestion comes from Jane and Michael Stern, who propose the Sears Catalog, a “vast syntagma of American stuff” in which you could find “a hunting rifle, a love seat, a diamond engagement ring or a tractor axle.” It might not qualify as literature, but can anyone who grew up with the Wish Book disagree that it’s a nonpareil sampler of middle American culture of the 20th century?

Lost Literary Classics, from “Talk of the Nation” on NPR

Back on Boxing Day in 2002, the NPR show, Talk of the Nation talked with about a half-dozen writers about their favorite “lost” classics. Among their suggestions:

• Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination — suggested by NPR’s Neal Conan, host of Talk of the Nation

• Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other — suggested by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient

…[I]t’s about (O’Brien’s) parents, about himself as a boy and his parents, who were silent movie stars. And after they divorced, he’s sort of brought up by both of them very ineptly. It’s a very, very funny book and quite devastatingly critical of his parents, but it’s something like Catcher in the Rye, really, for our time. It’s a very, very good book.

• Louise Bernikow’s The World Split Open: Four Centuries of Women Poets in England and America, 1552-1950 — suggested by Honor Moore, poet, author of Darling, A Collection of Poems

[P]ublished in 1975, and at that time there were so many fewer women poets in the canon than there are today. …the poems that she chose from these poets were chiefly poems about or out of human experiences had mainly by women, like childbirth, relationships between women, mother-daughter, so on and so forth.

• A.R. Luria’s The Mind of the Mnemonist — suggested by Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire

[T]he story of a man, a Russian, in the 1930s whose memory had no testable limits. He remembered everything that ever happened to him. And it became a torment, because, you realize, forgetting is almost as important as remembering things, forgetting through life.

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Donald Justice, editor — suggested by Anthony Lane, author of Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker

[I]’m quite interested in a poet called Weldon Kees, who’s a very semi-mythological figure, which means he’s almost entirely unread. Kees was born in 1914, and in 1955, his car was found near the Golden Gate Bridge, and it’s presumed that he disappeared or went to Mexico like Ambrose Bierce….

You can listen to the full segment at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=894272

“Breakthrough” Neglected Books, from Lingua Franca magazine

Lingua Franca, the now-defunct “Review of Academic Life”, has a regular feature called “Breakthrough Books”, where academic experts recommend the groundbreaking books in their various fields. Way back in June 1997, the field in question was neglected books. The magazine asked thirteen writers and academics to share their favorites. Here is a sample of their responses:

• Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford and author of Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits

The extraordinary Irish novelist Kate O’Brien is virtually unread today, but her sometimes sentimental-sounding titles — Pray for the Wanderer, As Music and Splendour — conceal works of great beauty, intellectual precision, and moral candor. The pellucid Mary Lavelle (1936) — about an Irish governess’s sensual and emotional awakening in Spain-is perhaps her most subtle, ardent, and delighting fiction.

And I continue to be amazed by the (relative) neglect of Elizabeth Bowen — a novelist, in my view, far superior to Virginia Woolf. Her early novel The Hotel (1927), in which a young woman staying with friends in an Italian pensione falls painfully in love with a Madame Merle-like older woman, is at once heartrending, fierce, and almost achingly well written.

• Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of Pictures at an Execution

Two neglected books that I am always recommending are Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows (1956) and Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the World War I, Parade’s End (1924-1928). Ford’s portrait of a society dealing with a despised war and its returning veterans will remind my generation of our own Vietnam era; and for readers who love great characters, none can beat Christopher Tietjens and his malicious wife, Sylvia.

The Fountain Overflows is a book that nobody I know has read without my recommending it, yet it is one of the great turn-of-the-century novels. It is about sibling rivalry, musical families, genteel poverty, unreliable fathers, the death penalty, the newspaper business, the market for old master paintings-and it is also, despite all this plot, an invitingly autobiographical, intimate book.

• Sandra Gilbert, professor of English at UC-Davis, author of Ghost Volcano: Poems

Because I am myself a poet as well as a critic, I have a special fondness for fiction produced by poets, a frequently overlooked genre. Karl Shapiro’s novel Edsel is a case in point. Published in 1971 (and currently out of print), it’s been virtually forgotten. Yet it’s a scandalously funny account of the travels and travails of poet-professor Edsel Lazarow, marked by the same verbal pyrotechnics that give Shapiro’s poem “The Bourgeois Poet” (1962) its satiric zing.

• Timothy Brennan, professor of English and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now

Even among Caribbean writers, George Lamming is shamefully unheralded, while being in some ways the English Caribbean’s last word. Natives of My Person (1972) is his (and my) favorite. Nothing like it has ever been written anywhere, with its weird mock seventeenth-century prose, its setting in a slave ship off the Guinea coast, and its fantastic allegory of women’s oppression as the intimate result of the triangular trade.

No one thinks of reading Fyodor V. Gladkov’s Cement (1925), because we all suppose Soviet socialist novels are junk, but it’s among the shrewdest and most inspired treatments of the pathos of organizations and the sacrificial impulse of the makers of new worlds.

• William Gass, author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form: Essays

Wyndham Lewis’s greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954) — written after he had gone blind, in Canada and about Canada, in condemnation of Canada, in condemnation of himself for inexplicably abandoning England and coming to Canada, whose bleak unlit winters bore upon even a blind man-was received with some interest in Canada but with unopen arms, selling 7,000 copies during its first two years there. Not bad for Lewis, not bad for Canada, but even in Canada it failed to achieve the audience it ought to have had, an audience which, had it been there, would have condemned the book just as its protagonist, Harding, was condemned…. The book’s movement is glacial and grinding, the writing brilliant, the mood cold and sterile, but the hotel is set on fire (as Lewis’s was) only to become a fire hose’s frozen shell, like Harding himself, who, after his no-longer-loved wife is crushed under a car where she’s rolled herself, is empty enough now, hollow enough now to become an American academic.

The complete article can be found online at http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/Special/books.9706.html

“Their Back Pages”: Forgotten books by famous authors, from the Village Voice

In “Their Back Pages”, from the 26 September 2005 issue of the Village Voice, Paul Collins amusingly discusses forgotten books by famous writers. Among those mentioned:

Casing the Promised Land, by Caleb Carr

A first novel from the author of The Alienist, this rock-n-roll saga led Carr himself to post the following as an Amazon review:

I am the author of this book. It has a few good scenes, but is essentially “roman a clef” nonsense that every writer has to get out of his system early on. Do yourself a favor and read ANYTHING else I’ve written (you’ll be doing me a favor, too).

Franklin Evans: Or, The Inebriate, by Walt Whitman

As Collins puts it, Whitman “fortified himself with hooch while writing his tale of a country boy corrupted by the city and the demon dram.” Of this attempt to emulate the success of T.S. Arthur’s temperance best-seller, Ten Nights in a Bar Room, Whitman wrote, “It was damned rot — rot of the worst sort….”

Invasion of the Space Invaders, by Martin Amis

Nine years before his first Booker Prize nomination (but surprisingly after publishing three novels), Amis wrote this guide to the first generation of computer arcade games, subtitled, An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. Although copies fetch $130 and up on Amazon, Amis has preferred to omit it from his credits in subsequent books.

Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book, by Len Deighton

“A shockingly good cookbook,” writes Collins, despite the tongue-in-cheek cover showing a holstered Deighton scooping up spaghetti. This is actually a collection of “cookstrips” Deighton wrote for “The Observer” back at the time his first thrillers were being published. Also published as Cookstrip cook book and Ou est le garlic?, this is not only an introduction to cooking even complete novices can handle (historian Simon Schama recalled that it “showed the idiot novice male how to dice an onion without it falling apart”), but also something of an innovation, perhaps the first time comic art came to the aid of cuisine. Writer Matthew Christian salutes the quality of Deighton’s recipes and English graphic designer Richard Weston celebrates its graphic and design on his “Found Things” blog

Collins repeated the story on NPR’s Weekend Edition: you can hear the excerpt here.

Collins takes the punchline of his piece from Annie Proulx, writing on the task of examining used cider barrels in her early (but still in print) work, Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider: “Don’t be shy. Put your nose right up to the bunghole.” Good advice for those willing to look beyond the best-seller lists for their reading material.

“Lost Books” from Nextbook Magazine

Since 2005, Nextbook magazine, which focuses on Jewish literature, culture, and ideas, has published a regular feature on “Lost Books”, in which writers such as Meg Wolitzer and David Rakoff discuss the lives and works of neglected writers.

Among the fascinating pieces to be found in the “Lost Books” archive are:

· Earl Ganz’s account of Myron Brinig

Brinig was once mentioned alongside Thomas Wolfe as a rising American literary star, but he suffered a triple whammy sales curse of writing Western novels from the perspective of a gay Jewish man. But who can resist Ganz’s teaser for Brinig’s novels Singermann and This Man is My Brother (which not even AddAll lists a copy of): “Prostitutes, Christian Scientists, cross-dressing teachers—just a few of the temptations faced by the Singermanns in Myron Brinig’s frontier saga”?

[Don Napoli reviews another of Brinig’s novels, the 1939 Anne Minton’s Life on his Reading California Fiction site.]

· Neal Pollack on Ben HechtCover of '1001 Afternoons in Chicago'

Pollack celebrates A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, a collection of Hecht’s impressionistic newspaper pieces about one of the great American cities at its liviest times: “The book still holds a kind of magical sway over me, because it showed a kind of American life that seems to have disappeared, a time when public eccentricity didn’t merely feed the appetite of cable TV and when cities could be slightly unsavory without feeling overwhelmingly dangerous.”

· Jennifer Weisberg on Stefan Zweig

Zweig, one of my favorite neglected writers, embodies one of the great tragedies of the 20th century: the destruction of enlightened European Jewish culture at the hands of fascism and violence. Weisberg writes that Zweig’s 1938 novel, Beware of Pity , which was reissued by New York Review Classics in 2006, “is in many ways a micro-portrait of life in the late Hapsburg Empire, capturing the overweening attention paid to ritual, detail, and order, and the occasions it afforded for self-transformation.” She also quotes a New York Herald Tribune obituary, which wrote tellingly that Zweig took his own life because he was “overwhelmed by the past, and by the realization that all he had held most dear had been wantonly destroyed.”

· Chloe Veltman on Israel Zangwill

Zangwill’s The Melting Pot was celebrated by President Theodore Roosevelt as a “great play” when it debuted in 1908, but Veltman admits that now it seems a “ham-fisted” melodrama “made worse by Zangwill’s didactic tone.”

· Lawrence Levi on Melvin Shavelson’s “How to Make a Jewish Movie”

In How to Make a Jewish Movie, director Shavelson recounts his diligent and ridiculous efforts to make “Cast a Giant Shadow”, the story of Mickey Marcus, a Jewish American Army colonel who helped jump-start the Israeli Army in 1948. Levi concludes that Shavelson “seems to have learned, as an entertainer, that the story of a nice Jewish filmmaker who finds himself while shooting a $5 million flop has more potential in the hands of a comedy writer than the story of a Jewish general who gets killed.”

I look forward to further installments in this excellent series and encourage neglected book fans to check out all the articles.

Reading California Fiction

Cover of 'The Flesh Merchants' by Ross Thomas, from the Reading California Fiction siteDon Napoli has created a wonderful site, Reading California Fiction, devoted to his admirable quest of reading his way through the archives of fiction set in California.

Don’s work so far has led him to books good, bad, and indifferent. Among the first are some long-forgotten but worthy titles as David Duncan’s The Serpent’s Egg, of which he writes,

A labor arbitration case? Am I going to tell you that someone could produce a great novel about a labor arbitration case? Yes, I certainly am. A skilled writer can present complicated characters and an interesting story against even the most unpromising of backgrounds. And David Duncan is a terrific writer. Here he cuts back a bit on the usual energy of his prose to tell his tale in all of its complexity. I like this book a whole lot. When I get around to compiling a list of favorite California novels, The Serpent’s Egg will be near the top.

Don’s also honest in admitting that his journey sometimes leads to a dead end. Of Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s Play the Game, he writes, “Sometimes the only nice thing you can say about a book is that you’ll never have to read it again.”

Reading California Fiction is well-conceived, attractively presented, well-organized, and full of books you’ve never heard of but may want to pursue, thanks to Don’s literary archaeology. It’s among the very small number of sites I’d care to browse through in entirety.

Larry McMurtry recommends some Lost Novels

Robert Nedelkoff forwards an article by Larry McMurtry from the 23 June 1975 issue of the Washington Post titled, “Two Novels: One a Find, One Better Lost.”

In it, McMurtry lambasts the Lost American Fiction series from the Southern Illinois University Press for floundering “into an area of dry holes, of which the present volume [Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City] is certainly one of the driest.”

“It is in view of the rich possibilities offered by the ’90s, the teens, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’50s, etc., that it seems to me time that the series stop futzing around trying to breathe life into ’20s artifacts….”

McMurtry offers some candidates of his own for rediscovery:

· The Aging Boy, by Julian Claman

“Julian Claman’s fine novel The Aging Boy was published in the ’60s, but it is already as lost as The Cubical City, and far less deservingly so.”

· Go in Beauty, by William Eastlake

“William Eastlake’s Go in Beauty is an unknown book, already….”

· No Pockets for a Shroud, by Horace McCoy

“Horace McCoy has a vivid novel that has so far been published in America only in paperback — it’s called No Pockets for a Shroud.”

McMurtry also cites Caroline Gordon, John Sanford, David Stacton [him again!], and Calder Willingham as examples of writers with “lost novels that deserve revival.”

Ironically, the other novel McMurtry reviewed in this article, Maurice Edelman’s Disraeli Rising — the second of an unfinished tritypch that started with Disraeli in Love, both of which he described as “highly readable, well-handled narratives, in which the great and near-great figures of Victorian England appear and disappear” — has also been pushed into a dark corner of neglect.

“Good Old Books”, from the National Review, 23 December 1996

A post on the NYRB Classic blog led me to the 23 December 1996 issue of the National Review, which featured two articles, by Florence King and Terry Teachout, about favorite reads — forgotten ones, in particular.

Florence King’s picks and comments:

· The Valley of Decision, by Marcia Davenport

This novel has everything: sex amid the Johnstown Flood, labor-union strife, an expatriate adventuress, a playboy turned monk, a society wife who goes mad, a Czech violinist fleeing the Nazis. And if all this weren’t enough, the author even keeps us glued to the page when she describes the operation of the open-hearth furnace, a tour de force of “writing like a man” that won her high praise from male reviewers in that benighted pre-feminist age.

· The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson

The Cardinal opens in 1915 and traces Steve’s [Stephen Fermoyle] rise from Boston parish priest to prince of the church. My favorite parts are the behind-the scenes accounts of how the Vatican works, and the descriptions of the Roman contessa’s salon: a hierarchy of ecclesiastical guests, their rank denoted by the colors of their flowing capes and birettas (the book answers all the Protestant questions about vestments), soignee women kissing rings, learned Jesuits swapping bons mots, and Cardinal Merry del Val capping quotations from Horace while juggling oranges. That’s what I call a party.

· Jubilee Trail, by Gwen Bristow

Sisterhood eludes feminist novelists, but it fairly leaps off the pages of Gwen Bristow’s Jubilee Trail, a good girl/bad girl western in which the male characters are all satellites.

· Maggie-Now, by Betty Smith

Maggie Moore (her childhood reprimand, “Maggie, now,” becomes her nickname) is a simple Irish-Catholic girl who wants only to marry a good man and have children. But along comes Claude Basset, a Protestant-agnostic college graduate with an ironic wit that goes over her head and a wanderlust she doesn’t find out about until after she marries him. The O. Henry-like twist here is the blissful marriage of this mismatched pair. Under normal conditions they would grow to hate each other, but their strange modus vivendi inadvertently keeps the dew on the rose.

· Kings Row, by Henry Bellamann

Suffice to say that Kings Row is immensely satisfying to read during political campaigns when the Trad Vals pile up too high.

[The movie version of Kings Row gave Ronald Reagan the title of his 1965 autobiography, Where’s the Rest of Me?; as King notes, the novel was a bloodfest of medical malpractice, insanity, and small-town vice. — ed.]

· Katherine, by Anya Seton

Another favorite Anya Seton novel is Katherine, about the love affair between John of Gaunt, the ambitious younger son of Edward III, and Lady Katherine Swynford, whose four bastard children became the progenitors of the York and Tudor lines in fulfillment of the ancient prophecy, “Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.” Richly descriptive of medieval life, the story dramatizes major events of late-fourteenth-century England — the Black Plague, the Lollard heresy, the storming of the Savoy palace in the Peasants’ Revolt — and presents a brilliant fictional portrait of Katherine’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey Chaucer.

 

Terry Teachout’s picks and comments

· The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Anyone capable of marrying Kenneth Tynan must have had a sense of humor, and Elaine Dundy’s first book, originally published in 1958, proves the point. It’s the stock Wanderjahr plot, transposed into a female key: Sally Jay Gorce, young, fairly innocent, and full of beans, heads for Paris in search of romance and adventure, gets more of both than she bargained for, and in the process makes modest headway toward maturity.

[Teachout provided the introduction to the forthcoming NYRB Classics reissue of The Dud Avocado. You can also find more about Dundy at her website, www.elainedundy.com.— ed.]

· Pictures from an Institution, by Randall Jarrell

This savage satire of life at a progressive women’s college circa 1954 is so good, it made Whittaker Chambers laugh. Some characters are drawn from life (Mary McCarthy among them), but you don’t need a scorecard to get the point, for every liberal fallacy of our time is here made as flesh.

· Father Malachy’s Miracle, by Bruce Marshall

This lovely, all-but-forgotten book tells the story of what happens when an easily exasperated priest, vexed to the utmost limits of his endurance by the invincible ignorance of the heathen multitude, requests God to confound them all definitively and simultaneously by working a jumbo miracle in broad daylight — and God obliges, leaving the world agog.

· The Locusts Have No King, by Dawn Powell

Long a fixture on short lists of Most Underrated American Novelists, Dawn Powell finally got lucky last year when Steerforth published her diaries and started reissuing her wicked novels. This is the best of the lot, a caustic tale of frustrated love and inadvertent success in postwar New York.

· Max Jamison, by Wilfrid Sheed

Speaking of critics, here’s a minor miracle: a comic novel about a famously ferocious drama critic for a weekly news magazine who awakes one day to find himself athwart a five-alarm spiritual crisis.

Driftwood from “The Sustaining Stream”

Robert Nedelkoff forwards a link to “The Sustaining Stream”, a Time magazine article from February, 1963 that provides “a recommended reading list of American novelists whose first work has appeared within the last few years.” As with any “best of” list from decades past, the names discussed are a mix — those whose works are now accepted into the canon of university curricula, academic studies, and regular reissues, and those whose works merit the dubious distinction of requiring rediscovery and mention on this site.

Among the well-known and established names are Walker Percy, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, and John Updike. But the article also mentions several novelists worth noting here:

  • David Stacton, of whom it writes,

    David Stacton, 37, is a Nevadan who wears cowboy boots, is fond of both Zen and bourbon, and is as nearly unknown as it is possible for a writer to be who has written, and received critical praise for, 13 novels (all have been published in England, five in the US.). His books, most of which have historical themes, are masses of epigrams marinated in a stinging mixture of metaphysics and blood. Mostly they resemble themselves, but something similar might have been the result if the Duc de la Rochefoucauld had written novels with plots suggested by Jack London.

    Stacton’s story is as interesting as any of his books. He managed to produce 28 books in roughly the same number of years, including 22 novels. Most of these were historical novels, but Stacton shared the same kind of arch omniscience that makes Gore Vidal’s historical novels so entertaining. In addition to these, however, he also produced a number of pulp fiction titles such as Muscle Boy aimed at gay readers, using the pseudonym Bud Clifton, and westerns such asNavarro as Carse Boyd. Stacton rated Sir William, an account of the affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton, as his best book. Back in 1992, Thomas Disch picked it as his book of the year in a roundup in The Nation magazine, saying he’d intended to read Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, but read Stacton’s account instead when he found a copy in his shelves. Disch said of the book,

    It’s wonderful, paced and cut like an MTV video, so epigrammatic I could extract an enticing quote from almost any page, and, as Sontag’s readers already know, one of the great Believe-It-Or-Not sex scandals of all time. For those who relish Boito’s “Mefistofele” all the more for having enjoyed Gounod’s “Faust”, Stacton should be the perfect complement to Sontag, not an alternative. Seek him out, or if you’re in the book business, republrsh hrm. He’s too good to be gathering dust.

    I bought a copy of Stacton’s Tom Fool, a 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, and read it recently, but I have to confess that it’s in the queue for a post under the justly neglected tag. Stacton was just a bit too clever to be tolerable and Wilkie seemed more a bit of flotsam carried off on the tide of history than an effective protagonist.

  • Richard Dougherty. Dougherty’s 1962 novel, Duggan, was described by Time’s reviewer as a “nasty, low, mean and excellent novel.” The book tells the story the friendship and then the betrayal and mutual cuckolding of an honest politician and his more cynical campaign manager. Dougherty’s later novel, The Commissioner was perhaps the first of a wave of grittily-realistic police nobels that Joseph Wambaugh later surfed to success on, and was made into a fairly good movie, “Madigan”, starring Richard Widmark.

  • Richard Bankowsky. In 1958, Time wrote of his first novel, A Glass Rose, which centers on the wake of the scion of a Polish-American family:

    In unfolding this grim tale, Novelist Bankowsky is thoroughly convincing as he enters successively the minds of a tormented religious fanatic, a furtive, greedy storekeeper, a mentally retarded girl. In each character’s rambling recall, his own weaknesses are laid bare and another’s motivation is made clearer.

    On the other hand, Norman Podhoretz, writing in the New York Times, called it “an embarassingly naked imitation of The Sound and the Fury.” In more recent years, however, Thomas Gladsky called A Glass Rose “perhaps the best novel about Slavic immigration in all of American literature.” Bankowsky has put a number of excerpts from his work on the web under his Cal State Sacramento page, including the first dozen or so pages of A Glass Rose.

The article also mentions several names neither too famous nor too obscure: Richard Condon, who will never fade completely away as long as people watch “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” and my favorite, “Winter Kills”; John Knowles, whose A Separate Peace rates its own Cliff Notes; and William Gaddis, who may still have a tough time finding casual readers, but who’ll continue to provide raw material for PhD dissertations for many years to come.

Smugging up on forgotten authors, from the Guardian Unlimited

In his Guardian Unlimited blog, author Sam Jordison writes,

I’ve recently been indulging in the literary equivalent of schadenfreude. Not so much pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, as pleasure in everyone else’s lack of knowledge.

It’s not an admirable emotion, I know. Even so, I can’t help it. I’ve just started reading one of the finest writers I’ve encountered for a long time — and my enjoyment is only heightened by the certainty that very few others in the UK have even heard of him, let alone shared the delights of his superb prose.

We fans of neglected books must admit, like Jordison, that a certain amount of the pleasure in discovering them is the knowledge that we’re among the lucky few to have made the discoveries. In this case, the discovery was the works of the writer, Alfred Chester:

They are strange contradictory books. Marked out by Chester’s superb prose, they’re both surreal and unflinchingly true to life, at once light, witty and imbued with heavy existential angst. They deal with everything and nothing. They are sometimes brutal and hilariously waspish, but always humane. Essentially, for all their 1950s existentialism, they are unlike anything else. As Chester himself said in description of The Exquisite Corpse: “… it is probably the most unlike book you have read since childhood. And probably also, the most delicious.”

As one of his commenters points out to Jordison, Chester’s works might be rare in the U.K., but thanks to the efforts of the Black Sparrow Books, long a supporter of such neglected writers as John Sanford and Ed Dorn, three of his books are currently in print, and a fourth is due for reissue later this year:

Jordison invites his readers to suggest an “unsung genius” of their own, and among the names proposed in response are:

  • M. R. James, a Victorian writer of ghost stories whose works are readily available in collections from Penguin and Oxford World Classics.
  • Delano Ames, who wrote dozens of mysteries between 1932 and 1972, including a series featuring Dagobert and Jane Brown “full of arch conversation and bizarre wealthy characters.”
  • James Hanley, an Irish novelist whose 1985 Times obituary was headlined “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Hanley’s books are out of print in the U.S. but he had at least the honor of his own tribute website (now in archive). You can pick up a copy of A Dream Journey, one of his late and most highly-praised novels, for as little as $0.03 on Amazon. What are you waiting for?

And one of the commenters is even kind enough to mention the Neglected Books page. Thanks!

Richard Yates on Fellow Neglected Writers

Source: An Interview with Richard Yates by DeWitt Henry and Geoffrey Clark, Ploughshares, Winter 1972

Here, in an interview from 1972, Richard Yates, who was one of America’s better-known neglected writers during much of his career, nominates some candidates of his own for overdue recognition:

Q: Who among your contemporaries do you feel have been seriously neglected? What about the work of Edward Lewis Wallant?

A: A fine writer; and yes, seriously neglected today, though he was by no means overlooked or unappreciated when his books first came out. Wallant worked with tremendous energy and tremendous speed. He didn’t even start writing until he was over thirty; then he managed to produce four novels in five years before he died very suddenly of a stroke at the age of thirty-six, ten years ago. He and I were pretty good friends, though we used to argue a lot about working methods: I thought he ought to take more time over his books; he’d disagree. It was almost as if he knew he didn’t have much time. If he’d lived, God only knows how much good work he might have accomplished by now. Anyway, the four books are there, and I do believe they’ll last. [Editor’s note: Wallant’s four novels are The Pawnbroker, The Tennants of Moonbloom, reissued in 2003 by New York Review Classics, The Human Season, and The Children at the Gate.]

Q: What about the novels of Brian Moore?

A: Another very fine writer, also seriously neglected, though he’s very much alive today and still going strong. I just don’t understand why he hasn’t yet won a wider audience. Every good writer I know admires his work. I’ve always thought Judith Hearne is a masterpiece, and An Answer from Limbo comes pretty close. Even in his lesser books there are always fine things — great scenes, fine characterizations. And he’s such a steady producer, a real professional. He’s never yet allowed more than three years to go by without getting out a new book since he began, back in the Fifties.

Q: What about Evan S. Connell?

A: All I’ve read of his work so far is Mrs. Bridge, which I thought was beautiful, and a number of excellent short stories, but I know he’s produced a large body of fiction that’s much admired by people whose judgment I trust; so yes, sure, he too deserves to be much better known. Another excellent, underrated writer is Thomas Williams — or has he become well-established by now? If not, he ought to be. [Williams is best known for his 1975 National Book Award-winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux

Q: Who do you consider some other good, neglected writers?

A: Read the four spendid books by Gina Berriault, if you can find them, and if you want to discover an absolutely first-class talent who has somehow been left almost entirely out of the mainstream. She hasn’t quit writing yet, either, and I hope she never will.

And read almost anything by R.V. Cassill, a brilliant and enormously productive man who’s been turning out novels and stories for twenty-five years or more, all the while building and sustaining a large influence on other writers as a teacher and critic. Oh, he’s always been well-known in what I guess you’d call literary circles, but he had to wait a long, long time before his most recent novel, Doctor Cobb’s Game, did bring him some widespread readership at last.

And George Garrett. I haven’t read very much of his work, but that’s at least partly because there’s so very much of it – and he too has remained largely unknown except among other writers. I guess his latest book [Latest in 1973, that is: The Death of the Fox, his long and ornate novel about Sir Walter Ralegh], like Cassill’s, did make something of a public splash at last, but that too was long overdue.

And Seymour Epstein — ever heard of him? I have read all of his work to date — five novels and a book of stories, all expertly crafted and immensely readable – yet he too seems to have been largely ignored so far.

But hell, this list could go on and on. This country’s loaded with good, badly neglected writers. Fred Chappell. Calvin Kentfield. Herbert Wilner. Helen Hudson. Edward Hoagland. George Cuomo. Arthur J. Roth — those are only a few.

My God, if I’d produced as much good work as most of those people, with as little reward, I’d really feel qualified to rant and rail against the Literary Establishment.

Jonathan Yardley: “… my own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers …”

Source: “‘Woman Within’: An Unlikely Rebel of the Privileged South,” Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, 29 November 2003, available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A20195-2003Nov28.html

Reading through the individual articles in Washington Post Book Editor Jonathan Yardley’s excellent series on neglected and revisited classics, Second Readings, I came across the following quote worth highlighting here:

The court of literary opinion is no more fair or just than the court of public opinion. Writers of limited gifts and accomplishments (Ernest Hemingway, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck) are overpraised and over-rewarded, while others of great gifts and singular accomplishments (William Humphrey, Dawn Powell, Jerome Charyn) are ignored or misunderstood. This of course is true in other endeavors, but somehow it seems especially unjust that writing, the best of which is supposed to stand the ages, so often produces such small recognition for those who do it so well.

My own list of unjustly overlooked and underrated writers is long; it includes, in addition to those mentioned above, John P. Marquand, Thomas Savage, Roxana Robinson, Harold Frederic, Elizabeth Spencer, John Oliver Killens and, at or very near the top, Ellen Glasgow.

A few expository notes on these writers:

  • Marquand is one of the more oft-mentioned underrated writers, and his works appear on a number of lists on this site. In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of devoting a separate website to his works.
  • A New York Times reviewer once wrote of Thomas Savage: “The best-seller lists make it clear that American readers are powerfully fond of the familiar and the accessible — and if there were justice (or better taste) in the literary marketplace, surely one or another of Thomas Savage’s dozen novels would have been topping those lists for the past 30-odd years.” His 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, was included in Roger Sale’s “Neglected Recent American Novels” article in The American Scholar. Unfortunately for Savage, he’s taken as his subject the American West, which has often been a kiss of death for critical recognition and sales. Annie Proulx, whose “Brokeback Mountain” avoided the same fate, wrote the introduction to the 2001 Bay Back Books reissue of The Power of the Dog. Even readers who got to the point of picking up the book, though, had to get past this opening sentence:

    Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed.

  • Roxana Robinson is a biographer, novelist, and short story writer. The youngster of this group, illustrated by the fact that she’s got her own website and domain name.
  • Harold Frederic was a contemporary of Twain and Howells. The texts of three of his novels — The Damnation of Theron Ware, In the Valley, and The Market-Place, can be found at Project Gutenberg.
  • Elizabeth Spencer is known for her novella, Light in the Piazza, but her critical reputation is best reflected in her extensive oeuvre of short stories. And it turns out she also has her own website.
  • John Oliver Killens was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Of his 1963 novel, And Then We Heard the Thunder, Yardley once wrote that it was “one of the few distinguished novels about World War II.”
  • Ellen Glasgow’s recognition improved, along with that of a number of other women writers such as Kate Chopin, when the eddies of the feminist waves hit the academic and publishing worlds, and all her major works are back in print. Yardley’s article moved me to order a copy of A Woman Within.