“I've been looking for underrated authors that are not as widely read as they should be.”
So wrote a reader on Saturday. I wrote back asking for clarification. He replied: “I would narrow it down to novelists writing in any language, from the early 20th century to the present.” My suggestions:
The Wife of Martin Guerre (1940), Janet Lewis
The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead
The Brooklyn Novels (1934, 1936, 1937), Daniel Fuchs
Zeno's Conscience (1923), Italo Svevo, William Weaver’s translation (2003)
“Underrated” is a blurry sort of word. Some of us might feel that any book we prize in this alliterate era is underrated, even King Lear. The schools are no help. Their reading lists are uniformly junk – science fiction, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird. Public libraries aren’t much better. Their heavily culled collections favor the new and popular over anything worth reading. The possibility of serendipitous discovery – the chief glory of a library, and the way I happened on literature -- is dwindling.
In answering my reader’s request I turned self-centered and selected novels I love and expect to read again some time. None is obscure or out of print. Except for a handful of inspired book blogs, where else will a young person learn of good books? This is not about canon-building or canon-defending. It’s about a much-ignored human capacity, bookish pleasure. It’s certainly not about snobbery or "book-therapy." One good place to start, of course, is Brad Bigelow’s Neglected Books Page.
In the August 1940 issue of H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, Burton Rascoe published a column, “Neglected Books,” endorsing “literary works of outstanding merit and deserving of a wide and appreciative audience,” all published in the previous eighteen months. I haven’t read any of the eight books he lists. Rascoe’s interest seems to be book marketing. Clearly, he kept an eye on his day’s bestseller lists and his literary taste is less than reliable, but his motives are admirable:
“And so, in each case no doubt, there are good and plausible explanations for undeserved neglect. Which is no consolation to author and publisher. Worse than that, the neglect is a real loss to the reading public.”