Lauded and forgotten

In case you weren’t been depressed enough by the McCrum piece (see below), Emma directs me to another article on the subject of once-famous writers slipping into obscurity. This one appeared in Sunday’s Independent, but isn’t online (update: now it is). Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski writes:

It’s a dismal afternoon and I’ve ended up searching for lost authors on the internet: writers who once had flourishing careers, but who now face extinction. Like many things that occur online, it’s a kind of sordid game, depressing even; but it’s addictive. I type an author’s name into a search field: Marlowe, Gabriel. He cropped up in a memoir I was reading; a mysterious figure who had a critical and commercial success in the mid- 1930s with his first novel, I Am Your Brother, a tale of someone who finds he may have a brother hidden in the attic above his studio, fed offal and fairy stories once a day by their mother. I like the sound of it, and but I’m primarily interested in how many copies of it still exist: how much Marlowe there is left in the world.

I click a button. At this point the website scans the inventory of every secondhand dealer around the world. Generally, however obscure I think an author is, I then receive a long list of the author’s work. But — oh dear, Gabriel. I see a single book selling for nearly pounds 400 at a shop in the USA.

The game is entirely Jonathan Coe’s fault. “It was fascinating to read through the books pages of the newspapers of the 1960s while researching the Johnson book,” he recently told me, referring to his biography of the almost lost author B S Johnson, “and discover that some of the most prominent literary names of that era are now completely forgotten. How many of them were geniuses, I wonder?” I began to have bad dreams: the weirder authors I like all vanishing in horrible ways. Boris Vian getting sucked up a trumpet; Christine Brooke-Rose being deconstructed. Waking feverishly one night, Konstantin Vaginov having been sat on by a satyr, I began my internet game.

Now it’s a habit, made all the worse by some other things Coe had to say. Serious authors, he told me, all want to produce work good enough to outlast the time in which they wrote it. “Most editors still feel the same way, but sadly the sales and marketing people who pull many editors’ strings these days have a completely different set of values; the result is that much of the best writing in this country is probably not even getting published any more. It doesn’t even have the chance to be forgotten! I’m convinced that my own first novel, The Accidental Woman, if submitted now would not get published.” Coe is becoming one of Britain’s most successful writers of intelligent fiction, so this is a seriously worrying proposition.

I decide to speak to Stuart Kelly, author of The Book of Lost Books, due from Penguin next year. “Literary reputations are predictably precarious,” he tells me. “Although one might remember that Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark were both shortlisted for the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969, memory has been less kind to Barry England, GM Williams and even the first winner, PH Newby.”

The rest of the story is also worth reading, so do track it down at your local newsstand.

At the end, Boncza-Tomaszewski lists five largely forgotten (in the U.K.) books he believes should still be widely available. Among them are Thru, by Christine Brooke-Rose (“a novel about the theory of the novel”) and The Woman With the Flying Head and Other Stories (an anthology, “drawn from previous collections like Creepy Little Stories (1985), [that] combines gender politics with mathematics, Japanese folk tales and aliens”), by Yumiko Kurahashi.

Has one of your favorite books gone out of print? If so, send email including the author’s name and the title, along with a sentence or two describing the book and its merits. If you’d like credit, include your name and website or other URL. I’ll post a few of the suggestions.


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