“Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead.”
With this arresting opening line, Christopher Fowler introduces us to the world of the Forgotten Author. As Fowler makes clear, no author is guaranteed everlasting success and any number of circumstances can send someone from the top of the bestseller list to the bottom of the remainder bin. Through 99 short biographies and twelve essays, Fowler explores why an author’s work might not have stood the test of time and whether they are indeed worthy of rediscovery. Reading The Book of Forgotten Authors was like that wonderful feeling you get when you are in a really good second-hand bookshop and you realise that there is buried treasure to be uncovered. The book began its life as a newspaper column in The Independent and in all honesty, it is a bibiliophile’s dream.
Fowler has an obvious passion for his subject and the book is well-researched and wide-ranging. He has a gift for creating illuminating vignettes which make each forgotten author to spring to life on the page. Beginning with a longlist of 400 or so authors, he managed to cut it down to this but even so, some of his choices do provoke comment. I was surprised to recognise a fair few of the authors included, although in most cases, I could see what Fowler was getting at. I may be aware of Margery Allingham from Traitor’s Purse, but then I did study a module at university on 1940s fiction. I also loved Frank Baker’s Miss Hargreaves but I am pretty sure that I picked up on that within the blogging community (however the tale of how his idea for The Birds was purloined by Alfred Hitchcock was entirely new to me – the poor man was robbed!)
Still, there are others who do feel reasonably well-known. I read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret last year but had caught a Radio 4 adaptation of it years ago. Similarly, there was a phase when I seemed to continually stumble over copies of Virginia Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic series (once I found out the premise, I avoided them like the plague!) Barbara Pym, Barbara Comyns, Edmund Crispin, Richard Hughes, E. M. Delafield, Winifred Watson, T. H. White – so many authors that I have read and loved and with each I felt an ‘oh’ of sadness that someone had judged them forgotten. And Georgette Heyer? Forgotten? Really? Yet, as Fowler points out, although Heyer’s books are regularly reprinted, she does seem to have fallen into ‘a strange and airless niche market, where she was once one of the most popular authors in the country’.
There are a few recurring themes as to why the authors fell from favour and found themselves forgotten. Drink is a popular one, as is debt and early death. Trouble with the law crops up a fair few times too and Fowler makes no pretence that all of his selection are saintly. But there are other factors which were more surprising. Some authors seemed to have been too prolific for any one work to stick in the mind, others published under a series of pseudonyms and so diluted their own brand, others were writing at the wrong time (were overshadowed by a similar author with a higher profile, were too provocative for the era, etc.) or even became a victim of their own success if their book was adapted as a film or musical which utterly eclipsed the original. Still others however just went out of fashion suddenly and without warning.
Fowler tracks how certain authors appear to be in a cycle of rediscovery. Barbara Pym spent years trying to find a publisher before finally finding one in 1950. When the 1960s hit however, Pym’s gentle explorations of ‘unassuming, genteel characters’ fell out of step in a world that was discovering the Beatles. Pym lost her publishing contract and subsequent books were rejected, utterly shattering her. However, in 1977, she was named ‘the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century’ by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil in the Times Literary Supplement. Her books made it back into print and she acquired an American fandom. Pym died a few years later and so did not see herself forgotten for a second time – I discovered Barbara Pym back in 2012 when her books were reissued with some fanfare by Virago. I do wonder what will prompt her next resurgence.
The Book of Forgotten Authors is a lovely ‘gift book’, ideal for dipping in to over a cup of tea while searching for inspiration for one’s next read. Fowler’s writing style is witty and informal, there are an untold number of wonderful one-liners. He has a real eye for a good literary anecdote, such as how R.M. Ballantyne’s lack of research for his survivalist novel was exposed when he described how coconuts had soft skins. That being said, I did feel that the book could have done with a helpful editor. I can imagine Fowler would be a fantastic speaker and as mentioned before, he has a huge amount of passion for his subject. Clarity however is not always his friend. There were frequent instances where I had to read sentences back to myself to understand Fowler’s intended meaning and more than a few occasions where I finished no wiser. In the case of Thomas Burke, I am still not sure whether or not he was perhaps called Sidney at one point. While this did not stop my enjoyment, it does interrupt the book’s flow and it could have been avoided.
The fun of Forgotten Authors comes from Fowler’s enthusiasm and his unashamedly opinionated approach to the authors who have crossed his path. This is a book written by a fan for the fans and it has a wonderfully down to earth approach to what constitutes great literature. I loved Fowler’s line ‘The real sin of bad writing is being boring […] There are intellectual writers whose prose is so clumsy that the act of reading them is like repeatedly stubbing your toe’. So true. It was fascinating to see how even once highly-regarded authors could find themselves in obscurity, with Fowler charting the downfalls of various Booker Prize winners – literary longevity is as much a matter of luck as anything else. Still, while the book undoubtedly offers an intriguing (and intimidating) impression of the life cycle of an author, Fowler’s main purpose is a call to arms. His colourful chronicles on the lives and lost works of the Forgotten are passionate pleas for regained popularity. The only risky thing is that Forgotten Authors is a book designed to make its readers buy more books, or at the very least to go into a second-hand bookshop armed with a shopping list. Best to read with caution if your shelves are already full …
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Published by Hachette UK on October 5th 2017
Genres: Literary Collections, General, Biography & Autobiography, Literary, Literary Criticism, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Reference
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