Part of the fun of being a bookseller is the never-ending opportunity to learn more about books and writers. I consider myself especially fortunate as a seller of used books to have such a wide world of material from which to choose. Walk into a new bookstore and you know pretty much what you can expect to see. But walk into a used bookstore and you never know what you might run into. In a used bookstore you may find a book heretofore unknown to you, a book published 10, 20, or 100 years ago, a book that turns out to be, somehow, the very thing you were seeking — you just didn’t know that when you walked in the door.
Secondhand shops are repositories of potential discovery and rediscovery, of rescue and rehabilitation. Books never embraced by a wide reading audience are still available on these shelves, still waiting for appreciative readers, as are the books — once celebrated — which have been declared unfashionable, booted from the pantheon, and now virtually unread.
Why does one book recede from the public’s memory while another remains in print year after year, continues to be assigned in literature courses and recommended by critics? What is the confluence of influence that produces lasting fame for some writers and some books, but not for others of equal literary merit? There are many reasons.
The fickle fashions of critical and popular taste do have their effects on literature, just as they have on other forms of culture. The vicissitudes of the publishing industry, which itself has undergone a sea-change in the past few decades, obviously affect what is in print and therefore readily available to the reading public. Small press books can have a tough time getting noticed, and even large publishers don’t promote all their titles with equal energy.
Some books never receive serious attention because they have been pigeonholed into a category (be it mystery, fantasy, or “women’s fiction”) that has historically been a bit snubbed by the critical establishment. Jane Austen even had a rough hoe of it for a while, because her subjects didn’t seem “large” enough to some.
Occasionally a terrific first book will appear which, unfortunately, never achieves much of an audience and the writer, due either to lack of encouragement or early death, does not go on to develop a body of work with enough cumulative impact to keep his or her name in the public’s (and publisher’s) eye.
On the other hand, and more happily, there is from time to time a resurgence of interest in writers formerly consigned to the dustbin. For example, witness how Dawn Powell became a critical darling long years after her death in 1965. Now, many years after Gore Vidal, in an essay intended to spur interest in his old friend’s work, declared that “… her name has been erased from that perpetually foggy pane, ‘American Literature”,she is readily available in two volumes of the Library of America series. She has, it appears, come into her own at last.
From time to time brave publishing ventures pop up, such as the Lost American Fiction series published by Southern Illinois University Press, and Virago’s heroic efforts to reissue books by women writers. So some deserving titles get put back into print — at least temporarily.
In any case, it cannot be denied that many worthy books get buried in the sands of time. Even though some do eventually re-emerge, most remain six feet under. Where there had once been an eager, large audience, now there is little interest. And where once there was at least a little interest, well, now there is next to none. There will always be books waiting to be discovered or rediscovered — either by the critical establishment, or simply by readers and collectors who rescue them, one by one, from dusty shelves.
And so we arrive back at the perfect place to look for books worthy of a second chance — the secondhand bookshop, where almost anything might eventually wind up, including many wonderful books waiting patiently for the right person to pluck them from the shelves, blow away the dust, and discover the glories to be found within their faded covers.
The fact that my own shop can give good books another shot at an audience, and thereby become a small part of the ongoing work of reclaiming lost and neglected books, is one of the most satisfying parts of my job. I should stress that this is definitely a two-way street, and that I have learned at least as much from my customers over the years as they have ever learned from me. I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had that began with a simple purchase or inquiry and went on to excited bursts of “Oh, but have you read so and so? You must!” and “If you like this sort of thing, you have a treat in store — this writer is right up your alley!”
I’ve chosen for this essay a few writers I, myself, am rather fond of who I think have been undeservedly a bit lost in the shuffle and who deserve a wider audience of readers and collectors. Since this is my essay, I get to pick — but I’m sure that everyone reading this has his or her own share of recommendations. In fact, I would be delighted to hear them!
Since I’ve been talking about finding unanticipated delight within faded covers, perhaps it’s appropriate that I draw this batch of neglected books from literature which, similarly, takes as its subject the complexities found lurking behind unprepossessing exteriors and the intrigues behind what is, at first glance, the stuff of ordinary, everyday life.
I offer here a few “neglected” writers who have written intensely and expressively about “ordinary” lives.
The British writer Celia Fremlin is usually shelved in the “mystery” section, but her books are not so easily classifiable. She chooses as settings for her novels scenes of unremarkable domesticity; then bit-by-bit these familiar territories turn, well, strange. Crying babies, quarreling couples, anxious children, eccentric landladies and lodgers who are a bit odd … these are the characters who populate Fremlin’s small, but irresistibly creepy, universe. As the distinguished writer Ruth Rendell has written, “Celia Fremlin’s ‘mysteries’ … concern ordinary people, usually in conventional domestic relationships, living in suburbs or provincial towns, who are brought under pressure from some kind of appalling stress … Identification of her characters is very easily made … partly because the awful situations her people get themselves trapped in, the tedium of running a home, the stress of never having quite enough money to live comfortably, the nagging demands of small children, the pressures of a boring or unsuitable job, are familiar to most of us at some time or another through personal experience.” ** Fremlin is a prolific writer with a long career, but is an example of one whose work has been lost to a larger audience because of the relegation of her work to a particular genre ghetto. If her works were not automatically categorized as “mystery: women’s soft-boiled division,” she might at last achieve a larger audience.
Ernest Raymond was a prolific writer of English family life and character, and he might be considered a bit of a sentimentalist today. But I think at least his 1935 work We the Accuseddeserves a wider readership. The story of “a totally unremarkable man,” it is, in fact, based on the real story of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen and is convincing in its portrayal of the desperate longings that can lie behind the everyday life of an apparently humdrum fellow. By its end this inconsequential man has become both monster and tragic figure, driven to an appalling deed but still, somehow, sympathetic for all that. It is a work of extraordinary power and compassion.
Tess Slesinger is an example of a promising young writer who died far before her time. But still, she left a novel and several remarkable short stories that deserve continued recognition. In her stories, particularly, she addresses a range of issues (from marital woes to writer’s block to life as a department store clerk) with wit and style, and not a little compassion. Her wry humor, social consciousness, and attention to the details that make up women’s lives make her work seem very contemporary to the modern sensibility. It’s a shame that she left such a small body of work, but at least we do have that.
Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled
In Romulus Linney we have the case of someone who has achieved quite a bit of success as an Off-Broadway playwright (and father of the actress Laura Linney), but whose early novel, Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurled, remains relatively obscure. This is a strange and disturbing work, written in the form of a journal by an uneducated, almost illiterate woman in an unspecified small town, in an indeterminate earlier time. As she struggles for expression in the limited language available to her, the reader becomes increasingly able to read between the lines and into the heart of this woman’s repressed emotional life: her self-delusion, self-absorption, her pain, and her real but stifled impulse to love. It’s fascinating how Linney, who as a playwright must have honed his abilities to listen well, seems in this work to have gone straight through language and out the other side.
These writers don’t need exotic locales or femmes fatales to produce works with a great emotional range, to produce sentences to make your hair stand on end, or to provide a compassionate world-view from a very small setting. All they need is the ordinary human heart, and ordinary human emotions — sometimes under extraordinary stress, to be sure, or in extraordinary need. And like the unprepossessing display of books in the secondhand shop, these works — like many others — may well deserve a second look.
* Vidal’s essay originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, November 5, 1987. It has been reprinted in the omnibus collection of his essays United States, published by Random House in 1993.
** Rendell’s remarks are taken from the terrific book, Writer’s Choice, published in 1983 by Reston Publishing Company. Writer’s Choice is a collection of recommendations by well-known writers of works of both fiction and nonfiction. A wonderful starting point for finding buried literary treasure, not to mention the fun of seeing what writers one’s own favorite authors recommend.
Notes on Authors Cited: Celia Fremlin’s many novels of suspense include The Hours Before Dawn(1958); The Trouble Makers(1963); The Jealous One(1965); With No Crying(1980); and Listening in the Dusk(1990).
The novels of Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962) include Craven House(1926); Twenty-Thousand Streets Under the Sky (1935); Hangover Square(1941); and The Slaves of Solitude (1947).
Romulus Linney published Slowly, By Thy Hand Unfurledin 1965. Also of interest is his first novel, Heathen Valley(1962), which has to do with sin and salvation in 19th century North Carolina.
Ernest Raymond (1888-1974) had an unusually long writing life. Sixteen of his novels constitute “A London Gallery,” intended as a portrait of half a century of London life. We, the Accused(1935) is part of this ambitious enterprise. Other novels include To the Wood No More(1954) and The Chalice and the Sword (1952).
Tess Slesinger (1905-1945) left behind the novel The Unpossessed(1934) and the story collection Time: The Present(1935; reprinted in 1971as On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover, and Other Stories), as well as several screenplays (including a co-writing credit for the 1945 film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”).