Earlier this week A.N. Devers asked her followers on Twitter to weigh in on great American novelists who are overlooked in some way. She was inspired to do so by a piece in Slate by Meghan O’Rourke calling out unconscious gender bias among book critics, but the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist hashtag quickly acquired a mix of male and female writers: The final list of authors she assembled includes J.F. Powers, Pervical Everett, and John Crowley in addition to Dawn Powell, Kathryn Davis, and Joy Williams.
It wasn’t such a bad way to kill a few minutes, and because I had D.C. novelists on my mind lately, I put in a word, yet again, for Ward Just. This got a response from Janice Harayda, former Cleveland Plain Dealer books editor and founder of One-Minute Book Reviews, who wondered if a writer who tends to get lots of praise lavished on him by the likes of the Washington Post can really be considered overlooked.
I responded that a writer can still be overlooked even if he or she gets stacks of positive press—once again, there’s little evidence that reviews sell books—and that Just was something of an unusual case. For all that positive press, he’s never won a major award, and though his style and themes (Henry James-ian, thinky but accessible, interested in both political and personal affairs) suggest he could’ve had John Updike‘s audience, he rarely comes up in conversation, online or otherwise. I wouldn’t make it a rallying cry or anything, but sometimes older white-guy authors fail to get the readers they deserve too; the marketplace is full of injustices, and they’re not exclusively a function of gender.
In any event, I tried to compress all that in a tweet, to which Harayda responded that authors like Just aren’t so much “overlooked” as “underappreciated.” The distinction between the two terms wasn’t quite clear to me, so I dropped Harayda a line asking if she could take a moment to clarify. She did better than that, both explaining the difference between the terms and challenging some of the #overlookedgreatamericannovelist responses. Here’s Harayda:
What troubled me about some of the Twitter suggestions was this: Until about 20 years or so ago, entire groups of people truly were overlooked by the publishing industry: gays, blacks, and Latinos and other ethnic groups. In some cases, they had almost no voice, because they couldn’t get published. Black women are one example. The breakthrough for them came with the publication of Terry McMillan‘s Waiting to Exhale in 1995. Until that sold well, black female writers of popular fiction simply could not get published. At all. I’m not exaggerating. A year or so before Waiting to Exhale came out, I covered a Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention as background for a 7-part series for the Plain Dealer on how romance novels were changing. And it was heartbreaking to listen to the stories of the black women there. The only firm that would publish them was a small press that was started because nobody else would take on black female romance novelists. The major publishers were telling black female writers of popular fiction things like—this is a direct quote—”Black people don’t read.”
Apart from issues such as race or sex, entire classes of novels are routinely “overlooked” in important areas like prize-giving—for example, comic novels, which have always been taken less seriously than tragedies even if they’re just as good. Let’s face it: Would P.G. Wodehouse stand a chance at a Man Booker Prize? And variations on this principle are still affecting writers. Virtually every week at the Plain Dealer I saw good novels that weren’t going to get reviewed, by us or most other places, just because there wasn’t space.
Contrast such situations to that of some of the people mentioned on Twitter yesterday, such as J.P. Marquand and J.F. Powers. They are both good writers, and, yes, may deserve more readers today. But Marquand won a Pulitzer and Powers, a National Book Award. Is this really being “overlooked”? If so, it feeds into the Manichean view that grips publishing today: You’re a peacock or a you’re feather duster. There’s less and less middle ground. Your books are bestsellers or you’re “overlooked,” a duality works against authors. You mentioned Ward Just, who has had a distinguished career without gaining the stature or sales of Updike. I believe you that he deserves more readers. But if the reception Just has had amounts to being “overlooked,” many writers would kill for it. And it doesn’t seem to me that Just is overlooked because his books haven’t had Updike’s sales or nobody talks about him for the Nobel. Everybody doesn’t have to hit it big in all categories. To my mind, the people who are “overlooked” are not those who have won big prizes, but those who never had a chance at them either because they couldn’t get published or because they wrote books of high literary merit in categories unfashionable with prize judges or readers.
Point taken—Just, like many others on the list, isn’t suffering so much from a poverty of attention as a lack of readers to match that attention. Though I’m not sure what changes that. Maybe it doesn’t require changing. What if the appetite for realist Catholic fiction by J.F. Powers is precisely at the level it ought to be today, even if it’s less than it once was? Is Powers then “overlooked,” or are his books simply meeting their market?