Overlooked and Underappreciated

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?

4 responses to “Overlooked and Underappreciated

  1. Thanks, Mark. I think you got it right when you said: “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?” The literary market can also be self-correcting (though, alas, not always in authors’ lifetimes). We may see a J.F. Powers or J.P. Marquand revival the way we’ve seen a Dawn Powell revival, spurred by a movie or a publisher’s decision to issue new editions. Thanks to A.N. Devers for sparking the lively discussion on Twitter …

  2. Donald Harington. The Stay More novels are magic. Start with *Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks.* End with *Enduring,* published just before his death in 2009. You’ll thank me.

  3. If most of an author’s books are out of print (as Marquand’s are), then the author is most certainly overlooked. Irrespective of the fact that Marquand did, in fact, make the cover of TIME. Marquand is a case where he was wildly popular among middle-class readers during the 1930s and the 1940s. But he was snubbed by the snobs in subsequent decades, because they were suspicious of an author who was “readable.” Never mind that his satire was executed with great alacrity: he was very careful to skewer the institutions that caused middle-class malaise, not his characters. Now you can’t even find SINCERELY, WILLIS WAYDE, H.R. PULRAM, ESQ., or SO LITTLE TIME without digging into used bookstore bins. Yes, there have been efforts to revive the man. Jonathan Yardley, Terry Teachout, my own attempt in the Barnes & Noble Review. But aside from my own efforts to purchase multiple copies of crumbling Marquand mass-markets and giving them to friends who might appreciate him, I’ve seen little traction on a Marquand revival. Unless Oprah picks him, Marquand is doomed to stay out-of-print. In a manner incommensurate with his Pulitzer Prize. Thus, overlooked. It can happen to anyone. What’s not to suggest that it won’t happen to Franzen?

  4. Whether a writer is underrated varies almost from year to year, country to country. A few months ago I saw, in a UK paper, one of those surveys where various writers are asked to choose an underrated or neglected writer. One writer (British) picked Zora Neale Hurston – specifically, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now, that book, and author, were certainly almost completely forgotten in the 1960s and 1970s, before Alice Walker got the Hurston revival going. But now Eyes is read in every college (and nearly every high school) in America. However, it probably is not too widely known a book in Britain.

    Richard Yates, for years up to his death, and close to a decade after it, was pretty much forgotten. But then the Complete Stories that Tom Bissell put together and Blake Bailey’s biography changed that, and when the paperback of Revolutionary Road sold about a half-million in the wake of the Leo’n’Kate movie, his re-emergence was complete.

    And a movie sure does make a difference. Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Pawnbroker was filmed with Rod Steiger in one of his signature roles, and every time that runs on TCM, people say, “Well, what about Wallant?” That has helped keep at least one or two or his books in print over the years. (Though I think The Pawnbroker itself is OOP just now.) By contrast, a lot of writers from that era, who never had a book made into a movie, are forgotten. (Or they did have a book filmed – such as Warren Miller’s The Cool World – but the movie is never shown on TV and rarely in repertory theaters.)

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