Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. It makes people think you’re dead.
Thus begins Christopher Fowler’s foray into lesser known literary history as he identifies 99 authors who were once hugely popular but have now all but disappeared from the shelves. From the lost rivals of Dickens and Holmes to the woman who pioneered psychological suspense, it seems no author is immune from the fate of being forgotten.
It’s an entertaining, eclectic and enlightening collection written with a book lover’s enthusiasm so I was delighted when Christopher agreed to answer some questions for The Shelf as part of his blog tour.
Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books Christopher! The Book of Forgotten Authors is a fascinating premise. What made you decide to write about authors that have been largely forgotten by modern readers?
I spent a lot of time going through my parents’ bookcases, and later my own, wondering why so many of the books I saw there seemed not to be available anymore. Perhaps, I thought, they’re not any good, so I bought a few online and found that many were superb, and there was no clear reason to explain why they had been lost. A little digging started to reveal the reasons why.
How did you research such a large topic and choose which authors to write about? I imagine there must have been a few who didn’t make the cut?
I would have liked to include more dramatists, SF writers and non-fiction books but was forced to limit myself. I started out with around 450 authors and submitted them to group-testing by asking 20 well-read friends if they’d heard of them. If I got a lot of blank looks I covered them. I was looking for people who’d led interesting lives and were interesting – not always perfect – writers. Most were worthy of inclusion, but I’d have swamped the poor reader with too much information! Perhaps there will be another volume…
You’re well known for your crime novels, especially your Bryant & May series. How did researching and writing The Book of Forgotten Authors differ from writing your fiction books?
It was a labour of love, so often I was already familiar with the books themselves. Where it got tricky was in tracking the personal lives of writers who did not always wish to be rediscovered, or who died after covering their tracks. These were writers with no Facebook profiles, so I often simply had to ask around. Sometimes, after a lot of pestering, their relatives got in touch with me.
Did you find any common reasons as to why once popular authors are no longer read? Is it to do with publishers not re-printing blacklists, rights issues, or just because reading tastes change?
All of the above, and more. The saddest lost books were those from writers whose publishers decided they were no longer fashionable. Some lacked confidence to begin with, and lost heart when their latest works were rejected. Certain other problems repeated themselves; addiction, madness, poverty – and sudden wealth – all played their part.
Thinking of reading tastes, did you discover any trends in writing, publishing & reading habits whilst researching the book? I’m thinking about the surge in erotica sales after the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy came out and wondered if there were similar phases in the 19th & early 20th centuries?
Interesting question. The erotica reboot was marketing-driven, but there were definite trends in the past. The boom in detective fiction was simply phenomenal thanks to Conan Doyle and Christie. Many women wrote about psychological states after the war because, having been required to play a part in the conflict, they were then pushed back into kitchens and felt frustrated. Men had often fought – it’s surprising how many novelists were pilots – and wrote themselves into fresh adventures once they were grounded. I think that’s why we had so many action-adventures and spy novels in the 50s and 60s. There were an awful lot of books about rugged chaps who were good with a spanner.
In recent years dedicated imprints (such as Persephone) and podcasts (such as Backlisted) have started to reignite readers’ interest in lesser known authors from the 19th and early 20th centuries. There have also been a number of rediscovered classic bestsellers, such as John Williams’ ‘Stoner’. Do you think publishers and readers have become more open to discovering modern classics & forgotten authors?
Absolutely. One of the most pleasurable parts of writing the book was finding authors coming back into print whom I’d assumed were lost forever. I cut many from the final edition simply because they had become popular once more. There remain some truly mystifying gaps in reprints though, partly to do with missing copyright, partly because not all publishers are so forward thinking.
Do you think modern readers would be surprised by the scope of some of the books you came across? Were there any that you felt were particularly before their time or really resonated with you?
Definitely. One of the book’s centerpiece authors wrote a novel I discovered when I was seventeen. It was so casually shocking that it stayed very modern. This was Maryann Forrest’s ‘Here (Away From It All)’. Another was Richard Hughes’ ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’. I think the key to longevity was a clear eye and a lack of sentiment. Both books feature children and families but are certainly not family reading. I feel we’ve become more timid about big themes in the last few years. There are too many small, personal stories.
Out of your 100 forgotten authors, were there any that became particular favourites and that you think modern readers need to re-discover?
Three of the most surprising to me were JB Priestley, Margaret Millar and Norman Collins. They were all superb writers with terrific stories to tell, whose work simply vapourised. Happily they’re fast coming back into print. Some authors were among the most popular in the English-speaking world before they disappeared!
And finally, can you tell us a little about what you’re currently working on? Will you be sticking with more non-fiction or are you returning to a life of crime?!
Both, I suspect. There’s a new Bryant & May novel called ‘Hall of Mirrors‘ coming up, set in the swinging sixties, my thriller ‘Little Boy Found‘ (written as L K Fox) is due out in paperback soon, then there’s a fantasy epic and a thriller. But I’d love to do more non-fiction, a second volume of ‘Forgotten Authors’, perhaps!
The Book of Forgotten Authors is out now and is the ideal present for the bibliophile in your life this festive season – or a treat for yourself to curl up with as these winter nights draw in! It’s the perfect dipping in and out book – great for those of us who sometimes need to snatch five minutes of reading in between hectic bouts of work and family life – and is sure to send you on the hunt for some forgotten gems to add to your TBR.
For anyone interested in checking out Christopher’s recommended reads, he has written a fascinating blog post about Maryann Forest’s ‘Here (Away From It All)‘ which you can read here. Print copies seem hard to come by but the book is available on Kindle – although it’s listed under the author’s real name, Polly Hope. Richard Hughes’ ‘A High Wind in Jamaica‘ has been re-published as a Vintage Classic so is more readily available from all good booksellers.
A big thank you to Christopher for answering my questions – it’s been a pleasure to have you visit The Shelf. The blog tour continues until 15 October so do check out some of the other stops along the way.
The Book of Forgotten Authors is published by riverrun and is available in hardback now from all good booksellers. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advance copy in return for an honest and unbiased review. My thanks also go to Christopher Fowler for answering my questions and to fellow blogger Anne Cater (check out her blog at Random Things Through My Letterbox) for arranging the tour.