Brad Bigelow’s mission is to save neglected and forgotten books from oblivion. His blog, Neglected Books, beavers away at this. His reading and range are truly impressive. This New Yorker piece tells his story.

Heaven knows this is an immense task — or to look from the other end of the telescope — a real easy gig. There are just so many good books which we have never heard of, which were written by excellent writers whose names have slipped below the recognition threshold. The Classics series at New York Review Books is based upon this premise. They bring back into print books of quality which have gradually become ignored over the years. Most of these come back to some success and acclaim, but a few, like the famous case of Stoner, are finally getting the bestseller success which their quality merits. I am just reading a Library of America volume, Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s. I’m on the third, and have to say that the novels are really good. There’s a second volume covering the 50s. How did we ever let these excellent books slip into the abyss? And I should be ashamed to admit I have never heard of the four authors represented in this volume, Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. No doubt they wrote other great stuff too. (NYRB Classics did reissue Hughes’ The Expendable Man in 2012.)

For a writer immortality is a tricky career choice. You can write the best you can; you can even succeed in that aim; the reviewers and the public can love it; and you can drop from view ten years later. Why? Or perhaps one would better ask of those who are remembered: why do we count their works as worthwhile? Some of course are just better. Obviously we remember a Shakespeare, a Goethe, a Tolstoy. It’s the second rankers where the immortality thing is more puzzling. There’s nothing wrong with Wilkie Collins, but is he really that much better than Fergus Hume? We remember Graham Greene but appear to have forgotten Angus Wilson. Luck obviously comes into the picture. Notoriously there’s a dip in a writer’s reputation after the temporary boost given by his/her death. Some never seem to clamber out of the ditch. It might be something to do with your publisher’s policy: do they reprint you or not? Robert Penn Warren still seems to be pretty widely in print, but I don’t think we hear his name much any more. I wonder if the print-on-demand and e-book phenomena mean that authors’ reputations will persist longer, now that their books will be available for ever. Of course “Most neglected writers have been neglected for perfectly understandable reasons – usually because they are obscure, difficult or just plain boring.” as Mr Bigelow tells us, quoting Kate Saunder from The New Statesman, August 28, 1998.

In the New Yorker piece (link above) Edwin Frank of NYRB is quoted as speculating that our interest in neglected books nowadays is due to anxiety around a perception of the decay of book culture. I suspect it’s simpler than that: we can now expect to have access to everything, either as a physical book through print-on-demand, or more importantly digitally as an e-book. Free books from Project Gutenberg would seem to me to explain a whole lot of esoteric interest. In other words the book culture which could be said to be in decline is the gate-keeper-controlled exclusive version that really doesn’t exist any longer. Now that we can get pretty much whatever we want, we are finding that there really is someone out there who does want much that our betters used to think we weren’t interested in.

Mr Bigelow is on a neglected women writers jag now. The trouble with all this sort of thing is that if you read all the blog posts you’ll not have any time left to read the books. It doesn’t look like he has covered Vera Caspary, Helen Eustis, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, and from the other volume (in addition to Patricia Highsmith who’s not “neglected”), Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, and Dolores Hitchens. But I can’t be sure: he’s covered so many there’s not enough time to find the answer.

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