Book Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten Authors, by Christopher Fowler, is a book for bibliophiles. It offers the reader details and anecdotes on ninety-nine authors who were once hugely popular and are now no longer in print. It is a very personal selection. The author admits that some of those chosen produced work that was predictable and not particularly well written, yet it has a charm that he finds appealing. Others he dismisses. Of Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert he opines that they wrote novels packaged in

“the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up.”

Really?

Each author listed is necessarily given just a few pages. Although superficial this is enough to provide a flavour of why they became popular before sinking into obscurity. Interspersed with the listings are commentaries such as ‘The Forgotten Books of Charles Dickens’ and ‘The Forgotten Booker Winners’. Although esoteric in places these make for interesting reading.

From some of the quotes provided I would suggest many of these authors deserve to stay forgotten, yet this reaction demonstrates just how personal individual reading experiences can be. In talking of the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong:

“sometimes you want to wring the necks of her protagonists for picking the one option that will get them into deeper trouble. But hey, bad choices make good stories.”

I’m not sure that I agree.

The book is written with a deft and humorous touch. It is also moving in places. The chapter on Polly Hope was a particular favourite.

It is not so much the quality of the literature produced by these forgotten authors as their passing popularity that warrants their inclusion. Tastes change over time as do readers’ offence radars; authors can be sidelined when their evocative voice grates modern sensibilities.

I did not always agree with the conclusions the author reaches. The Forgotten Queens of Suspense opens with

“Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”

This sounded familiar. The author is more generous suggesting

“Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved.”

If only this were truly the case.

The output of many of the authors listed was prodigious, especially compared to current expectations. Like today some was also abtruse. Thomas Love Peacock is described as an acquired taste, seemingly for good reason. In writing of his tome Nightmare Abbey:

“it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words”

“the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order.”

Do authors such as this deserve a reprint?

There are scathing comments about readers who are described as ‘intellectually inert’. As an example, the author clearly dislikes the once popular little book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When a teenager I found this uplifting. Perhaps my more jaded, aged eye would not agree but at the time of reading it did its job and connected.

The author writes kinder words on the renowned Dan Brown:

“The real sin of bad writing is being boring, and Mr Brown is certainly never that.”

Well, he bored me.

Of course, agreeing with the author’s point of view is not the point. What this book offers is a window into the vagaries of the publishing world and its readership, the changing tastes and fickle loyalties. It is packaged in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into and refering back to over time.

I welcomed the insights into the ever evolving literary world, its discoveries and appropriations, pretensions and fads. So much has changed and yet much remains the same. As a great author, who has not been forgotten, once wrote: a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. For these ninety-nine, Mr Fowler could be a lifesaver.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author, riverrun.

This post is a stop on The Book of Forgotten Authors Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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