Forgotten masterpieces
February 16, 2017 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes, books that are acclaimed as masterpieces, and widely loved, can fade into obscurity. An example is Richard Hughes's remarkable contributions to children's lit (A High Wind in Jamaica and his wartime stories), which are now forgotten or out of print. What are some other examples of this happening in contemporary genre fiction?

I don't mean books in a dated genre or writing style (eg Ann Radclyffe's Mysteries of Udolpho or the Waverley novels). Or literary fiction which rarely sells widely anyway.

I mean 20th century books that were once popular, and still could be widely enjoyed, but simply aren't any more, because sometimes bad things happen to good books.
posted by dontjumplarry to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
The documentary The Stone Reader is all about this subject. Its focus is the novel The Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman (which I have not read). I haven't seen the film in a while, but I seem to recall that its interviewees mention other books that fit your criteria.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:53 PM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think Bernard Malamud's books have slipped out of the canon for no reason after being considered some of the best contemporary literature for their time.

Slightly older than contemporary, but Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm is on almost no one's radar anymore, even though it's a great book (and hysterically funny) and was very popular when it came out.
posted by Mchelly at 8:22 PM on February 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Nevil Shute is one such author.
posted by Rash at 9:01 PM on February 16, 2017 [8 favorites]

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder? It's not genre fiction, but I guess it was a huge success and I feel like it's not very well known at all.
posted by vunder at 9:22 PM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Silverlock" by John Myers Myers was very popular in the 1960s after being published in 1949. It's high fantasy (of a sort), picaresque even, and rewards those knowledgeable in classical literature and mythology. There was a new issue in 2005 so some people are still reading it, and got introductions from SF luminaries (Jerry Pournelle e.g.). It's a lot of fun, even if frustrating.

Also, I agree about Nevil Shute, a very fine author sadly unread now. There are a number of his titles that would pay rereading.
posted by MovableBookLady at 9:37 PM on February 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Among authors I admire, I'd put John Fowles into this category. "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Daniel Martin" were once bestsellers, and probably little read now, but they're both excellent. "A Maggot" is a bizarre but interesting later work, and even a baggy mess like his early "The Magus" is intermittently worthwhile.

For other possible examples, it's worth browsing through the lists of bestsellers organized by decade. Arguably someone like Daphne du Maurier, once extremely popular, is under-read now. But an awful lot is schlock--I can't imagine calling for a revival of Richard Bach, for instance.
posted by informavore at 10:17 PM on February 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

Voyage, Sterling Hayden
posted by artdrectr at 11:14 PM on February 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Oooooh, this is one of my favorite categories of books!

Forever Amber, which we read at FanFare, was "a 900-page romp through the Restoration that was both the best-selling and most-banned novel of the 1940s in the US. The Australian government banned the book with the claim that, β€œThe Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish.” Massachusetts helpfully listed its reasons for banning the novel as pornography: β€œ70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men.”"

Booth Tarkington is one of only three people to win the fiction Pulitzer more than once (Updike and Faulkner are the others) and hardly anybody reads him anymore! But he's hugely entertaining! His most famous are The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. His work is mostly out of copyright so you can find it free as e-books. Both were adapted into well-regarded movies.

James Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy is another example. Adapted into a movie, on tons of "best of" lists, widely read in American high school curricula in the late 30s and 40s, almost nobody's even heard of it now!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:22 PM on February 16, 2017 [16 favorites]

Kenneth Roberts wrote historical fiction, mostly set in the early American history time period and they are fascinating, gripping reads.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:42 PM on February 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It’s not out-of-print, so isn’t altogether forgotten, but Margaret Kennedy’s 1924 novel The Constant Nymph might qualify. Likewise, from the same year, Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat.

Also, the wonderful Writers No-One Reads on tumblr might interest you.
posted by misteraitch at 4:34 AM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your example book is back in print at NYRB. Check out their list for tons of other books that probably meet your criteria. I think that "20th century books that were once popular, and still could be widely enjoyed" represents a big part of their mandate.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 5:26 AM on February 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Booth Tarkington is one of only three people to win the fiction Pulitzer more than once (Updike and Faulkner are the others) and hardly anybody reads him anymore!

Speaking of writers whose stars have fallen, Updike was once regarded as a Very Important Writer and nowadays one hardly hears his name.
posted by slkinsey at 5:51 AM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

When you say genre fiction, is that code for fantasy/science fiction/mystery novels?
posted by mecran01 at 5:51 AM on February 17, 2017

A 1935 Pulitzer-winning novel by H.L. Davis, "Honey In The Horn" fits this description. It's a novel I've been meaning to re-read, as I have fond memories of my first encounter with the novel years ago. From Wikipedia; "Honey in the Horn is a novel about life in the homesteading days of Oregon, 1906-1908. "
posted by Agave at 6:10 AM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wouldn't have thought of A High Wind in Jamaica as a children's book though. But there is a children's writer, Nina Bawden, who is excellent, and I don't see her books being recommended to schools or young families these days at all.
posted by glasseyes at 6:37 AM on February 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't think it ever had popular success, but In Parenthesis by David Jones is modernist Great War epic that employs a mix of prose and verse, and it was highly acclaimed by a lot of major literary figures of the time. W.B. Yeats personally praised Jones for writing it; T.S. Eliot wrote a glowing introduction for it in which he placed Jones in the same "literary generation" as him and Joyce and Pound. Even folks who are really into modernist literature tend to be unaware of it.
posted by Gymnopedist at 7:58 AM on February 17, 2017

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Puliziter prize winner in 1952, and a best seller. Moral conflicts and their resulting decisions are at the core, while also being an entertaining read. Reflects the conformity and authoritarianism of it's time, though it's up to the reader as to whether those were part of the problem or part of the solution.
posted by Homer42 at 8:34 AM on February 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: High Wind in Jamaica is about as far from a children's book as you get.

I think John Williams' Stoner has had a renaissance of sorts recently, but before that, I certainly would have put it into this category, and it's still a bit underread, in my opinion.

Two more I'd mention: I would say that Man with the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren is criminally underrated, as is Algren's stuff in general; the man was a poet. Also Troubles by J.G. Farrell, which is not only a wonderful book but also darkly hilarious at times.
posted by holborne at 9:00 AM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: There is a book club at Stanford that is called Another Look and it is dedicated to short novels that either have fallen out of favor, or never got the attention they deserved.

You could comb through their archives. I have read some of them and found them to be very worthwhile.
posted by vunder at 11:22 AM on February 17, 2017

I wonder if John Dos Passos counts?
posted by brennen at 3:42 PM on February 17, 2017

Best answer: This question and especially informavore's answer inspired this blog post: "Obscure but well-rated ex-bestsellers." FWIW, I queried Goodreads for each of the Publishers Weekly 20th Century bestsellers and found those that were still being read with enthusiasm by enough people to indicate potential popularity but not by so many people as to actually be popular. I also used the shelf data to remove books that are probably enjoyed for practical rather than literary reasons and so aren't in scope for the question. It's hard not to read the list as being a bit dated, but titles like The Sea-Hawk, Prince of Foxes, and Anatomy of a Murder leap out at me as plausible contenders.
posted by cpound at 3:56 PM on February 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The Kristin Lavransdatter series by Sigrid Undset. She won a Nobel Prize, but nobody knows who the hell she is anymore and it is a damn shame. The trilogy (especially in their newest translation) is a legit masterpiece.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:34 PM on February 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

Edna Ferber, for sure. Her novels are better known in their adaptations (including Show Boat) and I think she's better know mm as a member of of the Algonquin Round Table that she is read. So Big is worthwhile though.
posted by vunder at 7:46 PM on February 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

High Wind in Jamaica is about as far from a children's book as you get.

But it is a book about children. Anyway, seconding Nelson Algren; I favor his Walk on the Wild Side and especially "The Captain Has Bad Dreams" in The Neon Wilderness.

If by genre you mean mysteries how about Josephine Tey?
posted by Rash at 9:32 PM on February 17, 2017

I'm not certain what "literary fiction" excludes. But:
Robert Lewis Taylor, The Travels of Jamie McPheeters was a Pulitzer-winning best-seller in 1958, but now is OOP. (Taylor also wrote A Journey to Matecumbe, which, because of the Disney movie, is still around. The books have a certain similarity but McPheeters is better.)

Joyce Cary was a great novelist, now remembered for two works: Mister Johnson and The Horse's Mouth, but he wrote some other great books. The Horse's Mouth is the third volume of a trilogy which begins with Herself Surprised. The First Trilogy deals with social and historic change from Edwardian times up to the beginning of World War II.
The Second Trilogy, beginning with To Be A Pilgrim, is about English politics during the same period. (It ends during the General Strike of 1926.)
If a trilogy is too many books for you, try A Fearful Joy, which ends after WWII and is just great. History as experienced by a woman who has a most interesting life.
Also, The Moonlight should be mentioned. It's about feminine issues and Cary meant it as a riposte to Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata".
posted by CCBC at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2017

How about the genre of YA historical fiction? Stephen Meader was a mainstay of US school libraries in the md-20th century, and fortunately his books are still available at Southern Skies.
posted by Rash at 9:36 AM on February 19, 2017

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