One of my main writing projects last year was writing the introductions for Swallow Press’s reissue of Janet Lewis’s informal trilogy Cases of Circumstantial Evidence. Connected by their origins in a common source, a nineteenth casebook of thorny legal situations, the three novels are a wonder of historical accuracy, fine sentences, and interrogations of legal guilt and human culpability. The first in the sequence, The Wife of Martin Guerre has more than once been mentioned with Billy Budd as an example of a great short novel by an American. And yet, while researching Lewis—who lived to be ninety-nine years old and who published in Poetry when she was only twenty—I found that she was regularly characterized as that most precious of things: an underappreciated writer.
Of course, being an “underappreciated writer” is a floating standard, loosely defined and meaning quite distinct things to different people. The Wife of Martin Guerre has remained in print for more than seventy years. Robert Penn Warren recommended it to all his friends. Alan Swallow championed it as much, if not more, than any of his books during his illustrious career as publisher of writers as significant as Anais Nin, Frank Waters and Allan Tate. Larry McMurtry, Evan S. Connell and Tillie Olsen, among just a few, have all written admiringly of the book. It inspired two films starring Gerard Depardieu and Richard Gere, respectively. We should all be so underappreciated!
Still, I would not take away from my fellow writers the opportunity to label a favorite writer “underappreciated.” I have come to understand that this label is as much about the person asserting the status as it is about the writer being described. As writers, we define ourselves at least partially by the other authors we appreciate, especially those that we can claim as uniquely ‘ours.’ It is one of our favorite past-times, the literary equivalent of advocating for your favorite woodsy mushroom or declaring who really should be playing centerfield for the Mets.
Of course, in the wondrous geography of the Internet, there are entire sites devoted to sharing and testifying to one’s tastes in neglected writers. The most delightful of these may be Writers No One Reads, which carries the strangely uplifting tag line, “Has no one read your books? You are in good company.” Their list of writers reduced to the margins of literary history includes Elspeth Davie, a Scottish writer who was “acclaimed in the 60s and early 70s” next to Samuel Beckett; Athanasius Kircher, a seventeenth century Jesuit polymath, who tried to compile a complete accounting of the knowledge in the world, almost all of it later understood to be wrong; and Johannes Bobrowski, a German writer conscripted to the Eastern Front, and who “was very much a writer who himself reads writers nobody reads.” This rabbit hole goes deep.
For some of these “neglected, abandoned, forsaken” authors, the makers of the web site provide Recommended Reading, the book that is Easiest to Find (certainly a relative term), and for the truly intrepid and adventurous reader, a Further Bibliography. Though like Borges’ reviews of books that don’t exist, the web site’s descriptions of the writers, and the worlds in which they wrote, often seems more interesting than the books themselves.
The companion notion to the Underappreciated Writer, is, of course, the Lesser-known Work, where one argues for Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries rather than Hunger, or for setting aside the Canterbury Tales and picking up Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe. (While we’re at it, I’d like to recommend The Trial of Soren Qvist, which I discovered while working on the Lewis project. It’s just as good as Martin Guerre, in my opinion.)
This is all part of the insider-outsider game we all play, a right, perhaps, that we earn for a life in literature. It can be possessive or perversely exclusive. See! My knowledge is even more obscure than yours. At its most generous, though, it’s an invitation. Come, meet my friends. Here they are, spine out.
So, tell us. Who are your underappreciated?