This fall, my husband and I braved country roads and their harrowing roundabouts to make a literary pilgrimage to the tiny town of Finstock in Oxfordshire, England, to see … what? Barn Cottage, the last home of the writer Barbara Pym, and, a kilometer walk up the hill, the churchyard where Pym and her sister Hilary share a gravesite with a fine view of the countryside.
Barbara Pym is a midcentury British novelist, sometimes called a 20th century Jane Austen. Her novels, about spinsters, curates, archdeacons, anthropologists, and their secretly tended passions, are deft, quietly hilarious, wry about human folly and forgiving of human eccentricity. While not for everyone, Pym’s books are a passion of mine — I have even delivered a paper at the annual North American Barbara Pym Conference — and her career is an ongoing inspiration.
Pym had published six novels in 12 years before her publisher, Jonathan Cape, refused to publish another, saying her work was out of style — too cozy. For the next 16 years, nobody else would publish her either. She labored on in obscurity (if not at the confident clip she might have maintained with more encouragement) until 1977, when the London Times Literary Supplement asked various literary denizens to name the 20th century’s most underrated novelists: Pym was the only author mentioned twice — by the poet Philip Larkin and the critic Lord David Cecil. This publicity brought all her books back into print and saw the publication of two new novels; one, “Quartet in Autumn,” was shortlisted for a Booker Prize.
Thank God for rediscovery — and reprints.
I suspect that all writers labor under the same unspoken hope: that, however underappreciated their work is today, it will eventually receive the attention and love it deserves. It happens more often than you’d think.
Jean Rhys, a writer from the Caribbean island of Dominica, having last published a novel in 1939, spent 20 years in obscurity (mostly drinking) when the editor Diana Athill convinced her to finish writing a precursor to Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” “Wide Sargasso Sea,” published in 1966, became an instant classic. Athill also republished all of Rhys’ earlier books. Unlike Pym, Rhys did not relish late-in-life fame. “It has come too late,” she said.
Authors sometimes find their way back into print, like Pym, through other writers. In 1991, while at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in upstate New York, Jonathan Franzen discovered a copy of “Desperate Characters,” by Paula Fox, originally published in 1970 and long out of print. “Perchance to Dream,” an essay in which Franzen praised Fox’s novel, was published in Harpers in 1996, and not only revived interest in Fox, but convinced a young editor at Norton named Tom Bissel to publish first a new edition of “Desperate Characters” with Franzen’s introduction in 1999, and then two more novels by Fox.
Recently, Los Angeles’ own chronicler of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and Hollywood, Eve Babitz, has enjoyed a revival, with two collections of her essays from the 1970s (“Eve’s Hollywood” and “Slow Days, Fast Company”) reissued by that great resurrector of neglected classics, NYRB Classics. Her fiction has also been brought back into print by Simon and Schuster (“L.A. Woman,” 1982) and Counterpoint Press (“Sex and Rage,” 1979). The Babitz revival was supercharged by a 2014 profile in Vanity Fair by Lili Anolik, who then wrote a full biography, “Hollywood’s Eve,” which came out this year. This revival has earned Babitz, now 75, a burgeoning new fan base. Echoing Rhys, Babitz told Anolik, “You know, publicity is great, but not when you’re in your 70s.”
Some writers aren’t revived until they’re dead. Few recent novelists have enjoyed a more robust posthumous comeback than John Williams, starting with reissues of his 1965 novel of a tortured academic, “Stoner.” Originally selling fewer than 2,000 copies, it was out of print in a year. The University of Arkansas Press reissued it 33 years later, in 1998; Vintage published a paperback version in 2003, and in 2006, New York Review Books Classics reissued the version with its now-iconic cover of a Thomas Eakins portrait. I am not among the book’s fans. I find the plot gratuitously excruciating, a kind of reverse sentimentality that’s as author-driven and inauthentic as any happily-ever-after narrative. But it has been vaunted as a masterpiece by such diverse readers as Morris Dickstein and Steve Almond and also embraced as a “perfect novel by a whole new generation of readers.” That’s the kind of happy ending the book lacked.
Edwin Frank, the editorial director of NYRB Classics, says there is no set process for selecting their titles. It “happens in all sorts of ways … in people making recommendations, in combing used bookstores, reading reference books, reading about a book in an essay in another book, in hearing from agents, and from translators who’ve acquired a book in a foreign language and are seeking a publisher.”
While “Stoner” has been “the single book that is most successful” for the NYRB Classics imprint, Frank also cites as significant rediscoveries: “The Door,” by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabo; “Love in a Fallen City,” by Eileen Chang; as well as an almost 900-page chronicle of World War II, “Life and Fate,” by Vasily Grossman, and its precursor “Stalingrad,” published just this year.
Today, reprints are often boosted by lively review attention, which wasn’t the case 20 years ago when NYRB embarked on its Classic series. Reviewers are more receptive now, Frank says, because of two changes: “It is no longer disqualifying for a book to appear in paperback. And there is an interest and openness to reviewing older books and reissues because book culture is now under threat with the internet and TV, and there’s a more conscious effort to look back and survey the whole of it. Readers and editors of book reviews have a feeling that keeping alive a sense of the historical range of the book is important — it’s what sets books apart from, say, video games.”
Who’s next? I’d love to see the California novelist and short-story writer Alice Adams revived — I’ve been teaching her haunting, perfect short story “Roses, Rhododendron” to young writers for years, and I can’t wait to read Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Adams that’s due out in December. My money is also on the British novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard and her immersive five-book series, “The Cazalet Chronicle,” about life on the home front before, during and after World War II, novels indeed full of intimate glimpses of “the hurdles thrown up in the last century.”