Authors Made Visible

Reading & Writing

2

When I started my ‘Invisible Ink’ column in the UK’s Independent On Sunday, it seemed that I might be able to direct a few readers who showed an interest toward authors they had missed. When the column began, it seemed an intriguing idea to find out what happened to some of the popular authors whose books we stashed on shelves and forgot about. After all, they helped to shape our imaginations and many became touchstones in our lives. One question haunted me: If they were so beloved, why did they disappear so quickly?

The first column I wrote was dedicated to EM Delafield, the daughter of a Count whose charming diaries became immensely popular. I hadn’t been prepared for the deluge of suggestions that followed. Everyone, it seemed, had a favourite forgotten author. The task of tracking them down became obsessive, exhausting and often immensely rewarding.

Far from disappearing quietly I discovered they had started new careers, adopted false identities, lost fortunes, descended into alcoholism or madness, died young and penniless, switched genders, got censored, reinvented themselves or had become famous in other fields. One dated a porn star, one became the subject of a sex scandal, one was involved with a murderer, and one turned out to be Winston Churchill. Some chose their own fates, some were simply unlucky, some were still living and were thrilled to be remembered and revered by book lovers.

In fact the missing authors had true stories to tell which proved as surprising than anything they invented. Kyril Bonfiglioli’s widow wrote to tell me of her husband’s fencing skills (she must be horrified by the hash they made of the film version, ‘Mortdecai’), Tania Rose described how her writing destroyed her marriage, Polly Hope invited me to tea and revealed her second career as the interior designer of the Globe Theatre.

I soon realised that it was not unusual to discover that an author had produced 150 books in a lifetime before vanishing completely from shops. Thanks to dedicated publishers, collectors and the arrival of new technology, many of the volumes which were lost for so long have now been rediscovered, and I like to think that the columns had a small part to play in this.

I was excited to see Hans Fallada reappear in beautiful new editions (with a film of ‘Alone In Berlin’ coming, from director Vincent Perez, Brendan Gleeson and my old pal Emma Thompson, above), and the return of Alexander Baron, whose King Dido should be on everyone’s list of top London novels.

All kinds of surprising connections began to appear between authors and the backroom promoters who discovered them. Alfred Hitchcock’s name turned up again and again; he was forever championing neglected and overlooked writers, although by filming ‘The Birds’ he denied its true originator, Frank Baker, the accolade he deserved by mistakenly buying the rights to the wrong story, Daphne Du Maurier’s later version.

The puzzles and paradoxes thrown up by these excavations have proven endless. After 300 columns I still have a 30 page list of authors to cover, if I can get around to finding and reading their works. Hopefully there will be a book forthcoming. meanwhile, the first volume of the columns, ‘Invisible Ink’, is still available from Strange Attractor Press.

6 comments on “Authors Made Visible”

  1. Jo W says:

    Chris, I don’t remember if I ever thanked you for introducing me to several of the ‘authors’ in your Invisible Ink book. E.M. Delafield – what a joy. I managed to track down four of her books, thoroughly enjoyable. In the pile of books to be read,I have a box set of Edmund Crispin which I was lucky enough to find in a charity shop. Many of the other authors I read years ago,when public libraries still had a good stock of old titles. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to finding out which writers you include in the next collection – Son of Invisible Ink, maybe? 😉

  2. Jo W says:

    Oops! Error- ‘authors’ should be ‘Invisible’ authors. :-0

  3. Vincent C says:

    It is a delightful series. But no flagging now. I am looking forward to your essays on the authors in your pending 30 page list – the best news I have had in a long time.

  4. Michelle dempsey says:

    I read Janet McNeill books when I was a child in Dublin and they were lovely however she is out of print now, over the years I have managed to get hold of a few which are from the States and are ex library copies. I don’t know if you are familiar with her but one of her books springs to mind as the festive season is almost upon us, it’s called We Three Kings and its a wonderful book set in the north of England. It’s about growing up and loss of childhood, family tragedy and redemption and the schools Nativity play. Happy Christmas

  5. Vivienne says:

    It does seem a retrograde step in that libraries only seem now to stock serious classics and the latest published novels. As an adolescent, I would wander along the shelves and take in all those names that looked a bit serious for me then, but hoped to get round to later. Then they all just went! There doesn’t these days seem to be a continuum. Not sure at all that you can find people from the 30s, 40s and on, much. I’m thinking of people like Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, D H Lawrence, Graham Greene even, Anthony Burgess and up to Martin Amis. Same with Admin’s forte, Agatha Christie and then you jump to Lee Child.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I was just looking at the BBC Culture feature on 10 beautiful bookshops and seeing the rows and rows of books for sale it’s hard to imagine books are disappearing. They aren’t, of course, but I think I can shed some light on the disappearance of older but not classic authors. Every library has a finite amount of space so they monitor the use of their collection. Classics like Dickens, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie are guaranteed a place, although perhaps not the entirety of Christie’s oeuvre. Now that collections are computerized you may not see the usage tabulation but the way they commonly keep track is to put a dot on the top or bottom of the book. When they come to weed the shelves books that have not been borrowed in a set time are for the toss. If you want to keep books on the shelves, read whatever you can find of Admin’s Invisible Authors, then recommend them to friends, then read them again. I just read Mansfield Park (not likely to disappear) and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (also not likely to vanish) so I think I’d better take my own advice.

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