Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 1

Reading & Writing

Over the next six days I’m doing something different here; I’m going to publish a version of the talk I gave around the country on the subject of authors we have loved and misplaced. I started from a template and tended to spring off in different directions for each talk, depending on the mood of the audience. I think it’s insulting to give the same talk every time, so I have about fifteen versions prepared, and ad-lib from those so that nobody gets the same one twice. Then we end with a 20-minute Q&A.

These alternative takes on the subject are from many different viewpoints, graded for audiences by age and demographics. For example, the young tend to ask questions about ethnicity and gender, the elderly want to know why Neville Shute isn’t in it. The beauty of this approach is that you can gauge the audience’s attention and adjust your talk to keep them interested (ideally by shouting ‘Free tea and biscuits’). I once did an event at the old Blackwells in Bloomsbury on Halloween, and the staff served everyone punch. Unfortunately they had left it to a junior staff member to mix the concoction, and he had added several bottles of rum and vodka, with the result that the audience was completely pissed by the time I came on.

This talk is not the one I would give in London; it’s more aware of the rest of the country, which is why I’ve chosen it.

TBOFA Cover

This project began over ten years ago when I was looking at my bookshelves, and thinking about my family’s shelves, and wondering why so many of the paperbacks we’d owned could no longer be found in bookshops. I suggested writing a column about it to the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday, and she loved the idea.

I wanted to understand:

Once there were popular novels almost everyone owned. Mum had Georgette Heyer, Dad had Eric Ambler, kids had Billy Bunter and Malory Towers and the Borrowers. They were the books that shaped imaginations and became touchstones in our lives. They were often hugely successful, but at some point many of their authors vanished from family bookshelves. What happened to them? If these books were any good at all, why were these authors forgotten?

I decided to find out, and embarked on a task that was ten years in the making. During that time the fates of some of the authors I looked into underwent significant changes. Some authors were rediscovered, others reappeared directly because I wrote about them. Many more vanished. A few of the living ones didn’t want to be found. The saddest lost books were those from writers whose publishers decided they were no longer fashionable. Some lacked confidence to begin with, and lost heart when their latest works were rejected. Certain problems kept reappearing; addiction, madness, poverty – and sudden wealth – all played their part.

It proved impossible to find any books at all from a handful of authors, so I had to leave them out. Some wrote under pseudonyms, or wrote for publishing houses that went bust. If you want to find your own forgotten authors, first ask your family about their favourite novels and short stories. Everyone who reads has a favourite author, and a great many of them have vanished, even very recent ones.

The modern popular paperback has an average life of six years. They’re cheaply printed on poor quality paper, it fades and falls apart in strong sunlight. Especially the ones which were printed after the war, when paper was scarce and expensive. That’s why novels were shorter then.

Books need love. They fall to bits unless they’re cared for, and e-books are even more ephemeral; they just get deleted. Also, there are too many bad novels published. It would be better if publishers produced fewer of higher quality. And I think we all know by now that the majority of self-published books are not very good. Nobody writes a great first novel without a fine editor.

I started to make more discoveries about writers and writing. Authors think when they get a book published it will live forever, but only a tiny fraction manage to survive. The journey of a novel doesn’t end with its publication. It’s where the story of its life really begins.

7 comments on “Why Authors Are Forgotten: Part 1”

  1. Debra Matheney says:

    And we readers bring them to life. I so agree that books need love. They also need to be shared and passed on to new generations. However, some are really products of a certain time and place, which I think contributes to their mortality.Writers have to reach beyond contemporary themes and into universal ones. I just finished AUTUMN by Ali Smith. It should last, but will it?
    I totally agree about good editing. I find even solidly established writers can use help. One of the Elizabeth George novels should have been cut by at least one hundred pages so it isn’t just self published writers who need help.

  2. Richard Burton says:

    My personal experience of absconding author was Michael Scott Rohan. I’d loved his stuff when I was at school, helped by the fact his covers were by Ian Miller. Years later I looked to see what had become of the author, and he’d just stopped. Writing had paled for various personal reasons. I didn’t know people stopped writing, I thought writers could only be stopped by death or unappreciative governments. All his stuff seemed to go out of print and consciousness almost immediately.

  3. Roger says:

    “the old Blackwells in Bloomsbury”
    Do you mean the Dillons’ University Bookshop or the Blackwells in Charing Cross Road?
    In either case, I have no recollection, so I was probably there by the sound of it!

    Another interesting question is: how are authors or books rediscovered? Sometimes – like Frederick Rolfe or Julian Maclaren-Ross – it’s through sheer personality. On the other hand, although he wrote five good novels, even the efforts of Ian Fleming couldn’t revive Hugh Edwards and – apart from the ones you list – there are plenty of writers I can think of whi have almost vanished for no reason..
    There are also writers who want to be forgotten – Rosemary Tonks is the obvious example: there was a publisher waiting with a Collected Poems for when she died.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    There was a YA novel called A Packet of Patterns (I think) about the plague in England. I wanted it for some reason but the school librarian said that it had come out years before and there were newer books that would serve. A. What difference did it’s publication date make and B. No, there weren’t any new ones that would serve and C. I wanted to read it again myself. It made me gentler when teachers came asking for 30 year old picture books for their favourite mini-unit. (We do weed the shelves of books no one has borrowed in literal years because there is a lack of shelves and beautiful new books on the same topic with better vocabulary choices are available.)
    Neville Shute (Norway) isn’t going to be on the list because he hasn’t vanished yet even though his books do read as a little dated. Sometimes dated is what you want. Someone writing during the events will often give you a clearer feel for the time than someone writing later, even with massive amounts of research. Stores and libraries, however, will remove older material from their lists if people don’t appear interested. If you don’t want your favourites to disappear then keep asking for them.
    Could reappearance be the result of public re-evaluation of issues? Could that happen with LGBTQ titles?

  5. Ken Mann says:

    From memory it may have been Michael Scott Rohan who fell victim to a publisher’s artist who changed the scale of a fantasy map because a larger scale bar was more aesthetically pleasing. I wonder if historical novelists have this problem.

  6. Annabel says:

    Loved this book. It has expanded my wishlist hugely with new to me authors I want to read, and forgotten ones I want to read more of again. You might want to correct one mistake for the paperback – p36 in the Disney essay you attribute Pinocchio to Perrault not Collodi.

  7. admin says:

    Thanks Annabel – in such a fact-driven book I was waiting to see if we’d had any errors slip through and I’m glad you caught this. It will be corrected for the paperback.

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