On The Tip Of Your tongue: More Forgotten Authors
It seems I may have overestimated the number of readers interested in rediscovering forgotten authors, and it’s unlikely that there’ll be a second volume, which is a shame because it was finished and all ready to go – so from time to time I’ll pop a few of the authors in here, in the hope that you’ll find them interesting.
One of the prime requirements for any writer is an insatiable curiosity. Irving Wallace was a mediocre novelist but an appealing non-fiction populist writer because he was intrigued by outliers, people who didn’t fit in.
Born to a Russian Jewish family in Chicago in 1916, he sold tales to magazines while he was still a teenager. After joining motion picture units during WW2 he wrote scripts for Hollywood B movies, then produced novels with sexual themes. His first big hit was The Chapman Report, about a sexologist and his patients, clearly based on Dr Kinsey. The film version was sold as the sexiest ever made, but now looks trashy and tame. The Man, written in 1964, was about the first black president, The Prize concerned the race to award the Nobel Prize, The Seven Minutes was about an obscenity trial, later filmed by Russ Meyer, The Word prefigured Dan Brown in its account of a biblical discovery, and The Fan Club was about a group of young men who coerce a young film star into having sex with them. Wallace’s novels are a perfect reflection of 1970s concerns and could have made telling statements about the times. Unfortunately the flat prose makes them dull reads and means that they haven’t stood the test of time – which is not to deny that they were once hugely popular.
Wallace excelled in capturing the strange mental processes of eccentrics. In The Fabulous Originals and The Square Pegs he explored odd lives, from flat-earth theorists to rich lunatics who founded cults. He investigated the bunkum of PT Barnum, a real-life Phileas Fogg and various scandalous women, and in these books found a way of putting his research to good use.
The People’s Almanac was a rag-bag of weird facts and esoteric knowledge, and sold surprisingly well. However, when Wallace teamed up with his son and daughter to produce another non-fiction work he hit pay-dirt.
In 1977 The Book Of Lists rounded up odd statistics, from people who died during sex to suspects in the investigation of Jack the Ripper. It was an astonishing success, appearing in versions around the world (with the UK’s edition handled by Jeremy Beadle) and pretty much started bookshops’ love affair with volumes of ephemera.
Wallace became one of the five most-read authors of his time, and sold 92 million books translated into 31 languages. More volumes of lists appeared from Irving and many copycats, until the arrival of the internet effectively killed them off. Wallace was an energetic populist and a true original who finally found his niche.