I’m Still Writing About ‘Forgotten Authors’


Forgotten authors w brighton

I delivered ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ to my editor at Quercus about nine months ago.

Normally at this point one empties out the attic of the mind and refills it with the research for the next book. But the forgotten authors just wouldn’t go away. Admittedly, I worked on it for ten years and it wasn’t simply about to disappear overnight, but let me try and explain my thought processes after delivering it.

Many books failed to make the final cut. We argued about what was forgotten and what was not. One person’s touchstone novel is someone else’s obscurity. Some favourites were abandoned, some personal peccadillos crept in.

Kindle was transforming the way I read. I whipped through a 700-page novel without realising what I was embarking upon, because I had turned off the pagination. I say ‘whipped through’ – it took me a month; I’m still a slow reader. The book was HFM Prescott’s ‘The Man on a Donkey’, a novel about the rebellion against the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I’d been directed to it via another forgotten author.

That book was written in 1952, and is a forgotten masterpiece. Prescott’s work arrived at a time when sprawling epics were dying out. For every ‘Exodus’ or ‘Doctor Zhivago’ there were a dozen lean, mean little thrillers like ‘No Orchids for Miss Blandish’ that got in and out in 160 pages.

‘Blandish’ caused a sensation when it first appeared, for the gang violence it echoed  of the 1930s and the nasty fate of its titular heiress. James Hadley Chase rewrote the book in 1961 to update the slang, much as John Fowles rewrote his fat metafiction ‘The Magus’ in 1977 with a different ending. Each of those endings is equally obscure and inconclusive. ‘The Magus’ was once humped around in every student’s backpack before tumbling into obscurity. It fell into the category of ‘heard-of but probably not read’. Still, it was left out.


In the back of my copy was a list of other books I was taking on holiday that year. Horace McCoy’s powerful novel about the dance marathons of the 1930s, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’, was so short that it was eventually packaged with three more of his novels. We like to get value for money.

But short is just as good. ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall and Joan Lindsay’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ are deeply memorable without wasting a word, yet they are definitely novels, not short stories.

Lindsay’s ‘Picnic’ takes place on St Valentine’s Day 1900, when three schoolgirls and a teacher disappear while on a school outing at Hanging Rock in Victoria. What became of them? The author left strict instructions for the final chapter not to be printed until her death. Many remember the 1967 book and eerie 1975 film (you still hear its haunting score played in shopping precincts, weirdly). students studied it as part of their school curriculum. Did the secret chapter released after Joan Lindsay’s death cast a new light on the fate of the missing girls?

I started wondering; what other books had been rewritten, and why? Would that make a new section in ‘Forgotten Authors’? I started compiling a list.

Then I remembered I had already delivered the manuscript. It had been edited and was heading for print.

And I realised I was simply expressing a love of books, and going through the process we all tackle when deciding what to read. Which is why the forgotten authors will never be completely forgotten, long after the book appears on October 5th.



10 comments on “I’m Still Writing About ‘Forgotten Authors’”

  1. davem says:

    Chris, apparently both you and ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ were mentioned positively in a book review in the Spectator last week.

    Don’t know any more than that, but a mate mentioned it to me because he knows I like your work.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    Wasn’t Picnic at Hanging Rock based on a true story, or is that a figment of my addled mind?

    At one time if I had thought about how many films had ever been made – just in English – I would have thought perhaps a few thousand, basically just those that were made each year plus old ones shown regularly or occasionally on TV. But with IMDB I have become aware that the true number is vast, most of them completely forgotten and often, especially the early silents, actually lost. It can be frustrating at times, discovering the existence of a film but knowing you are probably never going to be able to see it.

    Anyway, the point of that rambling was to say there really needs to be a novel/short story equivalent of IMDB. There are probably a number of sites of that kind but there don’t seem to be any on the scale of IMDB. At least with books if you do discover one, however old and obscure, there’s a pretty good chance you are going to be able to get hold of a copy somehow.

    I have read/ploughed through The Magus but I didn’t know there were two versions and I’m not sure which I read. It didn’t make much of an impression on me, but I do remember thinking “why am I reading this stuff?”. There was a film made around 1970 which I haven’t seen and which was obviously based on the original.

    Just had an idea for a crime story:

    Author writes book with cliffhanger (or Rock Hanger :))
    Author leaves instructions for last chapter not to be published until after death
    Author gets bumped off so last chapter will be published

    (Well it makes a change from the old “rich person makes will/gets bumped off by beneficiary” thing.)

  3. Valerie Weber says:

    OK, seriously weird. After reading in Strange Tide about a non-existent police station near the PCU – I take it to be Cale Road, which I lived round the corner from in late 1973 – I hear someone today bemoaning the loss of so many cop shops. Again, Cale Rd among them I imagine. Coincidence or synchronicity?

  4. admin says:

    The ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ is true was a publicity stunt. It was purely fiction.
    I can’t imagine anyone organising a lit. IMDB – it would be a nightmare because it goes back far beyond the scope of cinema.
    The film of ‘The Magus’ was dreadful.
    I’m thinking of writing ‘The Book of Forgotten Films’.

  5. Chris Webb says:

    I’ve just dug out my copy of The Magus and it’s the revised version. The foreword by the author consists partly of a rambling and unconvincing justification for the re-write.

    I had forgotten how long it was, 650 odd pages. How I managed to get through all that I don’t know.

    As far as I know I have never read any other fiction that has been re-worked, though it’s not uncommon with factual writing – history, science and so on – where it is quite justifiable as new information or research becomes available. Doing so with fiction though almost seems like cheating.

    Forgot to mention that the film of No Orchids for Miss Blandish is on Talking Pictures TV now and then (and therefore probably on a Renown DVD). The bit I saw looked pretty rubbish but I assume the book is better.

  6. davem says:

    ‘The Book of Forgotten Films’ – go for it!

  7. Jan says:

    Why do you reckon “walkabout” + “Picnic at Hanging rock” are novels rather than short stories? What’s the difference between the two then Chris? Wots a novella then?

  8. admin says:

    ‘Novella’ was a 1950s idea, because short novels were having trouble finding publication. ‘Walkabout’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ are too long to qualify as short stories, yet by recent standards we might not consider them publishable as novels.

  9. Bill says:

    How I enjoyed “The Magus” when I was a boy. What would I make of it now? I wonder if my local library still has its copy.

  10. Roger says:

    “by recent standards we might not consider them [‘Walkabout’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’] publishable as novels.”

    A bad effect of computers and word-processors. At one time revising meant cutting – think of Kipling sitting down with a bottle of Indian ink and a brush to make sure what he cut stayed cut – now it means expanding. Many of Henry James’s short stories would have been novels by those standards.

    The problem with lost or forgotten books is that there are so many available on the internet and so many sites that tell you about them that I don’t need to buy books any more. I’d got out of the habit of buying new books when the time between publication and remaindering became shorter than the time between my buying a book and getting round to reading it and now – unless it’s something that really appeals to my tastes and interests – “The Complete Short Stories of Julian MacLaren-Ross”, say, or Arnold Bennett’s novel version of “Piccadilly” in a readable edition – I just sit down with a machine or read the books I bought because I’d read them one day…As far as I’m concerned, that one day is now, though I think I must have been out of my mind to think I’d ever want to read many of them..

    Incidentally, there’s an example of a vanished – obliterated, rather – book being rediscovered here: http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/ http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2016/03/obliterated-fiction.html

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