Word for Word: one day Jane Gardam will get her dues

Jane Gardam: not as famous as Martin Amis. Photograph: Victoria Salman

Jane Gardam: not as famous as Martin Amis. Photograph: Victoria Salman


Why isn’t Jane Gardam more famous? That’s what I kept wondering as I read her funny, moving new novel, Last Friends. It’s something that has baffled me for more than a decade, ever since I first encountered her odd, elegant, funny writing in The Flight of the Maidens.

Born in 1928, Gardam has been an award-winning author since the 1970s, yet she remains a sort of cult figure, loved by those of us who know her work but little known to the general public. She gained widespread public attention in 2004, when her novel Old Filth was both a critical and a commercial hit, but that was 30 years into her professional career.

Every time I read her I am gripped by a terrible sense of unfairness. Gardam’s books are clever and unsettling yet totally accessible. It seems wrong that she isn’t as famous as, say, Martin Amis.

Most of us have a beloved novelist who we feel has never received the attention she or he deserves. The author may (or may not) be perfectly happy with their lack of fame, but we feel outrage on their behalf.

This was perfectly expressed in the Cambridge academic Victor Watson’s brilliant essay Jane Austen Has Gone Missing, in which he suggested that the obscurity of the superb children’s writer Antonia Forest was, in children’s literature terms, as if Jane Austen’s work was now known to only a handful of people.

Watson wrote of “the bafflement and frustration felt by the few who knew her work at their inability to bring the pleasure of reading it to the notice of the general reading public”. Which is just how I feel about Gardam, and indeed Forest herself.

Forest isn’t the only children’s writer who languishes in undeserved obscurity. The late Pat O’Shea’s hilarious, scary fantasy novel The Hounds of the Morrigan (1985) is possibly the greatest Irish children’s book ever written. But although the book is still in print, it’s hardly a childhood standard, and it pains me to see less original writers receive the acclaim O’Shea deserved.

It’s tempting to say that these authors haven’t received the attention they deserve because they’re female, as female writers still receive fewer reviews and awards than men. But many male writers have also been unfairly ignored. Why is the wonderful novelist (and former New Yorker fiction editor) William Maxwell much less famous than many of his peers, whose stories he edited, such as John Cheever or John Updike? It baffles me.

But there is hope. For more than 20 years admirers of Hilary Mantel were in the same boat, watching their heroine write critically acclaimed novels in relative obscurity. And then she won the Booker prize, twice. Of course, it’s too late for O’Shea, Maxwell and Forest to win any more prizes, but we fans will keep plugging away, pushing their books on friends, driven by the sense that some day, finally, they will get the credit they deserve.

Anna Carey’s debut novel, The Real Rebecca, won the senior children’s book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her second book, Rebecca’s Rules, was shortlisted for the same prize last year.

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