In 1934 Malcolm Cowley, literary editor of the New Republic magazine, had an idea. Having distributed copies of new books to his reviewers, he wondered if they might do him a favour.
“Each year, good books get lost in the shuffle. Most of them are favourably reviewed, but many never reach the people who would like and profit by them, the people for whom they are written. We should run a list of books like this, as a means of making amends to their authors and perhaps also to the public that has so far missed the chance of reading them.”
Cowley published two pieces under the titles "Good books that almost nobody has read" and "More neglected books". The selections were contemporary for that time, but now read like a collection of classics cast in amber (John Dos Passo picked Alice Smedley; F Scott Fitzgerald opted for Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West).
Cowley’s point has never been more relevant: if readers and reviewers alike summarily miss books in any given year, what about all the books we have collectively missed in the 80 years since 1934?
More than any other month, books are on our collective radar in December, and not just because of Christmas book token stampedes or pre-drone Amazon deliveries. It’s impossible to open a newspaper or Twitter without seeing an end-of-year list, and it’s here that the homogeneity of book choice is glaring.
New writers and established names jockey for our attention with celebrity memoirs. The same trumpeted books – the award-winners, the anthemic book club choice, big-name-big-titles from publishing behomoths – offer a reader little diversity. Often it’s left to personal recommendation or word-of-mouth stealth to discover a work that’s genuinely intriguing.
One book that has managed to stand out in 2013 is not a new book, or even an old book that has never seen the light of day. And yet it has sold more than 100,000 copies in Holland alone. Stoner by John Williams was originally published in 1965, but reissued in 2003 (with an introduction by John McGahern) and was published with a new jacket this year. After this latest success, Vintage reissued another Williams book, Butcher's Crossing.
Frances McMillan, a senior editor at Vintage Classics, which published it, believes readers want more than just a new bestseller. “It’s about looking through the cracks in the floorboards for new writers. There’s something about that readerly connection – which is just as important for the publisher as the reader – because a writer is saying something that still endures after 50 years. There is also a feeling with a ‘lost’ book that more people need to know about it, and [there is] an incredible urge to pass the book on.”
The concept of the “lost writer” is a complicated one: one reader’s forgotten author is another’s much-embraced favourite – and that’s without the problematic arcs of defining someone by their obscurity, cult status or the fact that their work is out of print.
DeWitt's magpie instincts
Last year, I interviewed Canadian writer Patrick deWitt, whose novel The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Asked what advice he gives to aspiring writers, deWitt replied, "Don't read what everyone else reads".
I contacted him and asked why. “I tend to avoid the bigger names because of the sense that they’re already taken care of,” says deWitt, “and because I think it benefits the landscape to seek out writers whose readership is smaller. I don’t have any great interest in taking part in an en-masse experience. I find it empowering as a reader and inspiring as a writer to search out alternative points of view. And there’s a sense of satisfaction when you dig around a bit and turn up a gem. It’s rewarding, and it keeps the magpie in me happy.”
Summer reading lists at the halfway point in the year are equally guilty of bestseller overkill. Meteorologically these lists have little in common, but both hinge – whether it’s the beach or the fireplace – on periods of indulgent, I’ll-read-what-I-want reading.
Or maybe it’s just me? Holiday reading is strictly for books I’ve chosen myself. It’s great to spend time off immersed in books you really want to read – so why do we feel pressure to throw down vouchers on next-big-thing names we’ve never heard of over older books on the shelves?
Bob Johnson of Dublin’s Gutter Bookshop regularly advises people to read classics or more obscure writers. This can mean having to convince customers that older or forgotten writers are sometimes more rewarding than literary arrivistes.
"We're not scared to advise customers to buy a work that's stood the test of time. I recently ordered 10 volumes of Proust for a customer going on a sun holiday, but most people are scared of buying something they won't enjoy. I often take a much-talked-about book and recommend something similar but older. So for people buying Gone Girl [by Gillian Flynn], I might suggest Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca."
Samira Ahmed, formerly of Channel 4 news and now a freelance broadcaster with the BBC, is making a documentary about English writer Arnold Bennett. Bennett was required reading for her school A-levels, but he hasn't maintained the same profile as other writers on her school reading list, such as the Brontës and Virginia Woolf.
“Bennett was a remarkable writer, so when I started reading him I had to space out the books and almost hoard them. I also like that he wrote about people who were worried about paying the bills, unlike a lot of contemporary characters in literature.
“I always find that one of the best ways to find out about an obscure writer is that grapevine, personal recommendation.”
At prime-time on Christmas Day, BBC 2 will show MR James's ghost story The Tractate Middoth (adapted by Sherlock and Doctor Who writer Mark Gatiss). James's collected stories have just been reissued for the umpteenth time, showing how a good story can have a long life.
This Christmas, by all means read Donna Tartt or Donal Ryan, but CS Lewis had some wise words about reading: "It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between."
HIDDEN GEMS: SIX TO SEEK
Three not to miss:
1 Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
In a be-careful-what-you-wish for story of aspiration, a writer finds that her expectations of life and people around her are constantly thwarted.
2 I Await the Devil's Coming by Mary McClane
McClane's biographical book was reissued this year, 111 years after its original publication. Back then it shocked readers, and is considered an early feminist text.
3 Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
From its brilliant opening line – "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board" – Hurston's tale of Janie Crawford is an important work for both African-American and women's writing.
4 Jakob Von Gunten by Robert Walser
A young man runs away from home and begins a life of servitude. Walser's writing was discovered posthumously and has been championed by JM Coetzee.
5 The Card by Arnold Bennett
A downtrodden young man's route to the top is as brilliant on class as it is on humour. Alec Guinness starred in the 1952 film adaptation. Samira Ahmed and Frances McMillan
6 Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnem
First published in 1922. Four very different women find themselves (in more ways than one) in Italy. Bob Johnson