Authors neglected in their own time

f-scott-fitzgerald-an-american-icon-1When F Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 the minister presiding at his funeral described him as a ‘no good drunken bum.’ This robust approach to the art of the graveside eulogy didn’t catch on – but perhaps the most surprising thing it shows is that, though he’s now lauded as a literary great, Fitzgerald was thought of as being no great shakes at the time of his death.

This is the man who gave us The Great Gatsby – revered Jazz Age classic in which young women waft elegantly through glittering soirées ‘like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’

Gatsby wasn’t considered a classic at the time of its publication though, and its esteemed author died in poverty.

00298290.JPGHe’s not alone. Herman Melville, there’s another. Moby Dick is such a key text in American literature nowadays that it could be considered one of the twin pillars of the early American novel, alongside Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But when it was published it was thought confused and over-long. Its cause wasn’t helped by poor editing of the first edition which mixed up some passages and left others out entirely. Melville died in obscurity.

Imagine a world without him, no Ahab, no whale, we’d even have to get our coffee somewhere else – Starbuck is the first mate of the Pequod, Ahab’s Nantucket Whaleship.

And then of course we have A Confederacy of Dunces – now considered a modern classic it wasn’t even published in the lifetime of its author John Kennedy Toole.

John_Kennedy_TooleHaving written his comic masterpiece about the adventures of a larger than life grotesque in New Orleans he tried without success to get his work published. But it was rejected by various publishers who thought it ‘pointless’.  Dejected by his treatment by the hands of an uncaring world Toole took his own life at the age of 31.

His novel would have remained in his bottom drawer if it hadn’t been for the hard work of his old mother who touted the manuscript relentlessly round publishers until it eventually found a home – and the rest is history. Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer prize for fiction.

So, don’t despair is the message to writers I suppose. If your literary gem doesn’t capture the public’s imagination at first then perhaps it may do later. Even if that rise to prominence is not something that you, the author, are around to enjoy. And the message to readers I guess is this – if you find a novel that isn’t on the best seller lists or the review pages of national newspapers, and think it brilliant, that’s maybe because the rest of us just haven’t caught up with you yet!

Song of the Sea God visualAnd hey – if you want to do some discovering of little known novels, why not start with mine Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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16 thoughts on “Authors neglected in their own time

  1. Chris, I’m not sure whether to feel comforted about this really :-p It is so sad for these great writers that they did not receive the recognition when they could really have done with it. I’ve often felt saddened before when I’ve read that great artists have died, taken their own lives or lived in abject poverty because their art was not understood. These writers just add to that list, but at least we can be grateful that someone discovered them and brought them to the public’s attention. It didn’t help them much though and that is what is so sad.

    • I think you’re right Val – and, of course, there may be many more who wrote great work which was ignored at the time and is still lost now. That group I’m guessing would have a disproportionally large number of woman authors in it – as they were much more likely to have their work overlooked in those days regardless of how good it was.

  2. 😀 Oh my Goodness! That is so depressing! But also strangely comforting. I only can dream that one day my literary greatness will be proudly flaunted for all to see and my pauper’s grave visited by the many weary art lover who will shed a tear and sigh “Oh if only she had been recognised in her time – such a tragedy!” LOL – we can all dream for such greatness. Truth will more than likely be a short and sharp – “Who you talking about? Never heard of her!” :O

    • Yes – I am a bit of a Job’s comforter with this post I know. I suppose it was the big fanfare over the launch of the Gatsby movie which made me think what a contrast it was to the reception its author got in life. A flipside of this post would be all the authors who were hugely famous in their day – but are now entirely forgotten. History is no respecter of reputations.

  3. I am thinking this could be a much, much longer list. And yes, to imagine the great, life-changing works of genius that have been ignored and lost forever is truly heart-breaking. One reason we ignore them is so that we can endlessly heap more and more money and attention on familiar, formulaic, famous authors. (This sad pattern holds true for all the arts, and most other fields of endeavor.)

    • It is a shame – and I think it illustrates how the whole business of creating ‘art’ of various forms is so hit and miss – by it’s very nature it’s not an exact science, there’s changing tastes, luck, what connections the author has to help them get noticed – all these things. So it’s not surprising I guess that some things get missed, or are reappraised with the benefit of hindsight.

  4. Lord of the Rings was one that didn’t receive much notoriety until after Tolkien’s death either. I certainly hope that’s not the case for us Chris! I am working my butt off trying to get my book(s) out there! I pray it pays off! You know another group of artists that have had this same fate is the great painters of our time.

  5. Hi Chris. Great blog, as always. Don’t forget poor Flann O’Brien (real name Brian O’Nolan) – possibly the greatest satirist the English language has known. Joyce loved his work, but the world was slow to stir. Another great Irish author lost to the demon drink.

  6. Literary fashion killed ’em. Once the literati decide that you’re “old fashioned” you’re out–no matter how good your work is. Fitzgerald was a very popular–and very well paid–short story writer in his youth, but he became so closely identified with the Flapper era that he was left high and dry when it was over. “Tender is the Night” is an awesome book, but it did worst than “The Great Gatsby” if I recall correctly. Melville’s first book, “Typee” was a best seller, but wanted to move beyond adventure tales, and nobody “got” what he was doing. (And nobody wanted to hear his indictment of missionaries, either.) Once the headline “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY” came out, that was it.

    Here’s a question: would you rather be obscure when you’re alive and popular when you’re dead, or vice versa?

    • Interesting. I’d go popular when I’m dead probably. I write literary fiction which never makes money anyway so I wouldn’t be missing out and it would be nice to be appreciated even if I wasn’t there to see it. Also it kind of feels like that anyway as my book gets raved about by some people who read it – but hardly anyone reads it. So I’m all up for being a cult.

      • Well, I’m putting in an order as soon as my pay comes in, so you’ll have one more reader, anyway 🙂

        Honestly? If I’m even offered an advance, I’ll sh@t myself.

      • Thanks Nanette! One thing about not having loads of readers is that each one is important and special 🙂 Yes, I don’t know what one of those fancy ‘advance’ things is either.

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