15 Women Writers Discuss Their Favorite Overlooked Books
There are different ways a book can become underappreciated. Sometimes (though not often) a literary novel can be too fortunate: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize and sold very well, but I sometimes think its true artistic achievement got lost in all that success. Its brilliant recasting of King Lear to the pathologies of Iowa families and farming transforms the barren Goneril into a sympathetic woman whose haunted heart controls the narrative of the book. And the novel bears up beautifully upon rereading—it more than renews any respect for it that one might have shoved into the back of the mind's china cabinet.
Another way a book can be underappreciated is to have no real success at all. Julie Hayden's The Lists of the Past is a lyrical, brainy, moving collection of stories that was published in 1976 and then went quickly out of print. The author's life was sad, if not tragic—she died quite young (at age 42) of cancer. As this was all long before the Internet, it was as if she vanished without a trace. Now, after almost 40 years, the collection has been reprinted by Pharos Editions with an introduction by Cheryl Strayed. To see a writer be rediscovered by others—or encountered for the first time—is a thrilling thing.
A third way a book can go underappreciated is to be written by a writer so hardworking and productive that new readers don't know where to begin. Such is perhaps the case with Joyce Carol Oates. When people ask, "What should I read of hers?" I always say, "Start with You Must Remember This." It is a great portrait of the American 1950s, with a stirring coming-of-age story at its center. Oates has written of families and girls in upstate New York many times, but this novel pulls it all together with historical sweep and wrenching precision.
Finally, a book can be underappreciated because it receives some hysterically harsh reviews in its native land. This may be true of the British writer Rachel Cusk, who is just now getting the American audience she deserves. I recommend Aftermath, a memoir of her divorce, and Outline, a novel that looks at the same general subject but in sunlight. Ignore any negative reviews you read. Cusk has a Plathian talent, and the English were a little hard on Plath as well.