Enough with the 'forgotten' writers
Can we please stop using this tired, contrived hook?
It's hard out there for a book critic. If your author of choice has little social purpose, how can you convince a reader to even read a review, let alone pick up one of their books? Luxuriating in the uselessness of literature isn't an option, and reviewers don't have the luxury of believing their subject to be a pop art form, so populist appeal is out too. You could always take the memoir route: "How a book saved/changed my life." But if you don't want to do that, there's another compelling hook: Claim the author is forgotten. If he or more likely she is little-known, "read little, if at all," and so on, then the purpose of a review is self-evident. You're rescuing an author from the dead, isn't that enough?
Whatever the bar is for being forgotten, it's safe to say that it's not very high. Authors can present themselves as champions of forgotten writers because just about everything can be cast as obscure. You're not going to buy Adorno at an airport bookstore, so the Frankfurt School is forgotten. David Foster Wallace didn't talk about Henry James, so Henry James is forgotten. But the label "forgotten" tends, in my experience at least, to be applied most liberally to women writers, particularly the kind put into print by feminist publishing outfits such as Virago, Persephone Books, or the Dorothy Project.
Take Barbara Pym, an English novelist who wrote delightful and bleak domestic comedies and who is in the curious position of being remembered mostly for being forgotten. In his recent tribute to her in The New York Times, Matthew Schneier puts it right out there: Barbara Pym is "forever being forgotten, and forever revived."
I'm not sniping here at Schneier, whose piece is a fine introduction to an author worth reading. But the facts on the ground don't quite support this claim. In 2016, I wrote a tribute to Pym myself. In 2015, Hannah Rosefield sang her praises in The New Yorker. She's been written about affectionately in the same timespan in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Guardian. 2014's a wash, but 2013 was Pym's centenary and produced several pieces — this one, for example. People have been doing this, in fact, since 1971. Pym even gets a chapter in Laura Shapiro's recent What She Ate — right between Eva Braun and Helen Gurley Brown. A conference of Pym fans meets once a year in two different countries. At what point, exactly, can an author be said to be remembered?
Why does this matter? There are a few reasons. One is that Barbara Pym and others like her are remembered thanks to the steady, persistent work of little publishers. The authors of these would-be resurrecting essays are usually drawing on the work of other people. If you're reviewing, for instance, a book that has been republished (sometimes even translated) and sent to you, there's something ludicrous about presenting yourself as its discoverer. You didn't discover it. You appreciate it, which is a different thing altogether. Rather than being a discoverer, you join a chain of remembering.
When it comes to women writers, the forgotten label has another troublesome effect. As mentioned above, the bar for being forgotten is quite low — it presents a binary of literary fame in which you are either Jonathan Franzen or else in the trash. What this means in practice is that no matter how many cases for a woman author of middling fame are made, she'll never really make it. There will always be a vaguely defined fame and assumption of worth that she doesn't have. And these appreciative essays, instead of entering confidently assured of the worth of their subject, instead begin on the defensive. So much justification has to be done to explain why the subject is worthwhile, and so much space has to be spent defending the subject against attack, that the subject itself can only be discussed in superficial detail, and rarely as an artist. The essay's doomed from the start, because it begins by apologizing.
Still, one should not be too hard on writers here. The problem is really, in this case, with their editors, who are even more desperate for a veneer of relevance than the writers. But I question whether any of these pieces would have been less compelling had the hook of the "forgotten" been dropped altogether. If the point is really that you have something to say about a writer, about their work, then what you have to say is probably quite sayable and compelling without the whole charade that you're somehow contributing to history.
I know, I know. The only thing worse than a piece with a contrived purpose is a piece that has absolutely no purpose whatsoever. Still, there's a middle ground, where a writer can present a book or an author with an infectious enthusiasm and confidence whether it's timely or not. And if you're dealing with an author who genuinely is forgotten, then the need for this approach goes double. So to the writer of next year's Pym essay — wherever it may appear — here's my advice: Let Barbara Pym stand on her own two feet and, instead of rushing to introduce and defend her, listen to what she has to say to you.