An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

Cover image of the character William Stoner.

Real life isn’t fair, and the same goes for fiction. Some stellar novels deserve more reader love, but remain relatively obscure.

Among the many books that should be much better known is one I just read after it was enthusiastically recommended by several of this blog’s frequent visitors (credited in the comments section). The novel is John Williams’ Stoner, and it left me absolutely gobsmacked with admiration. It’s exquisitely written, with a near-perfect authorial voice. Plus one feels such sympathy for the beleaguered, achingly three-dimensional protagonist William Stoner (yes, the 1965 novel’s title is the last name of its lead character, not a reference to being stoned).

So the question is why Stoner didn’t become as famous as other exceptional 1960s novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catch-22. I’ll offer several theories, while first noting that the reasons for a novel not achieving widespread recognition can be inexplicable — bad luck or something. Or perhaps inadequate initial marketing in certain cases.

Speaking specifically of Stoner, its bleakness might be a turnoff to a portion of potential readers; the book is heartbreaking. Yet I couldn’t put it down; devouring it in a day.

Also, some readers might feel the novel isn’t sweeping enough. William Stoner is a farm boy-turned-English professor who seldom leaves Missouri. Fictional works with that kind of narrow lens, or that are set in academia, are not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, a focus on mostly one life can “contain multitudes,” and the novel does glance at outside events: World War I, the Depression, World War II.

In addition, William is not a particularly charismatic protagonist — indeed, he’s often rather passive. But he’s a decent sort many readers can relate to, and we’re devastated as bad things happen to him (even as his life does have some happy moments). The novel is still inspiring at times as we admire William’s stoicism in the face of what fate metes out, and appreciate his unbending love of learning and literature.

Another novel that doesn’t receive nearly its due is Elsa Morante’s stunning History (1974), whose title conveys how it’s partly a chronicle of the World War II era in Rome even as it focuses on one woman (Ida Ramundo) and her two sons (Antonio and Giuseppe). It sold pretty well in Italy during its decade of publication, but never became very well known outside that country, then or now.

Why? There could be some bias against a female author writing a novel set in wartime. Also, like William Stoner, Ida is a passive character who has bad things happen to her. But Giuseppe is one of the most precocious kids you’ll find in literature, and there’s a memorable dog, too.

L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle has periodically enjoyed a modest level of popularity since its 1926 release, but it’s much less famous than the author’s Anne of Green Gables — even as The Blue Castle is just as compelling, poignant, and funny as it focuses on what the feisty Valancy Stirling does after receiving a shocking medical diagnosis. Perhaps part of the reason The Blue Castle is somewhat obscure is that it’s an adult novel and Montgomery is pigeon-holed as a writer for younger readers.

Sometimes a novel is grossly underappreciated when it’s first published, before later capturing the public imagination. Such is the case with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which initially sold poorly and was dismissed by many critics. Perhaps it was just too deep (pun not intended) for its time — plus people who had read Melville’s earlier, less-complex sea sagas may not have been prepared for the author’s leap into masterpiece territory. It wasn’t until decades after Melville’s 1891 death that Moby-Dick deservedly became a phenomenon.

Any great novels you’d like to mention that aren’t as known as they should be? (Not an easy question to answer, of course, because there’s less chance we’d have heard of a book if it’s underappreciated. 🙂 😦 )

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a return to school, an immigrant jail, and library funding — is here.

When a Book Title’s Words Return

Tommy Orange and his novel.

Amid the big pleasures of reading fiction are some small pleasures, and one of them is when a novel’s title appears in the body of the book.

I’m of course not talking about novels whose titles are a person or place; those names will inevitably be mentioned multiple times in a book’s pages. I’m talking about the more evocative matter of novels with titles you might initially puzzle over, or with titles you’re kind of familiar with but are curious how they’ll be used in the book.

I just read There There, whose title can be interpreted in various ways. Tommy Orange’s impressive, compelling, VERY painful 2018 novel focuses on about a dozen contemporary Native-American characters — mostly residents of Oakland, Calif., and its urban milieu. Many of the characters are struggling with racism (at the hands of the white power structure), poverty, broken families, addiction, and other problems. They are “accidents waiting to happen,” which happens to be a line in Radiohead’s 2003 song “There There” — a song Orange mentions in the book. Later on, the author also mentions Gertrude Stein’s famous quote “There is no there there” — about…Oakland, Calif.

On top of that, Orange constantly bounces the narrative from one character to another, or, to put it a different way, from one household (there) to another household (there). Finally, we think of “there, there…” as a phrase expressing sympathy — something many of Orange’s characters can use, especially during the novel’s shattering climax.

Another impressive, compelling, VERY painful recent novel — Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give — has a title many readers have heard somewhere before. Sure enough, the book mentions rapper Tupac Shakur’s concept of “THUG LIFE”: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” The traumatic events in Thomas’ 2017 novel — about a white cop’s murder of a young black man and what ensues — certainly bear that out.

The two words in Zadie Smith’s intriguingly titled White Teeth show up more than once in her multiethnic novel. Those words refer to how people of all types are essentially the same (most originally have white teeth) yet have some differences (teeth can turn yellow or be in various other conditions). And one way racism is historically mentioned in Smith’s novel is via the horrid memory of racist/murderous white soldiers spotting vulnerable Africans in the dark by the contrast of their white teeth and dark skin.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has a title that of course conveys the anger of exploited, impoverished people (including the Joad family) treated badly by such entities as American big business and law enforcement. But will those four words, also known for being part of the 19th-century “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” turn up in the novel? They do, in this memorably striking passage: “…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

In some cases, readers think a title means one thing but it turns out to mean something else when the words pop up in the novel — an ambiguity often crafted deliberately by the authors. For instance, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child and Andrew Child is called The Sentinel and one of course thinks of someone who stands guard. But we eventually learn that “The Sentinel” is the name of a software program pivotal to the novel’s plot.

Any examples you’d like to offer that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at allegations of mayoral conflicts of interest — is here.