An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

The image on the cover of 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.

93 thoughts on “An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

  1. Back in the late 1960s, (I’m an old guy) my high school English class had to study “Giants in The Earth” by Ole Rolvaag, a tragic novel about Norwegian-American pioneers in the great plains during the 1870s. To the best of my knowledge this book is not considered a classic by most literary critics and the author is little known.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The illustration of the character William Stoner at the beginning of this article is actually a portrait named “The Thinker” by the American painter Thomas Eakins. I have seen this painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art many years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve never read Dream of The Red Chamber, but this work is generally considered the most important Chinese novel of all times. Most literate Chinese people have at least read part of this work. Imagine a combination of Hamlet and War and Peace. However, this novel is very little know outside the Chinese speaking world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I thought that Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is the best novel that I ever read on the theme of a generation gap, the surprising thing is that that it was first published in the 1860’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s some years since I’ve read Stoner, but it’s a book I remember with admiration. Few people I know have read it, so it’s good to read your thoughts. History has just gone on my TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Margaret! Great that you’ve read “Stoner”! You’re definitely part of a group that should be larger in a more just world. I myself came late to that superb novel.

      I hope you like “History,” if you get to it. Brilliant, memorable book.

      Like

  6. Charles Portis’ “Masters of Atlantis” is a favorite novel of mine that hardly anyone seems to have heard of, much less read. Completely overshadowed by “True Grit,” which won fame as a (terrible, IMO) John Wayne movie. (All Portis’ novels *but* “True Grit” have been overlooked, actually.) I’ll look into “Stoner,” which I’d never heard of before.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Barry! Charles Portis’ novels other than “True Grit” have indeed been underrated. I haven’t read “Masters of Atlantis,” but enjoyed his seriocomic “Norwood” and also-seriocomic “The Dog of the South.”

      Liked by 1 person

  7. okay,
    I am surprised how many novels you mention here, that I have read; 100 Years of Solitude being my fave.
    Perhaps it is because I read so much before I was 40.
    As a Canadian, I have read Anne of Green Gables, and other of LMM’s books.
    Moreover, I worked on the film & tv productions of Jane of Lantern Hill and The Road to Avonlea.
    Still, I think the most undiscovered book is the NYT bestseller… Grand Avenue – by Joy Fielding.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Resa!

      “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is indeed an incredible novel — deserving of its legendary status. And L.M. Montgomery is really a fabulous wordsmith, perhaps “underrated-ly” so despite her fame. Her semi-autobiographical “Emily” trilogy is also very compelling. Wonderful that you worked on movie and tv productions of some of Montgomery’s work!

      Joy Fielding and “Grand Avenue” remain on my list for my next library visit. 🙂 Sometime in June, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A tangential category:

    “The Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole, and “The Leopard” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, both suffered from acute under-appreciation in publishing circles while the authors lived, and achieved their fame and reputations too late to be enjoyed by their creators.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! So very true. And a real shame. 😦 Posthumous fame is just so unfair to the author.

      “The Confederacy of Dunces” is absolutely hilarious at times, and “The Leopard” (which I’m grateful you recommended to me a few years ago) is exquisitely/heartbreakingly written.

      Like

  9. I really believe in serendipity! I just read an article that mentions John Williams and his book Augustus (I didn’t know about this book.

    “John Williams, Augustus
    (New York Review Books)
    Today, John Williams is best known for his beautiful novel Stoner, but in his lifetime Augustus was his most successful work, sharing the 1973 National Book Award with John Barth’s Chimera (a runner-up for this list, to be sure). The last thing Williams ever published, it depicts the life of Rome’s first emperor, from childhood into old age, in language that’s crisp yet yielding, like an autumn morning. Ultimately, I think, it’s a rumination on what power does to us, how intimately violence tarries in every breath of what we call “civilization.” It’s also decently clear history—if you want a faithful-enough depiction of how Rome became an empire and what the dude the month of August is named for thought about on his yacht, you’ll find them here, en-toga’d in gorgeous prose. Fans of, say, HBO’s Rome will want to bathe in it.”https://lithub.com/reimagining-the-ancient-world-a-reading-list/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Lit%20Hub%20Daily:%20May%2012%2C%202021&utm_term=lithub_master_list

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Rebecca! Wow — that IS serendipitous! “Augustus” sounds really good; that’s 99% a rave review. I’m hoping my local library has “Augustus” and John Wiliams’ only other novel, “Butcher’s Crossing,” which is apparently a western. Williams definitely varied his approach in each of his three novels.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. So Stoner has obviously just been added to my TBR 🙂 I must admit, I get excited going into novels that are highly recommended, but I know nothing about, so thanks for this recommendation.

    I don’t have a huge amount to add this week. I’ve only been reading classics for about ten or fifteen years, so haven’t really scratched the surface, and am still amazed at discovering wonderful writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Maybe you’ve heard of them?

    Stepping away from the classics, I feel like Thomas Harris doesn’t get enough love. Sure, he’s a popular fiction writer, and they’re crime / horror books that belong in airport bookstores, but he’s so much more talented than that. The Silence of the Lambs trilogy were definitely page-turney books that had me needing to know what happened next, but his characters are put together so well that I also very much cared about what happened next. Unlike some plot driven books that I’ve read, Harris kept me completely swept up in his stories and they stayed with me long after I was finished reading.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan, for the interesting comment and humor. 🙂 “…Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Maybe you’ve heard of them?” — LOL! 😂

      GREAT point that some authors can be very popular but still underappreciated in a way — respected for their sales but maybe not for prose quality, character development, etc. I haven’t read Thomas Harris, but your comment certainly reminded me of Stephen King, who is of course a mega-selling writer but has been criticized for not exactly being “literary.” But I think his writing — while by no means transcendent like, say, George Eliot’s — is often excellent.

      I hope you like “Stoner” if you get to it. I think you will!

      Like

      • I like Stephen King, and I don’t think his writing gets the respect it deserves. Of course, if that ever saddens Mr King, I’m sure looking at his bank balance will cheer him up!

        Having said that, I think Thomas Harris is a much more skilful writer.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Ah, David – this is the third time around for me as you have given me something to think about. Of course, I will be slightly off topic because you have prompted me to consider why do we read certain books?

    Why does a society accept on narrative and not another. While there are marketing machinations behind book publishing, some stories are simply not accepted at the time they are published. Perhaps they will be recognized at in the future, much like Vincent van Gogh’s painting. Or they many remain with a cult following. For example, I just read “The Shadow over Innsmouth” by H.P Lovecraft and enjoyed it immensely.

    Why do we remember Dante Alighieri after 700 years, Sir Walter Scott after 250 years, Robert Louis Stevenson after 170 years.

    It goes to storytelling – whether written or oral – that captures the imagination. What speaks to humanity today and 1,000 years ago? From roasting marshmallows around the campfire to sophisticated media campaigns – we look for stories that that speaks to cultural memory. This is a huge topic, Dave – one that will keep me thinking in the weeks ahead. A brilliant post and a fabulous discussion.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Rebecca, for your terrific, thought-provoking comment that’s a brilliant essay in itself!

      So true that some works are not appreciated in their time. They are too deep, or too forward-thinking, and/or too…something.

      H.P. Lovecraft has certainly gotten a lot more recognition since his death. I’ve read “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and a number of his other stories, as well as his novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” and many of those works are eerily mesmerizing.

      Yes, some stories still speak to us even when they’re centuries old. Of course, some stories that have been lost to time and are out of print might also still speak to us if we only knew about them.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Such an insightful post, and important for many authors to read. You touch on three of the key drivers for a book’s success or lack of popularity and I have experienced them all: Timing – it connects with a contemporary ethos/need; marketing – nuff said; author’s branding: you get known for one thing but this book is the other.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Cynthia! That’s a great/concise/sobering summary of several major reasons why an excellent book might or might not do well. You’ve obviously “been there,” hopefully more often on the positive than negative side of the ledger. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  13. Stoner, I’ve never heard of it! Perhaps fitting, given your theme this week. There’s a lot of books that I pick up from the library and am surprised they didn’t pick up more steam. A recent one I can think of is “the Time Collector” by Gwendolyn Womack. It was one of my favorite reads of last year, with such a unique concept/hook – that there are supernatural beings who can touch objects and see their entire history. It unfolded into a thriller/suspense novel when someone started targeting these rare people and stealing certain historical artifacts. With such a unique premise, I was surprised it didn’t go a little further!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! “The Time Collector” does sound different and terrific. The comments this week are providing quite a few novels I and others would like to read — a very nice bonus of this discussion. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Bill! William Stoner teaches at a partly fictionalized University of Missouri from the 1910s to the 1950s. And, as I’ve mentioned, the novel he’s featured in is a VERY memorable read.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Dave, an interesting discussion this week. I think a lot of excellent South African authors have not achieved the international acclaim they deserve. Two who spring to mind are Herman Charles Bosman and Darlene Matthee. Fiela’s Child by Darlene Matthee is one of the most heart wrenching books I’ve ever read.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. I am smiling at how you said in a comment you’d tweka the blog ending because it is so true, some of the underappreciated works have probably vanished into the land of out of print. But as you say there’s different sides of being underrated as in Moby Dick, up against the back catalogue so to speak, There’s also examples like Stoner which just didn’t make a splash in the illustrious waters crammed with Lee and Vonnegut etc. Anyway, when it comes to back catalogues, William Golding’s The Inheritors never cut the same mustard as Lord Of The Flies, which I guess comes into the realms of the initial leaving every other book that author wrote sinking in the brine. But it does have a very different scope and vision and was interesting in terms of its subject of its generally untackled subject matter. .

    I must check out this book Dave, you’ve sold it to me. Coming up with one that I kind of feel is underrated

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne!

      Yes, I’m glad the conversation with Liz Gauffreau inspired me to add to the question. It really IS hard to think of underappreciated novels — especially when they’re out of print. (“…the land of out of print” — very nice turn of phrase.) And there are indeed different trajectories for books that don’t ever, or wait a long time to, get the fame they deserve.

      An excellent point that famous authors can have lesser-known novels in their canons, as exemplified by the William Golding title you mentioned. (Will look for “The Inheritors.”) Certainly also the case with Steinbeck, Dostoevsky, Zola, Edith Wharton, Sinclair Lewis, etc., etc. Often it’s the earlier works of novelists before they totally hit their stride.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. Yes, Dave, STONER, is certainly one of my most appreciated books, because of how he manages his many problems! It’s good to see that you and some other member of this group feel the same way:)
    At the moments I am reading “The Absolute Book” by Elisabeth Knox, a writer I had never heard before. The more I am getting into this lyric thriller, where birds can speak and make me acquainted with the “Sidh” and their way of life, the more I appreciate this very special and not easy book by this author from New Zealand.

    Liked by 5 people

  17. What a great book ‘Stoner’ is. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It’s so true you should never judge a book by it’s cover – or title in this case. I must admit I was expecting some sort of 60s gonzo read but in actual fact it’s really quite a marvellous story. I’m a big fan of slow moving, character studies. The subtleties with this character are so well observed.
    Like Liz I’m having trouble thinking of that unsung great classic. Is it something that was well received at the time but is now lost amongst the popular big hitters? Or is it something that is a bit of a ‘slow burn’, gaining traction as the years pass (it always intrigues me how movies gain cult status years after their release)?
    And no, I couldn’t answer my own questions! However I’ll put a couple of names out there as, I believe, they should perhaps have a bit more recognition. I may have mentioned them before of course, so apologies if I’m repeating myself! ‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins, which is a beautifully observed novel about people’s lives in a house in London. Collins is perhaps more well known for devising the popular post war radio series Dick Barton. And I’m going to go slightly off piste here and suggest a non fiction author/writer – Sefton Delmer. I’m mentioning him for selfish reasons really as his 1962 memoir/autobiography ‘Black Boomerang’ isn’t in print any longer and I really would quite like to read it! I’m not sure it made it to a second edition. He’s such an entertaining and engaging writer, focusing on his experiences of war time events. I suspect he’s not particularly well known, which is such a shame – but perhaps that might change!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah, for the comment and for being one of the people to recommend “Stoner”! Your first paragraph really sums up that mesmerizing novel — and the title that can be potentially misleading. I certainly thought it would be a sort of ’60s read when in fact the protagonist lived from the 1890s to the 1950s.

      Yes, as your second paragraph notes, there is more than one route for a novel to be somewhat obscure.

      I don’t remember you mentioning “London Belongs To Me”; it sounds like an appealing novel. On the to-read list it goes!

      And an important point that some nonfiction works — including memoirs — can also unfairly lack deserved recognition. Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason for what is popular and what isn’t.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Collins was writing at the same time as Patrick Hamilton and some other brilliant authors around the 1940s (whose names escape me of course). Some of their novels were made into the typical gritty black and white movies in the 1940s. I feel that Graham Greene though has endured more so for reasons that probably relate to the questions I asked earlier – and couldn’t answer then! Perhaps it was because of ‘The Third Man’?

        I read yesterday that a film adaptation of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is being made. Ian Fleming is in it as a character. It’s alleged he wrote The Trout Memo in about 1939, which was a war time memo to do with military operations and fly fishing (I’m sure the movie will clear it up!). I’m not sure Delmer was directly involved with Trout or Mincemeat but perhaps there’ll be a resurgence of interest in propaganda! I can but hope!

        Liked by 3 people

        • Graham Greene is definitely one of those authors who enjoyed fame and avoided obscurity during his lifetime, and he’s of course still pretty well-known now.

          I just looked up “Operation Mincemeat” online. What a fascinating World War II story! I can definitely see how cinematic it would be!

          Liked by 3 people

          • As soon as I posted this it suddenly occurred to me I didn’t mention ‘Brighton Rock’! What an oversight. Interestingly, Richard Attenborough was in both ‘Brighton Rock’ and ‘Dulcimer Street’ – which is the adaptation of ‘London Belongs To Me’. They were released a few months apart, with ‘Brighton Rock’ being released first. I think Greene was probably in the right place at the right time! Having two very successful screen plays within a couple of years of each other isn’t going to hurt your career!
            And ‘Operation Mincemeat’ is almost the stuff of fantasy. It was made into a movie in the 1950s – ‘The Man Who Never Was’, which was also the same name of the novel based on the events.
            Phew! I think I just about rescued my comment there to come back round to talking about books….even if it’s very loosely linked to your original post!

            Liked by 3 people

            • Thank you, Sarah, for the interesting follow-up comment! Doing screenplays has certainly helped some authors’ careers — or at least given them some extra money. 🙂 Greene, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Huxley, Faulkner, Bradbury, Dorothy Parker, etc., etc.!

              Liked by 2 people

  18. Although Theodore Dreiser was very popular, I don’t think many people read The Genius, it was a fantastic read. I read The Genius only because I was in a mind set of reading Dreiser’s novels and was looking for more of his works. Also, there were a couple of books by Walter Stegner, especially Angle of Repose that I keep thinking about over the years and I keep trying to get people to read. Stegner’s wonderful writing has a way of creeping up on you. I need to read some more of his books. Even though a few people I know have heard of Walter Stegner, I believe he isn’t well-known.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Claire!

      Great Theodore Dreiser mention! I’ve read his two most famous works — “Sister Carrie” and “An American Tragedy” — but hadn’t heard of “The Genius.” I’ll look for it during a future library visit. Interesting the way some high-profile authors often have their obscure works, too. Not surprising, I guess.

      You’re the second person here to mention Wallace Stegner; I’ll definitely look for “Angle of Repose” or one of his other works. He indeed seems to be not as well-known as he should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Hey Dave, I’m so glad that you liked ‘Stoner’. As I said in my review it’s one of those perfect novels that does exactly what it sets out to do and uses exactly the right combination of words to get to its conclusion. I know that you’re tired of me harping for years about ‘The Moviegoer’ and ‘Housekeeping’, but those two, plus ‘Stoner’, are in that rarified category of novel for me. There are plenty of others but most of the ones that fit in that category received well-deserved acclaim. The only thing I can say against John Williams was that he didn’t write enough–only three novels. In addition to ‘Stoner’, the middle novel, he wrote ‘Butcher’s Crossing’ and ‘Augustus’. I read ‘Butcher’s Crossing’ last fall and it too is excellent, if not quite up to the level of ‘Stoner’. It is also entirely different from ‘Stoner’, being a Western. ‘Augustus’ is also entirely different but won a National Book Award, so I guess you could say that Williams did receive some honors. As its title indicates, it’s a historical novel about the Roman emperor Augustus i.e. the guy that, according to Biblical legend, that upon hearing that a messiah had been born, ordered all first born male babies killed.

    Liked by 5 people

      • Thank you again, Brian, for being one of the people to recommend “Stoner”! Fans of fiction live for the occasional novel that just blows them away, and John Williams’ book did that for me. Good to hear that the other two novels in his small but varied canon were also excellent and/or award-worthy. I really liked “Housekeeping” and “The Moviegoer,” too, but neither had quite the emotional wallop for me as “Stoner” did.

        Liked by 3 people

  20. I think a lot of writers would appreciate having the level of popularity Williams has acquired, even though a cult following as somewhere described. I wonder how many readers have heard of Wallace Stegner, who is an excellent writer. I highly recommend The Spectator Bird (1976), Angle of Repose 1971, and my favorite, Crossing to Safety (1987). He writes very introspectively about relationships, and I think his themes appeal to mature readers. Hopefully your blog increases familiarity for Stoner; I know it’s on my TBR now. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! That’s an excellent point — John Williams and “Stoner” do have a sort of cult following, but I think he and the novel deserve a wider following than that. I had never heard of “Stoner” until it was mentioned by commenters here in recent months, but that of course could be “my bad,” as the saying goes. 🙂

      I have vaguely heard of Wallace Stegner (perhaps you mentioned him once before?). Your description of his writing approach sounds very appealing. I’ll look for his work during my next library visit and take out “Crossing to Safety” or, if they don’t have it, one of the other two titles you recommended!

      Liked by 3 people

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