Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things. It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success. But which books deserve a wider audience? Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.
Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film). But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world. So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category. What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions. Very much like you and me, in fact.
2) Dorothy Parker:
Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic. But how many have read her short stories? They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’). But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.
3) Jean Rhys:
Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories. Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades. She is still largely unknown, with the exception of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.
I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is. The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions. And she has written books for adults too! ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.
5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:
I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type). Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.
Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team). I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.
What is your opinion? Which authors have I missed out? Is it easier to neglect women authors? Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.