Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

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.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

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.

4) Tove Jansson:

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.

40 thoughts on “Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)”

  1. An author I love to read is Gail Tsukiyama–yet she doesn’t get near the accolades of Pearl S. Buck or Amy Tan in her Asian fiction. I have found her books to be well written and poignant. I love your list–I’ll look them up and see what I can find to read of their work. Yay for the underdog!! 🙂

    1. That’s a good tip, thank you for sharing! I have a soft spot for Japanese references and Japanese literature, so Gail Tsukiyama sounds like a writer I may enjoy (I think Pearl S. Buck has fallen somewhat out of favour too, though).

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more about Sjӧwall and Wahlӧӧ! Their Martin Beck series is truly exceptional. I think some of Highsmith’s work is quite, quite excellent as well. And I must read some of Parker’s stories. She had quite a lot of talent…

  3. Will be looking at these authors’ books the next time I go to my favorite book store. When I was a teenager, I had my hands full of Christopher Pike’s books. I think he is also an underrated author.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I think with YA authors, in particular, the media, publishers and readers go ga-ga over one particular writer and ignore all the other equally brilliant ones in the same genre (naming no names…).

  4. How about authors from smaller publishers? Here are some from the science fiction and fantasy category:

    Stephanie Osborn: She worked for NASA for twenty years as a payload flight controller for the space shuttle program. Her book Burnout: The Mystery of Space Shuttle STS-281 has been optioned for a movie. She also has a series of books about Sherlock Holmes that I can’t wait to get into.

    M.B. Weston: She is the author of The Elysian Chronicles series–think City of Angels meets Lord of the Rings meets Terminator 2. My son devoured the first two books, and I’m about to read the second book myself. The third book will be out next spring.

    Allan Gilbreath and Kimberly Richardson: They write steampunk stories and also run Kerlak Publishing. The anthology Dreams of Steam was my introduction to the world of steampunk, and I can say I am now a fan.

    1. You are right – authors from smaller publishers are really struggling to be noticed. I chose to focus on ‘older’ authors, simply because they have had more time to be appreciated or forgotten, whatever the case may be. Thanks for your suggestions!

  5. I have the collection of the complete Dorothy Parker stories, and I’m slowly working my way through them. It’s a shame she’s so overlooked today.

  6. I think you are right. In most fiction, with the exception of romance, the largest number of titles you see are by male authors. I don’t believe women are published in near the same quantity as men by the large publishers (I read an article that talked about it a while back, but for the life of me, I don’t recall where). Self-publishing is changing all that, though, in my opinion. More and more fiction writers are turning to self-publishing, and a fair number of those are women.

    1. But my fear is that self-publishing plus women authors (uh-oh, like two black marks!) will then make that a double reason to be dismissive of their efforts. Let’s hope not!

  7. A Case of Exploding Mangoes is a VERY underrated book. I really enjoyed that one… Also, The Palace of Heavenly Pleasure

  8. I’m glad you applauded the short stories of #2 and #3. In my world, it seems like short stories go unnoticed altogether. Maybe that’s just me?? I’m impressed you have a list like this though. I don’t think I read enough to create this type of list. Unfortunately.

  9. I’m surprised you should have Tove Jansson on this list. She’s obviously an icon in Finland but also, unless I’m wrong, the Moomin series has been continuously in print in the UK ever since my childhood (which is a long, long time ago, let me tell you, young whippersnapper). She’s far less known here in the US where I now live, but I believe the books are available.

    1. Even in the UK, I found at my children’s school and among their friends that only their parents remembered the Moomins from the TV series, rather than from the books. But yes, I did find an excellent edition of all the Moomin cartoons – expensive, but worth it!

      1. I didn’t know about the book of cartoons! Must look out for it. I was talking about the novels, which Puffin still had in print last time I looked.

  10. Great idea for a post. I must try some Highsmith – I think I would really like her. My interest in Jean Rhys has also ne=been rekindled by Jacqui’s recent review of Leaving Mr Mackenzie.
    I was considering my own under-rated writers but this can be difficult as writers can go from being a big name to being forgotten frighteningly quickly!

    1. I think you would like Highsmith and Jean Rhys. Some have accused them of being a bit one-sided (they don’t handle a huge breadth of themes and voices), but what they do cover, they do brilliantly (and they are not as narrow as all that).

  11. Great selection. I’m familiar with most of those you mention but not Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ so I shall now look out for them, especially as I fond of a good police procedural. Having just read A Commonplace Killing, I think Sian Busby may be a contender for your list…but perhaps she wrote too few books, spread across different genres, to make such a mark

    1. The last ones are crime fiction authors and the grandparents of all the Scandinavian noir tradition. They are, however, also very political and socially engaged, which shows in their work (not in an annoying, patronising fashion). Roseanna is the first in the series, but not necessarily my favourite – there are 10 novels to choose from.

  12. Patricia Highsmith yes! Also Margery Sharp, PJ Hyland and Olga Grushin. I think I must copy the idea of this post and expand on this.

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