I love the idea of Lost Classics – books that have been neglected or undervalued suddenly coming to light and being re-assessed. I love the idea of them because it is curious how most literature fits into this category one way or another. This process affirms a sense that literature is as subject to fashions as much as all the other apparently superfluous arts – canons are shifting constantly. We know that Jane Austen was noticed in her own time, but wasn’t loved in the Victorian age and grew to her current stature throughout the C20th. So even the apparent confirmed classics can fall out of fashion. One of the more interesting ‘recovered’ classic of relatively recent times is Kate Chopin’s short novel, The Awakening, a novel that was viewed in its own time as so controversial (the Creole Bovary) it marked the end of Chopin’s career. Fortunately, it was picked up again in the second half of the C20th and became a very widely-taught book in American University syllabi.
Other writers and books that have found greater fame in the C20th and C21st than in their own time include John Clare, Christina Rossetti, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, some of Thomas Hardy, even a recent writer, Angela Carter, had an almost immediate renaissance as a popular author in academic courses after her death.
Even amongst the popular books there are debatable emphases – why is Jane Eyre more celebrated than Villette, or The Moonstone over No Name, or For Whom the Bell Tolls over The Garden Of Eden or Wide Sargasso Sea over Good Morning Midnight?
In her blog Amanda Craig has stated that their aren’t any authors today writing novels that match the great classics of the C19th? Do people agree? Personally, I would see Douglas Coupland, David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood as just some of the novelists of our times, writers who write in a way appropriate to the times we live in (perhaps triple decker novels are not the best form to frame a reply to these times). And for that matter do the great fiction writers of our time have to be novelists? Could they be Amy Hempel or Alice Munro?