> Zed Book Club / Lost and Found: Excavating our Literary Past Gives Neglected Books a New Lease on Life

The Globe and Mail, November 1933, featuring an article from Marjorie Grant, one of the authors highlighted. (Photo: Courtesy of, copyrighted and owned by the Globe and Mail); Insets from left: Book covers of Prologue to Love, Two Thousand Million Man-Power and Latchkey Ladies

> Bookshelf

Lost and Found: Excavating our Literary Past Gives Neglected Books a New Lease on Life

Small presses are combing back issues of periodicals, academic journals and newspapers to uncover and publish overlooked books that resonate today / BY Nathalie Atkinson / December 9th, 2022


When a culture journalist laments the fact there are too many books to read and too little time, they’re usually talking about new publications. When that culture journalist is me, I’m talking about the staggering number of revived and reprinted obscurities unearthed from decades past that are toppling my to-be-read pile.

The popularity of Hidden Gems, my annual roundup of notable titles re-issued and rescued from obscurity, inspires me to seek them out.

When it comes to reviving forgotten authors or putting neglected books back into print, many have heard of New York Review Books Classics, the literary journal’s publishing arm. Their 2006 revival of John Williams’ 1965 campus novel, Stoner, put them (and the practice) on the map.

In England, Nicola Beauman founded Persephone Books in 1998 and made a similar splash when their reprint of a 1938 Winifred Bowman novel was made into the very successful 2008 Frances McDormand movie, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; the novel remains their bestseller. The British Library Women Writers series highlights the best “middlebrow” fiction from the 1910s to 1960s, and Crime Classic and other genre imprints challenge the established and accepted literary canon in other ways. Here in Canada, House of Anansi’s A List expands the CanLit landscape and Véhicule Press’s Ricochet Books revives vintage noir mysteries. And all of them generally come with a fresh appreciation, written by an admiring contemporary author, re-assessing their importance in the literary landscape or adding important context.

With the dizzying number of books published every year, what goes into identifying, securing the rights and publishing forgotten books? What makes them worthy of republishing? Curious about the mechanics of how great books get a second life, I sought out a few editors who specialize in rooting out these treasures.

The Past is Prologue

I’m always pleasantly surprised by the selections of Throwback, the ongoing revival imprint from Invisible Publishing, a small Canadian press. There are Victories, for example, is a scathing proto-feminist novel set in early 20th-century Montreal, with an introduction by Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Johanna Skibsrud. The Tangled Miracle by Bertram Brooker was another favourite discovery I highlighted in last year’s Hidden Gems list – a 1936 thriller about a manipulative, cult-like figure published under a pseudonym by Brooker, one of Canada’s first abstract artists. His more straightforward literary novel, Think of the Earth, won the country’s first Governor General’s Award for literature that same year. “There’s interest rising in Brooker again,” says series editor Bart Vautour, an associate professor in Dalhousie University’s English department. “The McMichael gallery [in Kleinburg, Ont.] is holding a retrospective of his artistic work in the coming years.”

Vautour views Throwback as a project that is as much about historical as current Canadian publishing and production. “That means we don’t have to necessarily try to strategize a bestseller. We can rest on the fact that people are interested in reading books that we curate for them. Or,” he adds, “that’s the hope!”

There are happy accidents, however, like stumbling into the zeitgeist with Prologue to Love, about early settler ranch life in B.C., a period that mirrors the prequel series to the streaming hit Yellowstone that’s so captured the imagination. “We sit down with a number of books an do old-fashioned books report – included in that is why it’s important now,” says Vautour. “They can’t be too distant. There’s always a direct relation to our own moment.” Douglas Durkin’s 1923 novel The Magpie, for example, is not only an early example of prairie realism, but provides a contemporary account of Winnipeg just after the war; its social commentary complements the current spate of new historical fiction about the First World War and its aftermath.

 

Martha Ostenso

 

Throwback’s choices tend to stay in the early 20th century, “neither too far nor too close to our contemporary moment,” Vautour continues. “It’s a time when books and narratives and stories are still recognizable in a modern idiom, and not the terribly long sentences of the Victorian novel – which are great for what they are, but may not hold a current readership in the same way.” Unearthing one obscure author tends to lead to another – and another – but rights can be expensive. Realistically, prioritizing forgotten public domain titles in Canada also makes them more affordable to publish (recent changes to copyright rules align with those in the United States; as of Dec. 30, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the author). Editors also sift through back issues of periodicals like the Times Literary Supplement and New Statesman, as well as regional newspapers and scholarly journals, for ideas.

Excavated editions often include notes to explain archaic words, phrases and quotations, but tend to eschew forewords and favour appreciative afterwords. “We try not to have spoilers, and instead spend a little bit of time telling readers why they might actually read the books today and make a connection,” Vautour says. As a reader, there’s also something to be said for the thrill of reading a hype-free book, an experience of discovery often missing in our current culture.

Topical Thunder

For many aficionados, the website Neglected Books is ground zero for lost gems. The seemingly bottomless trove of thoroughly researched entries on unjustly forgotten books was detailed in a New Yorker profile, which called its founder, erudite American blogger Brad Bigelow, the “self-appointed custodian of obscurity.” Bigelow is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and out-of-print literature enthusiast who, after retiring from his career with NATO a few years ago, recently completed a creative non-fiction MA at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. That’s how he became the series editor of the burgeoning Recovered Books project with Boiler House Press, launched last November, as Bigelow explains from his home in Missoula, Mont.

I discovered the imprint through online buzz around its inaugural title: a long-awaited English re-edition of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard, more than a decade after it was championed on Neglected Books and went on to become an international phenomenon. The tense 1937 novella consists mainly of the interior monologue of a man at sea, who is doomed after he has slipped and fallen from a ship, a fact that sadly goes unnoticed by others aboard. Bigelow persuasively argued that this work by Lewis, a journalist turned Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for 1947’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue), was timeless, “a very existential kind of abstract situation that I think a lot of people can relate to.”

Recovered Books offers a wider range than most, whether it’s the upcoming novel of toxic masculinity among teens called Quarry, first published in 1967, or 1955’s The Sanity Inspectors, which is “striking, because it’s very much about what madness is when you’re in a mad world,” says Bigelow. Their list isn’t confined to time period or genre, because “I really want to focus on individual books that have exceptional quality on their own.”

Among Recovered Books’ latest is Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan, a British writer he praises for taking daring new stylistic risks with each successive novel. Far from being nostalgic for England between the wars, the 1937 tale of an impoverished couple, dehumanized by capitalism, the rise of automation and grim unemployment prospects, is likened to John Dos Passos’ savage epic U.S.A. by way of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. “Her description of that whole experience and how it grinds you down is amazingly powerful stuff.”

 

Gertrude Treveleyan

 

Bigelow says Trevelyan “is kind of the model of how to guarantee you get forgotten.” He considers her the best female novelist from England, after Virginia Woolf. “That good! But she had health issues, she didn’t have a big social circle, she didn’t do [book] reviews. Woolf reviewed, was from, and married into, a literary family and partied with literary types. So it’s not surprising that in addition to being a great writer she’s a remembered as a great writer.”

Although even marrying and mixing with the right people doesn’t ensure literary longevity. Given the cottage industry around F. Scott Fitzgerald, it’s shocking there was no active edition of Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me the Waltz until 2019, when it came out of copyright and Handheld Press revived it. Now the important cultural rarity – a woman’s text from the Jazz Age – is accessible again.

Women’s Lives and Stories

Handheld Press, which has a special interest in recovering women’s history, LGBTQ+ lives, and lives lived with physical and intellectual impairments, is my current favourite purveyor. The founder and editorial director is literary historian Kate Macdonald, who has written extensively on 20th century British book history and publishing culture.

 

Marjorie Grant

 

I was alerted to this small publisher, based in Bath, England, by a review in The Times of Marjorie Grant’s 1921 novel Latchkey Ladies. I was curious to learn how Grant, a little-known Canadian author and journalist who wrote for Maclean’s, and was a prolific reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, made her way into their catalogue with a 100-year-old novel about the lives of single girls making their living in London.

Since setting up Handheld in 2017, Macdonald says growth has been steady; they’ve now published more than 30 titles, either anthologies of classic supernatural short stories or great novels and biographies that have been out of print for decades. That list includes several books by English writer Rose Macaulay, including What Not, her 1918 dystopian novel about eugenics and government programs of compulsory selective breeding, which influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; Handheld’s printing restores passages excised after the first edition because the editor felt the satire was too provocative. Macdonald has published Macaulay’s books because, “as well as being great novels, they’re historically, socially, culturally radically important.”

Through this spiky author, Macdonald followed a trail of crumbs to Macaulay’s close friend Grant, and her obscure 100-year-old novel. I sifted through some archives for Grant’s work myself, and got a taste of how satisfying the research into forgotten writers can be. But when works are still under copyright, working with – let alone identifying – rightful literary estates or descendants is another consideration. It’s not always simple: Grant’s literary estate is lost, in that her will left no instructions about who was to be her literary executor, and any heirs are unknown. (Macdonald is still looking for them, with help from Library and Archives Canada.) In the case of Recovered Books’ new edition of Time: The Present, by the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Tess Slesinger (who wrote the script for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but died of cancer on the eve of its premiere), Bigelow happened to know her son through a previous project.

Since revival work is a modest endeavour, with no living author to put forward, success hinges on avid marketing. “Enthusing is what I’m quite good at!” Macdonald laughs. “If I cannot enthuse, I really feel worried about whether I can print and sell a book.” Paper prices in the last six month have more than doubled, she adds, and a typical Handheld print run (depending on unit cost) is between 1,000 and 1,500 copies: “it would be quite exciting if that sold out in a year.”

The Future of Literature

As a former academic, Macdonald felt strongly about putting authors like Zelda Fitzgerald back into general circulation so they could be studied. “In the past I have not been able to teach certain women writers, because there were no texts for the students to buy. It was aggravating!” she recalls. When Bigelow went back to college and was doing his own research, “it really struck me how the legacy of forgotten writers hinges upon academics, essentially, integrating them into their classes or writing about them in journals.”

In another instance, reviewing an anthology of retro science fiction of the usual suspects (H.P Lovecraft, et al.) made Macdonald realize how few female writers were represented, so she filled the gap in the market by publishing Weird Women. “There’s an awful lot of women studying the weird, fantasy, and gothic, but publishers didn’t seem to think those women want to buy book,” she marvels. That first collection of strange tales has since “gone bananas and been reprinted and reprinted,” with sequels and spinoffs like Strange Relics, a collection of archeology and supernatural stories, and has expanded to books like D.K. Broster’s From the Abyss, as a result.

Increasingly, there’s cross-generational appeal, as with Jane Oliver’s Business as Usual, a delightful and funny epistolary novel set in the world of 1930s retail, which has struck an unexpected chord and found an audience among millennials. “I knew it would appeal to my mother’s generation, but to my amazement millennial women love it because it’s the story of a young woman going to London for the first time to get a job.” Oliver’s husband John Llewelyn Rhys, who died in an RAF training flight, was an award-winning writer in his own right, and Handheld has just re-published his two vivid, but long-neglected, books of aviation fiction.

“There are tons of books that got great reviews and people were very enthusiastic about, yet they just died,” Bigelow observes, quoting the late American publisher Alfred Knopf’s axiom: “most novels fail on the day that they’re published.”

THE SCROLL

The Book Thief: An Italian Man’s Guilty Plea Ends a Caper That Puzzled the Literary World for YearsFilippo Bernardini’s elaborate phishing scam netted 1,000 unpublished manuscripts by prominent authors including Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan


The Late Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison is Honoured with an American StampThe Obamas and Oprah Winfrey pay tribute to the writer whose poetic interpretations of the African American experience gained a world-wide audience


Five Canadian Writers Make the Long List for the Inaugural Carol Shields Prize for FictionThe US$150,000 English-language literary award for female and nonbinary writers redresses the inequality of women in the publishing world


The Furry Green Grump is Back in a Sequel to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”Dr. Seuss Enterprises will publish “How the Grinch Lost Christmas!” in September


Chris Hadfield to Publish a Sequel to His Blockbuster Debut, “The Apollo Murders,” on Oct. 10"The Defector” brings the Cold War intrigue from space to Earth as the Soviets and Americans race to develop fighter jets


Prince Harry’s ‘Spare’ Continues to Break Worldwide RecordsThe book also seems to have put a dent in the popularity of members of the Royal Family — including the Prince and Princess of Wales.


Prince Harry’s Memoir Breaks U.K. Sales Record On First Day of ReleaseThe publisher of the new memoir, 'Spare", says it had sold 400,000 copies so far across hardback, e-book and audio formats.


Barack Obama’s Favourite Books of 2022The former U.S. president’s 13 titles include Canadians Emily St. John Mandel and Kate Beaton, as well as tomes from Michelle Obama, George Saunders and Jennifer Egan


Here are the 5 Books on Bill Gates’ Holiday Reading ListThe billionaire philanthropist is giving hundreds of copies to little libraries around the world


Sheila Heti and Eli Baxter Among 2022 Governor General’s Literary Award WinnersToronto writer Sheila Heti took home the fiction award for 'Pure Colour,' a novel the GG peer assessment committee called "a work of genius."


Suzette Mayr Wins $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for ‘The Sleeping Car Porter’The 2022 Giller Prize jury called Mayr's novel "alive and immediate — and eerily contemporary."


Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards: Authors Nicholas Herring, Dan Werb Nab Top PrizesThe Writers' Trust of Canada awards amounted to a combined monetary prize value of $270,000.


Bob Dylan Releases ‘The Philosophy of Modern Song,’ a Book of Essays Dissecting 66 Influential SongsIn his new book, Bob Dylan offers up both critique and historical insight into various musical recordings of the last century by a variety of popular artists.


Prince Harry’s Memoir ‘Spare’ Will Be Published in January 2023The long-awaited memoir will tell with "raw unflinching honesty" Prince Harry's journey from "trauma to healing", his publisher said on Thursday.


Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka Wins 2022 Booker PrizeKarunatilaka won the prestigious prize on Monday for his second novel ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’, about a dead war photographer on a mission in the afterlife.


Canadian Council for the Arts Reveals Governor General’s Literary Awards FinalistsThe finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards spotlight books in both the English and French language, as well as translated works.


New Penguin Random House Award Named After Michelle Obama Will Honour High School WritersMichelle Obama Award for Memoir will provide a $10,000 college scholarship to a graduating public school senior based on their autobiographical submission.


French Author Annie Ernaux, 82, Becomes First French Woman to Win Nobel Prize for LiteratureThe author said, of winning, that "I was very surprised ... I never thought it would be on my landscape as a writer."


Hilary Mantel, Award-Winning British Author of ‘Wolf Hall’ Trilogy, Dies at 70Wolf Hall, published in 2009, and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, released three years later, both won the Booker Prize, an unprecedented win for two books in the same trilogy and making Mantel the first woman to win the award twice.


Prince William “Cannot Forgive” Prince Harry, According to ‘The New Royals’ Author Katie NichollPrince William “just cannot forgive his brother,” according to Katie Nicholl, author of 'The New Royals: Queen Elizabeth’s Legacy and the Future of the Crown.'


Five Finalists Announced for Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for NonfictionThe winner — to be announced on November 2 — will take home the annual $60,000 prize.


Peter Straub, Bestselling American Horror Writer, Dies at 79Friend and co-author Stephen King has said the author's 1979 book, "Ghost Story," is his favourite horror novel.


Rawi Hage, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Sheila Heti Make the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize Long ListThe jury read 138 books to choose 14 titles for the long list, one of which will win the $100,000 prize, one of the richest in Canadian literature


Salman Rushdie, Novelist Who Drew Death Threats, Is Stabbed at New York LectureThe Indian-born novelist who was ordered killed by Iran in 1989 because of his writing, was attacked before giving a talk on artistic freedom.


Raymond Briggs, Creator of Beloved Children’s Tale ‘The Snowman’, Dies at 88First published in 1978, the pencil crayon-illustrated wordless picture book sold more than 5.5 million copies around the world while a television adaption became a Christmas favourite in Britain and was nominated for an Oscar.


Canadian Author Emily St. John Mandel Makes Barack Obama’s 2022 Summer Reading ListObama's list includes everything from fiction to books on politics, cultural exploration and basketball.


Canadian Author Rebecca Eckler to Launch RE:books Publishing House Focused on Female Authors and Fun ReadsThe former National Post columnist says her tagline is ‘What’s read is good, and what’s good is read.’”


Brian Thomas Isaac’s “All the Quiet Places” wins $5,000 Indigenous Voices AwardThe B.C. author, a retired bricklayer, drew on his childhood growing up on the Okanagan Indian reserve for his coming-of-age story set in 1956


Canadian-American Author Ruth Ozeki Wins Women’s Book Prize for “The Book of Form and Emptiness”The UK judges said her fourth novel, inspired in part by the Vancouver Public Library, contained "sparkling writing, warmth, intelligence, humour and poignancy."


The Bill Gates Summer Reading List Includes a Sci-Fi Novel On Gender Inequality Suggested by His DaughterBill Gates' summer reading list includes fiction and non-fiction titles that cover gender equality, political polarization and climate change.


American novelist Joshua Cohen wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “The Netanyahus”The 2022 Pulitzer prizes include this satirical look at identity politics, focused on the father of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at a crucial time in the Jewish state’s history


Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro Among Canadian Authors Recognized in Commemorative Reading List Marking Queen’s Platinum JubileeThe authors are among six Canadian scribes included on the The Big Jubilee Read list.


Queen Elizabeth II’s Aide Reveals Details of Life in Royal Pandemic Lockdown in New Addition to BookAngela Kelly, who's worked for the Queen for 20 years, discusses everything from cutting the Queen's hair to "the light and laughter that was shared ... even in the darkest moments."


New Leonard Cohen Story Collection, ‘A Ballet of Lepers,’ Set for October ReleaseThe collection features a novel, short stories and a radio play written between 1956 and 1961.


Archived Letters Reveal How Toni Morrison Helped MacKenzie Scott Meet Future Husband Jeff BezosBezos hired Scott at the hedge fund where he worked after receiving a recommendation from Morrison. Shortly thereafter, the pair married and Scott helped Bezos launch Amazon.


Prince Harry’s Memoir is Set to Rock the MonarchyFriends say the California-based royal got a million-pound book deal to write "an intimate take on his feeling about the family."


European Jewish Congress Asks Publisher to Pull Anne Frank BookThe Congress says 'The Betrayal of Anne Frank' has "deeply hurt the memory of Anne Frank, as well as the dignity of the survivors and the victims of the Holocaust."


Canadian Author Details Anne Frank Cold-Case Investigation That Named Surprise Suspect in Her Family’s Betrayal in New BookAhead of the 75th anniversary of the publication of Frank's 'The Diary of a Young Girl' in June, a team that included a retired FBI agent and around 20 historians, criminologists and data specialists identified a relatively unknown figure as a leading suspect in revealing her family's hideout.


Man Who Tricked Authors Into Handing Over Unpublished Manuscripts Arrested by FBI in New YorkFilippo Bernardini, an employee of a well known publication house, has been arrested for stealing hundreds of unpublished manuscripts.


Hollywood Legend Betty White Has a Last Laugh in New Biographic Comic BookThe creators of the biographical comic book have released similar books about Hollywood legends like Carrie Fisher, Lucille Ball, David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor.


Barack Obama Reveals His List of Books That Left “A Lasting Impression” in 2021Obama's favourite 2021 reads include two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead's 'Harlem Shuffle' and 'Klara and the Sun,' by Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro


“Interview With the Vampire” Author Anne Rice Dies at 80 — Tributes Pour in From Stuart Townsend and OthersThe author, who was best known for her work in gothic fiction, died on Saturday evening as a result of complications from a stroke.


Norma Dunning wins $25,000 Governor General’s English fiction prize for ‘Tainna’The Edmonton-based Inuk writer explores themes of displacement, loneliness and spirituality in six short stories


Omar El Akkad wins $100,000 Giller prize for “What Strange Paradise”The former Globe and Mail reporter, who published "American War" to acclaim in 2017, tackles the global migrant refugee crisis in his second novel


South African Author Damon Galgut Wins the Booker Prize For ‘The Promise’Galgut received nominations for his 2003 and 2010 works before finally taking home the prize this year. 


Hollywood Legend Paul Newman Discusses Life, Acting and Aging Gracefully in Newly Discovered MemoirPublishers of the newly discovered memoir say the Hollywood legend wrote the book in the 1980s in response to the relentless media attention he received during that time.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Toronto International Festival of AuthorsDirector Roland Gulliver lands in Toronto to open his second, much-expanded virtual festival with more than 200 events


Tanzanian Novelist Gurnah Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for Depicting the Impact of Colonialism and Refugee StoriesGurnah, 72, is only the second writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win one of the world's most prestigious literary awards


Miriam Toews Garners Third Giller Prize Nomination for “Fight Night” after Shortlist AnnouncedSophomore efforts from novelists Omar El Akkad and Jordan Tannahill join debut books from Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia and Angélique Lalonde


Tina Brown’s New Book, ‘The Palace Papers’, Covers the Royal Family’s Reinvention After Diana’s Tragic DeathTina Brown's sequel to her 2007 release 'The Diana Chronicles' is set to hit shelves April 12, 2022. 


Audible.ca Releases Andrew Pyper’s Exclusive Audiobook “Oracle” For New Plus Catalogue LaunchThe thriller about a psychic FBI detective is one of 12,000 titles now available for free to members


Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen to Release Book Based On Their “Renegades” PodcastThe new book will feature a collection of candid, intimate and entertaining conversations


Prince Harry Will Publish a Memoir in Late 2022Harry says he's writing the book "not as the prince I was born but as the man I have become."


> STAY UP TO DATE

Sign Up for the Weekly Book Club Newsletter