In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Steve Almond writes beautifully about the novel Stoner by John Williams, a book that has gone out of print twice since 1965, and sold an impressively meager 2,000 copies in its first printing. In addition to inspiring me to rush out and immediately read Stoner, Almond’s article also got me thinking about how some of my very favorite books are ones that went out of print, and then luckily found their way back into the world again.
While I’m sure there are plenty of lost books whose disappearance is not a terrible tragedy, it fascinates me to think of the reasons why certain gems are not appreciated at first. Whether because of harsh critics, the trends and inclinations of the era, the fickle proclivities of the reader, the lackluster support of a publisher, or something else entirely, a novel falls out of favor or slips into obscurity. And what brings it back? Why are we ready later rather than sooner?
In the spirit of Almond’s “besotted” praise of Stoner, I want to revisit some of my favorite books that have risen from their premature graves.
First up, The Changeling by the incomparable Joy Williams. A scathing review arguably killed Williams’s second novel when it was published in 1978, and it subsequently went out of print. Thirty years later, Fairy Tale Review Press published this dark, bizarre, wonderful novel to a more receptive audience. In his introduction to the new edition, Rick Moody writes, “Thirty years later, the situation looks quite different…the tectonic movements of [Williams's] paragraphs and her narratives no longer looks impulsive, if indeed it ever did. Now it looks like originality.”
That’s the thing about Joy Williams; there is no one even close to similar. I once heard her say she channels spirit messengers, and her work reads as if that were very true. If you haven’t read her, please do so right now. Admittedly, you might not want to start with The Changeling, as it helps to be a bit in love already before you tackle this one. Escapes is a good introduction. Become besotted, and then move on to this strange specimen of a second novel. Moody suggests that maybe the late ’70s, with its “punk rock nihilism and…Studio 54 fatuousness” wasn’t the time for this kind of tale. Thankfully, perhaps now is the right time?
Sample line: “There is no room in life for decorum! At times it is necessary to expose the skeleton within us, to make manifest the death within us.”
Next up, Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox (also known for being Courtney Love’s biological grandmother!). Published in 1970 to critical praise, it still ended up out of print. Also a second novel, Desperate Characters is a slim, taut, mysterious book filled with a slow building desperation that is creepy, thrilling and hard to summarize.
Jonathan Franzen fell in love with the novel in the library at Yaddo, but, when he went to buy his own copy, discovered it was out of print. He wasn’t having it, and proceeded to make all sorts of awesome declarations about Fox being a better writer than John Updike and all of her other famous male counterparts. He also wrote an ode to the novel in Harper’s, which finally got the attention of an editor at W.W. Norton.
It seems profound to consider the implications of a novel written during one period of time being reintroduced into the context of a new time and being perhaps even more significant. Franzen writes in his introduction: “Desperate Characters is a novel in revolt against its own perfection. The questions it raises are radical and unpleasant. What is the point of meaning — especially literary meaning — in a rabid modern world? Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed? Why not be rabid? Why torment ourselves with books?” These questions seem all the more pressing today, as a new set of readers gets the opportunity to read this fantastic book.
Sample line: “[She] felt an extraordinary relief as though, at last, she’d discovered what it was that could create a balance between the quiet, rather vacant progression of the days she spent in this house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edge of her own existence.”
When I spent a week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, it was in large part due to my love of the not-as-prolific-as-I-wish-he-was genius Charles D’Ambrosio. His impeccably crafted short stories in The Dead Fish Museum and The Point are some of my favorites. But his essay collection Orphans is the book I keep sitting on my desk at all times to remind myself of what it means to be a writer.
From a police stake-out to a hell house to a suicide note, D’Ambrosio finds ways to describe the world that I have never heard before, in turns exacting and lush with feeling. The book itself is a beautiful object, very small, with a ribbon book mark. Now out of print, it’s a crapshoot whether you can find it online for $13 or $300.
When I nervously stood in line to have D’Ambrosio sign my copy at Tin House, he looked surprised to see it and asked, “Where did you find this little thing? I thought all the copies of it were in my garage.” Now, thankfully, not only will the essays of Orphans be available outside of his garage, but D’Ambrosio has new work to share as well. In November, Tin House Books will publish Loitering: New & Collected Essays, which will include all of the eleven essays in Orphans.
Sample line: ” The difference between the truth and a cliche is the difference between what we really know and what we’ve all heard about.”
In his praise of Stoner, Almond writes, “As a fictional hero, William Stoner will have to dwell in obscurity forever. But that, too, is our destiny. Our most profound acts of virtue and vice, of heroism and villainy, will be known by only those closest to us and forgotten soon enough. Even our deepest feelings will, for the most part, lay concealed within the vault of our hearts.” Almond says the truest literary critic is time. And perhaps for many of our books that disappear for a while and then return to us, time is insisting we re-examine what at first appeared too complicated, too quiet, too irrelevant. If our deepest feelings lay concealed within the vault of our hearts, perhaps some of these books that persist over the years to reveal themselves to us again, also reveal to us a new part of ourselves.