Several years ago, I was interviewed about my practice as a print culture researcher. I’ve updated my Q&A preparation notes, as a reintroduction to why I read the way I do, and why I spent so many years as an academic researching a particular kind of book.
What do you do and why?
I was an editor first, then an English lecturer, and now I’m a publisher. I collect books by authors that I’m interested in, and I like connecting authors and themes together. I’ve been a browser in second-hand bookshops all my life. My mother has the antique hunter’s gene, but in me that turned to books. I look for old books, preferably really tatty cheap ones, because those are the ones that get lost most easily, by being ephemeral, Ephemera fascinates me, the stuff we throw away after reading, what it says about us and our lives. Recovery work is the most absorbing for me, the detective hunt of finding a forgotten author and their works.
Other than not being widely read today, are there any criteria you use to select a forgotten work for analysis and appraisal?
Is the story good? Does the writer’s voice stay with me? Do I still remember the plot and /or characters several weeks or months later? I can still remember books I read only once as a child, because they were so perfect for that time and place. I also reread books, endlessly, getting recurring pleasure from the storytelling and the plot and description. I remember one book I read a lot as a teenager because it was about making dresses, and was particularly detailed in how to sew a dress in the 18thC on the American frontier and in sophisticated Quebec. I think it was called Calico Captive, I’ve never seen a copy since, though I expect if I looked on Abe it would be there. There was also a marvellous book about Roman Britain told by a native Briton, which was packed with the British gods and goddesses, utterly riveting. I finally remembered the title some years ago and bought it online: it reads a little more juvenile than I remembered, but the mythical parts are still excellent. So that’s the power of story.
But for analysis and appraisal, what grabs me is context in how the story is told. I’m interested in details of daily life, so a novel that is full of well-described detail about cooking, cleaning, shopping, dressing, all these forgotten daily aspects: those I find valuable, and interesting when linked to other works which have the same focus. And then you take a step back and ask, why these books and authors? Who were they aimed at? Who bought these books? Where were they advertised? Were they ever reviewed? All the contemporary cultural responses are important for how that book affected its own times, that’s what I want to resurrect or reconstruct.
Books and their authors have always been forgotten – what’s the attraction of reading the forgotten fiction of the recent past?
Because not many people bother with that material! I like an untrodden trail, I don’t want to look at books that everyone looks at: I can’t think of anything more boring than yet another work discussing the meaning of Ulysses, or Emma. I want to look for the books that have been trampled underfoot in the rush to find a suitable literary subject, because the forgotten material is untouched and fresh, no-one has asked the questions I want to ask about those books. It’s the thrill of new unexplored territory.
What is ‘middlebrow’ fiction, which you’re interested in?
‘Middlebrow’ is useful only when I’m talking about British interwar fiction: the term changes its meaning after WW2, and is also different in an American context. So it’s useful but limited. It also has a largely feminine connotation, which I tried to nuance with a book on the masculine middlebrow in 2011. I got tired of middle-class critical voices telling me about middle-class women writers, and reprint publishers only reprinting books focused on the domestic and the interior life: I wanted to hear about the men, and the other classes. I’m also interested in the idea that a highbrow can read a middlebrow book when they feel like it. We all have different reading moods. I’ll read something easy at night before I go to sleep, whereas when I’m eating lunch alone I’ll read something quite different (unless I’m desperate to finish the bedtime book). If readers can change reading gear, that should make us rethink our categorisation of a book as ‘middlebrow’ for ever and always. It’s the moment that is middlebrow, rather than the book, because a book by an author whom one reader finds witty and gentle, like E M Delafield, might also be quite challenging for a different reader, who can’t decode her social references, or can’t understand the historical period that the story is set in.
So the fiction I’m interested in might be middlebrow, but it might also be considered highbrow or mass market: and once we’re looking at books published before or after the two wars, the terminology changes again. I’m interested in excellent stories with memorable plot elements and characters. I’m not very interested in anguish or self-pity, I’m a Martha, not a Mary in my tastes.
When is a book no longer ‘forgotten’?
A forgotten book is one that no-one has ever heard of (meaning they haven’t seen it on a bookshelf, or read it in a review, or seen it referred to). Also, the author may have disappeared from sight because she or he has written one enormously popular work that has eclipsed anything else they wrote, or their books have simply disappeared from circulation, there are very few copies left in existence.
Una L Silberrad is, or was, ‘forgotten’. Eight or nine years ago, very few of her books were available on Abe (always a good gauge for the market), but once I and a few other researchers were searching for her online, the print-on-demand industry took notice. Suddenly quite a few titles became available at high prices from them, and I shudder to think about the copies they must have destroyed to rip out the pages for digitisation. But I still can only find about two-thirds of her 39 titles. She went out of print quite quickly because she published with Hutchinson. Their warehouses and offices were bombed in the Blitz, and so there were no more of her back list titles to buy, and she was at the end of her career so Hutchinson weren’t interested in reprinting her. I found her mentioned in a 1932 book review about another author, and kept digging until I found her great-nephew, a short biography in an Essex historical journal, some business records, quite a lot of reviews, and some very useful readers’ records from her first publisher.
Her most famous book, The Good Comrade, was reprinted several times in her day, but she was never a huge seller: she was a journeyman writer, her work was predictable and reliable and good, but was never going to set the world on fire. If you like it, she’s terrific, for her voice and what she says. But she’s not showy, or demanding; plain, simple, sharp, an early feminist, interested in women working in science and business, well ahead of her time, but she never became famous, or gained critical attention in any form. Her writing is deeply satisfying, that’s the attraction for me.
Since then, I’ve brought three of her books into print. The Good Comrade with Victorian Secrets, The Affairs of John Bolsover in an academic edition of Edwardian speculative fiction, Political Future Fiction, and Handheld Press’s own edition of Desire. I don’t think Silberrad will stop being classified as ‘forgotten’ until other publishers begin to reprint her work, and I also doubt that there is the market to make that viable. Today’s readers have to want to buy a book, to explore that author’s mind and art, to make republication possible. And then they have to get others to want to read that author too, in enough numbers.
Persephone managed it with Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day: selling the film rights saved that excellent book from a second oblivion. Virago brought out a volume of the extraordinary poetry of Anna Wickham, who I think has managed to stay in the canon now, because of the availability of that text. Handheld are publishing Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel in January. She’s very well-known because of her husband (F Scott), but hardly at all because of her own writing, and all the signs are good that this book will go straight onto university reading lists as well as into mainstream bookshops. Publishing is so important for the rehabilitation and re-presentation of a forgotten author, and academics often forget that. You can give paper after paper about the importance and essentialness of a forgotten author, but if that writer’s work is not available, or in print, that recovery effort ends when the conference ends, or when the journal has been read. Present the marketability of the author as well as their readability, and you’ll have contributed much more effectively to their recovery project.