Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Remaining Unpublished, or The Most Underrated Novelist of the 20th Century


What could you do if you fall out of favor all of a sudden, or somehow become irrelevant?  A poignant example is the rejection experienced by the British novelist Barbara Pym (1913—1980) after publishing six novels from 1949—1960.

Barbara Pym did not write bestsellers,  but she enjoyed a steady success (we have to take into account that in the 1950s most people borrowed books from the library: Excellent Women sold 6577 copies, Jane and Prudence 5052, Less Than Angels 3569 and A Glass of Blessing 3071), and got favorable reviews. Hazel Holt, Pym’s biographer and literary executor, argues that her books never lost her publisher, Jonathan Cape, any money.

Thus, as a published author of six books, Pym must have felt that she had arrived; she knew her audience and understood what they wanted to read.  I suppose that she had every reason to believe that her writing career was on a safe and steady path.

The shock came in 1963 when  her  seventh novel,  An Unsuitable Attachment, was rejected by Jonathan Cape, and she could not find another publisher for the work. For 15 years, all her new writings remained unpublished.

Pym was totally unprepared for the rejection; as her world had remained unchanged, she could not have predicted that her writing would become irrelevant in the 1960s.

I cannot begin to imagine her reaction, her distress. She must have started to doubt her whole perception of reality, how could she have been so wrong? What about her loyal readers? Had they stopped being interested in what she had to say? Moreover, writing was her whole life; she had never married or had children.  

Pym was 50 year old when she encountered rejection. I know from experience that this is an age when women start to feel invisible. My female friends report that no one sees them, and  I sense  that Pym’s  rejection may have augmented the feelings of being transparent.

Still being invisible has its advantages. A friend of mine says that since no one sees you, you are free to do whatever you choose. Pym did just that, she did not cave in but kept writing novels  in her own style, and did not try to please anyone but herself. 

Like in fairy tales, Pym’ s consistency and hard work were rewarded.  For its  75th anniversary, the Times Literary Supplement issued a list of the most underrated writers of the century, drawn up by forty-three eminent literary figures. Pym was the only living writer to be named by two people – the poet Philip Larkin, and the historian and biographer Lord David Cecil.

This nomination brought about a revived interest in Pym; her novels were reissued and Quartet in Autumn (1977) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

 So like in Greek tragedies, in which the greater good always takes precedent over the fate of the individual: order was restored;  Pym was rediscovered. However, for her success came too late,  and she did not have long to enjoy the fruits of this triumph as she died of cancer in 1980.

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