Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Renata Adler, Renata Adler, and Many Other Novelists We’d Like to See Back in Print

By Eric Banks

Since 2009 the NBCC has sponsored NBCC Reads, a set of surveys drawing on the bookish expertise of our membership as well as former winners and finalists. This fall our subject was out-of-print books. We asked:

Which work of fiction or nonfiction would you most like to see republished?

The question elicited a large number of responses (and for many, a large number of books nominated for republishing), the names of writers whose work more generally should be republished, as well as a few considerations of how changes in the industry might change the fortunes of long out-of-print titles. Today we're publishing some of the choices in fiction; we'll be posting some specific responses as “Long Tail” entries on the blog in the days to come–including the nonfiction choices we received–and we hope to sponsor related panels from coast to coast. (Let us know if you'd like to set one up in your community.)

A question of this nature tends to bring out some unique selections, but the most mentioned title by far was Renata Adler’s Speedboat, a 1976 finalist in fiction. Dylan Hicks wrote, “I confess that I hadn't even heard of Renata Adler's Speedboat until I read about it in David Shields’s Reality Hunger. Perhaps he's the man to write the NYRB reissue’s introduction?” NBCC board member Mark Athitakis also mentioned the Shields connection: “I'll thank [Shields] for pointing me to Renata Adler’s out-of-print 1976 novel, Speedboat. The narrator, a New York writer named Jen Fein, appears to be coming apart, stalked by a sense of panic and a feeling that the world has become disordered. So the story feels like it's come apart too—telephone conversations get tangled, the story leaps wildly from past to present, recollections of violence are muted while mundane party chatter becomes absurdly, wildly comic. Speedboat's lack of familiar narrative thrust is what attracted Shields’s attention, but reading it, a new sense of narrative thrust emerges: The growing sense that the chaos of the prose belies a terrifying precision, that Jen's fears ought to be our fears, and that when we try to tell the story straight we're deliberately telling a lie to ourselves.” Bookforum editor Michael Miller added his enthusiasm for a Speedboat reprint.

Other respondents mentioned more generally writers whose work has been unjustly neglected. Peter Kramer wrote in favor of Ivy Compton-Burnett. “She's a substantial enough author that there ought to be a standard edition of her complete works.&rdqrdquo; Carmela Ciuraru nominated not just Antonia White’s Frost in May “but the entire series, which was issued by the UK's Virago Books”; Valerie Trueblood chose the novels of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz (“deep thought, dark storylines with timeless appeal to readers of speculative fiction, prose rich in the original and remarkably so in English”. And this year’s Balakian winner, Joan Acocella, wrote that all of Simenon should be in print: “That's a lot of books––they say 400––but I'd like to read them.”

Also writing in a completist vein was 2003 NBCC Poetry winner Susan Stewart: “The books of W.H. Hudson, the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century Argentine naturalist/novelist born of American parents in Buenos Aires province and later long resident in England, go in and out of print. Among his books that are now not available are his gaucho novel of an Englishman's adventures in Uruguay, The Purple Land, and his collections of Argentine legends, Tales of the Pampas. The conventional romantic plots of these books are the mere frames upon which Hudson builds his enchanting accounts of landscape and native species of animals and birds.”

Meanwhile, Sara Paretsky, a memoir finalist in 2007, urged that thriller writer Dorothy Salisbury Davis’s oeuvre brought back into print. “If I had to pick one or two books, I'd choose A Town of Masks and Enemy and Brother.I also love Davis’s short stories. “Christopher and Maggie,” in the 2001 collection In the Still of the Night, is a beautiful little conte à clef from Davis's Depression-era job as an advance woman for a very inept magician.

What other works of fiction were named by NBCC respondents? Michael Miller also selected Gary Indiana's Do Everything in the Dark (“a great book–melancholic and funny and wicked smart–that never got its due”). Kirby Gann nominated Padgett Powell's second novel, A Woman Named Drown, while Abby Frucht wrote in favor of Christopher Coe's Such Times, “a searing, raw tale written at the cusp of the AIDS epidemic in this country, by an author who died way too young of that disease.” Daniel Akst suggested Alexander Baron’s novel of London, The Lowlife; Alicia Miller nominated Joseph McElroy’s Plus, “one of the strongest (and most moving) novels from that great, too-often neglected American writer”; Chris Bersanti selected Jack O’Connell’s The Skin Palace, and Brigitte Frase chose James T. Farrell's The Silence of History (“It's about the romance of higher education. A working-class boy goes to the U. of Chicago. Wonderfully atmospheric.”). Ron Antonucci nominated William J. Craddock’s Twilight Candelabra, Gregory Miller selected The Afternoon of a Writer, Peter Handke's “deceptively simple meditation,” and Brandon Von wrote, “I think Jack Butler's Jujitsu for Christ should be reprinted. It’s a classic. Unfortunately, it's only available through secondhand bookstores. If you're lucky.”

A couple of the recommendations are technically not out of print but deserve a mention. Nicky Beer suggested a new American edition of Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder.“There's a Kindle edition, but considering that the book is a collection of 64 pieces of bite-sized short fiction all about food, I really think we need to have it exist in a fully sensual incarnation. … It might spur an American reprint his novel Arcadia, another food-centric work which also examines the egos and psyches that affect the commodification of food.” Martha K. Baker suggested two books not widely available, Friendship Village by Zona Galeand Like One of the Family by Alice Childress. “Anyone who appreciated The Help needs to go march right back to read this painful, poignant, hilarious-but-not view of life from the p.o.'d black maid's sassy mouth.”

A few respondents reached back further in literary history. Jamie Brown wrote, “I was lucky to run across a copy of Maria Edgeworth’s 1800 novel, Castle Rackrent. Long out of print, it is referred to in The Great Gatsby when Nick and Daisy are sharing a conversation about some family secret that is alluded to––“That's the secret of Castle Rackrent,” Nick says––but as far as I know I am one of the few Fitzgerald scholars who have actually read the novel.” Wendy Smith nominated South Riding (1936) by Winifred Holtby: “The easiest way to describe Holtby’s panoramic novel of Yorkshire between the wars would be as a 20th-century Middlemarch, if George Eliot had been interested in local politics or socialism. Holtby shares Eliot’s ability to capture an entire society, and her cast of characters encompasses a wider range. Her sympathies extend to all social classes, her understanding of individual human psychology is acute. What a tragedy for British literature that Holtby died at 37, before South Riding was even published. The novel was the basis of a 1930s film staring Ralph Richardson and a BBC miniseries in the ‘70s; I hear that it’s being filmed for British television again, so I hope that will prompt the reissue of this splendid work.” My own addition to the list is also a novel that appeared in English in the 1930s, famous enough in its day to warrant the translation attention of the Muirs: Lion Feuchtwanger’s Success. The great Stadt novel of late ’20s, hyperinflated Munich, which originally draws both on Döblin and on the then new art of the cinematic, Success foretells the Nazi rise to power against the backdrop of a curator’s trial for indecency.

NBCC fiction finalist Norman Rush wrote in favor of Frederick Rolfe’s 1958 novel, Nicholas Crabbe, or the One and the Many, a Romance: “This is a work of high comedy, and at the same time the record of a gifted but impossible man, Frederick Rolfe [pseudonym Baron Corvo] being driven crazy by the workings of the publication-machinery of literary England at the end of the nineteenth century. I’ll quote the jacket copy: ‘Anyone intrigued by the story of Rolfe’s singular life as told by A.J.A. Symons in The Quest for Corvo. . . will find Nicholas Crabbe a new confirmation of the utterly unique and fantastic genius of its author.’ ”

A few other fascinating out of print works of fiction were named. Valerie Trueblood’s list also included Delmore Schwartz’s The World Is a Wedding (“more than one of America's finest short stories are in this book”); Paul Alverdes’s war novel The Whistlers' Room, in Basil Creighton translation published in 1930; Janet Lewis’s The Trial of Soren Qvist; Jules Renard’s Carrot Top; Mavis Gallant’s “short, mysterious novel in four movements of a young woman’s gradual disintegration,” Green Water, Green Sky; Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief (“a novel, one of the great ones, of pained youth; Grove reissued it about ten years ago, but it should be back on bookstore shelves”), and The Home Place, by Wright Morris: “Early & beautiful use of photographs in a novel. Morris is a pillar of American fiction in some degree of eclipse now. Wonderful writer.” NBCC board member David Haglund wrote he’d like to Sergei Dovlatov brought back into print in the United States, and Anita Porterfield wrote of William Goldman, “as varied as his works are, I would like to see his first novel, Temple of Gold published again. This is a timeless coming-of-age story that touches on issues that are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s.

Finally, Tess Lewis had this to say about Yury Dombrovsky’s The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, first published in Russian in Paris in 1978 and translated into English in 1995. “Based on Dombrovsky’s own life, it tells the story of Georgi Zybin, an archaeologist trying to evade the Stalinist purges by signing up for a research project in distant Alma-Ata. But the tentacles of the Great Terror extend to the remotest corners of Soviet Union and he is soon embarked on a labyrinthine battle of wits with local officials determined to use him as a scapegoat. Zybin retreats into the realm of imagination and knowledge of the past, the ‘useless’ knowledge of the title, which far from being ‘useless’ proves to be his salvation.” Lewis adds, “The Faculty of Useless Knowledgeis every bit the equal of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Drop everything and read it.”