Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Sort of Introduction...

A few years ago, when I was in the Ph.D. program in Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, still laboring under the misapprehension that I wanted to be a professor, I started becoming interested in lesser-known writers.  This is not that unusual for wannabe professors.  If I had been going to succeed—which, as quickly became apparent, I was not—I would have needed to “publish or perish,” and the easiest way to publish is to “discover” one or more writers no one else cares about and build a dissertation around them.

My main literary attention had always been focused on modernist literature, so it’s not surprising that I started delving into writers from the 1920s to 1940s.  The first of these, I think, was Sylvia Townsend Warner, who at that time was less known than she is now (though she is still not given her props, if you ask me) and whose brilliant, gorgeous, funny, tantalizing, enigmatic (can you tell I like it?) debut novel Lolly Willowes had just been brought back into print by New York Review Books Classics (who, happily, have in the years since reprinted three more of Warner’s novels).  After several more readings, Lolly Willowes is now assuredly my favorite novel of all time, and with that kind of beginner’s luck, I was inspired to dig into other writers who had fallen into obscurity. 

Over the years, I've discovered the excellent Interlibrary Loan resources of the really amazing San Francisco Public Library, and I also met my partner Andy, who, apart from his many other wonderful characteristics, has University of California library privileges.  As a result, I’ve been able to delve into even more obscure writers, reading books pulled from dust-covered storage shelves in Fort Worth or Cincinnati.  And I learned about great independent publishers like Virago, Persephone, and Greyladies, and British booksellers like Book Depository and Awesome Books.

Soon I was drowning in tidbits of information about dozens of writers, not all of whom I had even read.  So I was inspired to start a database of the writers, their works, biographical information, and comments on books I had read.  That database now contains more than 15,000 works (though I haven't actually read most of them, of course—there are also a lot of working notes of things I might want to come back to someday, assuming I live to be 112) by 2,349 different writers (many of whom have little or no information or are flagged as “to research” just because I heard or saw them mentioned somewhere).  But I use the database almost daily to keep track of what I’m reading, what I want to read, and what I find out.  (My “short list” of books to read now comes in at around 400 titles, but it’s better than the “long list” of about 2000!)

It should be unnecessary by now to point out that I have an obsessive nature.  Obviously I should have been a librarian or archivist, but alas I missed my calling and now file legal documents, type very fast, and try to keep a calm and reassuring demeanor in spite of trantrums, whirlwinds, and missed deadlines at a law firm in downtown San Francisco.  But on my own time, I do my research and make long lists.  I seem to love pursuing arcane bits of data that barely another living soul anywhere would care about.  Perhaps there isn't even another living soul who cares!  I guess that remains to be seen.  But even if not, I figured all the lists and notes and research and data might as well be put to some use.  If nothing else, it will be a satisfactorily obsessive-compulsive activity to entertain me. 

So here it is. 

My blog. 

The obsessiveness will soon become glaringly apparent, since the next post is a rather inclusive (not to say overwhelming) list of writers.  Since my main obsession is with (mostly) lesser-known (mostly) British (mostly) women writers actively publishing (mostly) in the years 1910 to 1960, that’s what the list currently focuses on.  But more on that soon.


“MIDDLEBROW” ???

Middlebrow.  Why such a name for this blog?  Well, I have to admit that, while Furrowed Middlebrow came to me first, the name I had settled on in the end was Off the Beaten Page.  Sadly, however, someone commandeered that blog name in 2005 for two experimental posts and then promptly abandoned it.  I thought of tracking the owner down and reading obscure British women writers to him or her until they caved in and released the name.  But I opted for the high road.

So, back to my original name, with which I have made my peace.

“Middlebrow” seems to be the flavor of the month in literary studies.  It’s a source of some controversy—surrounding questions like: Is it derogatory in some way?  Does it suggest writers who aren’t as “good” as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or other certifiable highbrows?  And how would one identify middlebrow literature to begin with? 

This is an ongoing concern that Nicola Humble, who basically originated the academic study of the middlebrow with her book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s, has discussed in some depth.  I wrestled with this a little in thinking about this blog (and the title “Off the Beaten Page” would have solved the problem nicely by doing away with the term altogether).  Should I not, I asked myself, ever discuss Woolf here because she’s highbrow?  What about Elizabeth Bowen, who was, according to Humble, seen as middlebrow in her own day but is now more or less part of the highbrow canon?  Or how about Barbara Pym, who is certainly middlebrow in her subject matter, if not in her somewhat subversive double-edged prose, but has also been embraced both by the reading public and by scholars? 

Finally I realized that such agonizing was just ridiculous.  Because ultimately the only thing all the writers I’m likely to talk about have in common is…well…me.

The true middlebrow here is me.

The reason I like both Virginia Woolf and D. E. Stevenson, both Ivy Compton-Burnett and E. M. Delafield, both Elizabeth Taylor and Dodie Smith, is because I am—for whatever bizarre, repressed, deep-seated, psychic reasons—eternally obsessed by domestic life in Britain in the first half or two-thirds of the 20th century.  This is, I’ve concluded, what it all boils down to, even if I don’t know exactly why it boils down to that (or why it’s boiling at all?).  Ultimately, I want to know how people lived their lives, vicariously experience what they experienced, submerge myself into the culture of the time.  Somehow this helps me in living my own life. 

I love humorous portrayals of the varying ways in which life was lived, and books like Stevenson’s and Delafield’s and Smith’s can provide wonderful support and inspiration for dealing with my own hurdles, but I also like more serious or darkly-humorous portrayals like Woolf’s and Compton-Burnett’s and Taylor’s, which shed light on—and, likewise, provide strength for—the difficulties of life in their own ways.  But all the writers I most love have in common their focus on day-to-day life.

This is also a big part of why my focus is now so much on women writers.  There are certainly male writers of domestic life—Evelyn Waugh, Denis Mackail, E. M. Forster, even people like Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, or Aldous Huxley, at least in some of their works—and I often enjoy their writing too.  But so often male writers were (and are) self-consciously in pursuit of “greatness,” which is, for me (and to be a little Angela Thirkell-ish), really quite tedious.  Men do tend to focus on things like wealth, conquest, seduction, battle, bravery, dogma, politics, competition…zzzzzzzz (oh, sorry, I almost bored myself to sleep for a moment!)  Even among the “great” modern male scribblers, there are writers I really love—Hemingway, Beckett, Proust, Borges—but I have to say I almost never pick up their books these days.  There’s just too much Rachel Ferguson, Rumer Godden, Noel Streatfeild, Ruth Adam, and Pamela Frankau to be read!

And I think also that my sub-obsession with the World War II home front in Britain (more on that in future posts, I hope) also grows organically from my interest in day-to-day life in general.  Since wartime posed such challenges to normal domestic life, novels and memoirs of the home front effectively shine a spotlight on “normal” life, if only because it’s so difficult to carry the normalcy on that writers describe the normal in far greater detail than usual.  Vere Hodgson’s wonderful diary of World War II, Few Eggs and No Oranges, didn’t get its title by coincidence—she spends a lot of time talking about the availability of food.  Fantasizing about what would have been considered simple, ordinary meals before the war becomes a significant literary pastime during the war when such meals are anything but simple or ordinary.

By the way, as I mentioned before, I did go to the Ph.D. program at U.C. Santa Cruz, but bailed out with just an M.A.  I theoretically studied literature, by which I mean exactly that—I studied literature very theoretically, which really means studying very little literature and a great deal of theory.  I mostly read cultural theorists, in theory (pun intended) to learn to think more critically about literature, though since we barely ever got around to reading any actual literature, I mostly learned to think critically about whatever sit-com happened to be on television when I was too exhausted to read more Foucault or Freud.

So I’m writing this blog as a fan.  Because I genuinely love and am fascinated by a time period and a culture, and women writers’ way of presenting that time and culture. 

And I promise to limit my most pontificatory tendencies (I know, I know, the use of the word “pontificatory” is pretty pontificatory in itself, so you can see what I’m up against), though I imagine some will slip through.  I freely admit that I love making novels and stories (maybe even memoirs) mean more than they say and even mean multiple things.  I don’t think humans are by nature very clear and precise creatures, nor is language itself clear and precise, and when you put the two together there is plenty of room for interpretation in even the most straightforward, cozy, romantic novel.  Some people might say that’s an academic perspective.  But I think it’s just being an interested reader who’s actively thinking about what they read (and who’s actively interested in the work a writer put in to make the book what it is). 

But I will not entitle any post of this blog anything remotely like “The Postcolonial Effect of Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis on the Transgressiveness of Lesbian Sexuality in Burmese Jewish Nuns as Symbolically Represented in Joyce’s Ulysses.”  Pinky swear.

34 comments:

  1. Delightfully written, Scott - thank you! Have become somewhat enamored with this same genre, and will delight in mining your blog for new authors and books to read. After discovering Persephony and D.E. Stevenson, have gradually widened my reading, and your informative postings will help that continue.
    Thanks for listing this on the DES Group, so we can all follow along!
    D'ellis

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  2. Oh, thank you, D'ellis. I'm so glad you paid a visit! Hope you find new things to read, and be sure to share your finds too. It's amazing how often I'm still coming across writers I've never heard of!

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  3. I am very pleased to have discovered your blog. We have many shared motivations and interests.

    A friend from the DES list...

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  4. How intriguing it is to be visited by an anonymous DESsie! But thanks so much for visiting, and with a moniker like ProvincialLady, you KNOW you are always welcome here!

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  5. Your blog contains the best and most comprehensive list of authors i have seen online.
    I do not think you have omitted any of my favourites.

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    1. Thank you, that's so great to hear. I can't believe how many writers I've come across for the first time since starting the list--and how many more are already waiting to be added! Thanks again for visiting and commenting.

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  6. Dear Furrowed Middlebrow,
    i am in the UK and my favourite "old lady books" are locked up in a store and i have t pay 55p to get one book out.I find this immoral!!Is it the same in America?
    I do not know if Ursula Bloom is very good as i have not read her.She wrote hundreds of books--is she on your list?And E.H.YOUNG?i must re read your list-every day.

    I want to know more about your trips to secondhand book sales.Some bloggers in UK (STUCK IN A BOOK for example)often post photos of themselves with rthe pile of books they had just bought in an old bookshop.

    Kind Regards,
    Tina

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    1. Hi, Tina. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I've heard that libraries are starting to charge for Interlibrary Loan in the U.S. too, but so far not in San Francisco. Whew! I have things pulled out of storage at least a couple of times a month...

      Yes, Ursula Bloom and E. H. Young are on my list, though I have to admit I haven't read either of them. I know I HAVE to read Young--others have recommended her too.

      As for pics of books, the library's annual Giant Book Sale is coming up in less than two weeks... I think it's a safe bet that a post with lots of book pics will result from that, so check back then!

      Thanks again for dropping by!

      Scott

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  7. Hello Scott,
    a member of my reading group alerted me to your blog, and I'm very glad I've found it - we have a great deal in common! My job is build a collection of popular fiction 1900 to 1950, male and female, but my particular interest is in those middlebrow women...and that pesky but fascinating marker of cultural status, 'middlebrow'. Have you seen the Palgrave Encyclopedia of British Women's Writing 1900-1950? A very useful volume.
    I look forward to reading your posts!

    Erica

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    1. Hi, Erica,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I actually came across your author list a while back (and found a few new ones, as I recall, so thank you!), but somehow missed that there was a blog as well. I'll certainly be checking back with you. Your job sounds like so much fun!

      Yes, the Palgrave book is great. It helped me a lot when I first started adding to my list, and I've meant to mention it here but haven't gotten around to it yet.

      Thanks again for visiting and commenting.

      Scott

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  8. Have you listed Miss Sarah Broom Macnaughtan?
    Novelist,suffragette and First War nurse.

    Regards,
    Tina

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    1. Hi, Tina. Great suggestion. It looks like MacNaughton is on my list for the third Edwardians update, which should be coming along in a week or two, but I haven't really researched her yet. I just posted the first of four updates on Edwardian writers a couple of days ago and am working on the others.

      Keep the suggestions coming!

      Scott

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  9. Hello, I made my way here via I prefer reading and I'm so glad I did! So far, I've only looked through the A & B sections of the Overwheming List but I've already found authors I already love and some I've never heard of. You might be interested to know that Ruth Adam also wrote for children, as I wrote here. I look forward to following your researches.


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    1. I'm so glad you found me, and thank you for your comments on the list. I actually recently came across your post on Ruth Adam! I'm working on fleshing out some of the bios and/or doing full posts on some writers, so I've bookmarked your post to refer to in order to mention the children's books. She's a very interesting and versatile writer. Thanks again for visiting!

      Scott

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  10. Wow! I just discovered this blog from my just discovery of Persephone Books and I feel that I am meeting another self. I can't wait to read all your entries!

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    1. Thank you, Leslie, I'm so glad you found me! Feel free to comment liberally and share your own thoughts and suggestions. I always love to hear from readers with similar interests. Welcome!

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  11. An American author from the 1940s was Merriam Modell.Wrote "pulp fiction" alleges WIKI.I have got "The Sound of Years" but have no read it yet.
    Tina

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  12. Hi, I have been a Persephone fan for a long time, so its good to find people interested in even more undiscovered ( or disappeared from view ).writers. I am on the track of Esther Terry Wright, because she was a close friend of my father. I met them together in 1967/8 and she wrote me a lovely letter when my dad died. I didn't know then she was an author. I am trying to write a life of my dad , so following up clues. If anyone has any information about her I would be over the moon.

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    1. That's so interesting! I love tales of anyone's meeting with authors. Sadly, as you can tell if you've looked at my Overwhelming List, I haven't tracked down a lot of information on Wright. I recently found a copy of her final novel, though it's still on my "to read" shelves at present. I wish I could tell you more. I do have reviews of her first and last books, if those are any use. And if you have any personal recollections of her that you feel like sharing, please do email me! Do you happen to know when she died?

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    2. Hello, I'm Esther Terry Wright's son. I would be very happy to give you any information you need. I wonder if I met your father. Please email me charleshunt257@hotmail.com Charles Hunt, York

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  13. I am so glad I found your blog, it is like finding a treasure chest full of jewels. I could spend hours reading it an filling out interlibrary loans :).
    I too once pursued a PhD in English LIterature. Once I realized that it was causing me to hate that which I had previously loved i.e. wonderful novels, I packed up bags and left to return to the ny law firm at which I toiled as a paralegal. Several years later I obtained my MLS and realize now why everyone always told me to become a librarian--books are my passion (not that many of the librarians I come into contact with share that feeling but some do) anyway. I want to thank you for this blog and your posts

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  14. Hi, Hockey Girl. Thanks for commenting--so glad you found me. It sounds like we are indeed kindred spirits. I left a Ph.D. program and am toiling as a legal secretary. Perhaps I should get my MLS next too? Anyway, welcome to the blog and please feel free to comment often!

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  15. Hi--Just found your blog via The Quince Tree. Oh, just my thing, I thought, as I began to read, & when I saw that the first author you mentioned was Sylvia Townsend Warner, I nearly shouted hurrah. Then I saw that you liked books on the home front in WW2, & hurrah again--I just finished Nella Last's War. I look forward to reading your blog & discovering lots of other great books & authors. Thanks so much for posting your information for all of us to enjoy.

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    1. Hi, Betty. Thanks so much for your kind comments. I'm glad you found me. Hope you find new books to enjoy, and please comment freely!

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  16. Also found your blog via The Quince Tree. I live in West Marin and my favorite reading is mid-20th century domestic fiction and mysteries. I'm blowing a kiss of thanks across the Golden Gate for all the riches I have found spread out here.
    Gloria

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    1. Hi, Gloria. How nice to have a neighbor reading my blog! So glad you found me and are enjoying reading, and I hope you won't hesitate to comment often.

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  17. Dear FM,
    Your delightful and useful blog has just come my way as I was looking for information about Margaret Kennedy. You have a wonderful trove here for me to explore and I'm enjoying your style very much. I looking forward to browsing often.
    Blowing a kiss of thanks across the Pacific from Tasmania, Robyn

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    1. Hi, Robyn. Thanks for your comment and your kind words. So glad you found me, and so exciting to have a reader from Tasmania!

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  18. I've just posted a comment on your review of 'The Captain's Wife' Now I've explored further I've really enjoyed this page -so many favourites mentioned -I hesitate to mention yet another book -especially as I've just tried to persuade you to buy my novel, But I'll Remember This. However I'm in the middle of reading, The Little Ottleys by Ada Leverson. I picked up a copy by chance in the Oxfam Bookshop where I work as a volunteer and haven't stopped laughing since -highly reccomended. Pam Nixon pmnixon@waitrose.com

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  19. This is a fantastic mind stretching blog. Thank you. As an aside, a few years ago I had lunch with the British social historian, Asa Briggs, and we both enthused about Thirkell, he saying she was the best social historian and chronicler ever. Thought you might like that.

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  20. I have been reading your blog for a while, but I just wanted to stop and say how much I enjoy it. My favorite books are about the British homefront during WWII. But I love all things British and pre-1960 American, and I love books, so I am finding your blog extremely fun and interesting. I have a large collection of books, and I've been adding more books based on your lists and recommendations. Thanks!

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  21. Thank you so much for the list of writers. Years ago I found of crumbling copy of "City of Lilies" by "Anthony Pryde" and R. K. Weekes. I loved the story and read it till the book almost fell apart. I had no hope of ever finding proof of the existence of this book. I thought it was lost to time. Recently I found that google books had digitized some of the books written by the Weekes sisters. You blog is the first place to give me even the briefest biographies of Rose Kirkpatrick Weekes and Agnes Weekes. Thank you so much! I've been curious about the authors for years.
    -Kai

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  22. Aha! You have just answered a burning question I had about the Mills & Boon author I kept finding in Australia's National Library records of old newspapers (Trove) Maud Mallet. Because I have an ancestor by that name I had thought she might have been a writer. Your long list has eliminated our Maud as that writer. I had written to Mills & Boon to see what they knew and they were completely useless. I would love to know how you tracked her down. Cheers Trish
    misstippytoes@gmail.com

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  23. I have just discovered your Web site and it treasure trove of authors/novels/opinions/lists/etc. I'm so glad to discover your obsession and hope you outlive me by a zillion years so that I can take full advantage of it.

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NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at furrowed.middlebrow@gmail.com. I do want to hear from you!