Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Shopping for Obscurity

Someone asked me about the best ways to track down lesser-known writers and books, and I realized that although I keep mentioning publishers and booksellers, I never really actually talked about them.  So, for what it's worth...

For the publishers, I decided to include images of a sample book spine.  Knowing how the spines of a publisher's books look on a shelf can pay big dividends when browsing overwhelming shelves in a dusty second hand bookshop.  Plus, I thought it looked kind of cool.  :-)



Of active publishers, Persephone is the place to find lesser-known British women writers (as well as a few from other countries—and a handful of men—as well).  It’s striking how distinct the personalities of Persephone and Virago, the other great publisher of women writers, really are.  Although Virago's original list (mostly from the 1980s, during which decade Virago's vast reclamation of "lost" women writers was at its peak, having a massive impact on literary studies that is still reverberating today) did contain a handful of titles now published by Persephone, for the most part Persephone has blazed its own trail with a slew of really wonderful writers, many of whom—in retrospect—it seems quite astonishing that Virago never picked up on.  Virago founder Carmen Callil's feelings about Dorothy Whipple, a Persephone staple, are well-known and not positive, but how did Virago miss Marghanita Laski? or Vere Hodgson's amazing WWII diary? or Norah Hoult? or Winifred Watson? or—the list could go on.  And the fact that these oversights now seem astonishing is obviously a testament to the vision of Persephone founder Nicola Beauman. 

Beauman seems to stress readability in her selections—that kind of novel or memoir that you slip into as effortlessly and pleasurably as you sink into a hot bath.  I've read at least half of Persephone's titles, and only found a couple of them difficult to engage with (and with Persephone’s batting average, I even find myself blaming my own judgment or taste for those difficulties). 

A middlebrow's pilgrimage  :-)

I also love the way that Persephone's list is in some ways a conversation between the different writers and subject matters.  Cookbooks, domestic guides like Kay Smallshaw's How to Run Your Home Without Help, and histories like Ruth Adam's A Woman's Place are all perfectly complemented with novels like Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance and Winifred Peck's House-Bound, in which running one's home without help is a crucial part of the plot, or Constance Maud's No Surrender, Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street, or Norah Hoult's There Were No Windows, which provide personalized glimpses of the historic movements and periods Adam discusses.  And of course, one must factor in that the books themselves are beautiful, with period fabric designs brightening their endpapers (and matching bookmarks if you buy the books direct from Persephone), sturdy bindings, quality paper, and lovely readable typeface, and it's easy to see why Persephone has gained a cult following.

Persephones are not cheap, and they're rarely found second hand, at least in the U.S. (all the more proof that when one buys a Persephone one wants to keep it!), but if you're a middlebrow like me, they're well worth the extra investment.  Both Book Depository and Awesome Books (see below) stock many of Persephone's titles, sometimes for a few bucks less, but buying direct from Persephone's website you can get the full selection, access the ridiculously addictive Persephone Post, a daily photo and blurb on thoughtful topics related to Persephone's themes, and score a three-books-for-£30 offer, plus you get the matching bookmarks included for free.  And if you’re in London and can stop in to the Persephone shop, you'll find a very charming and friendly slice of civilization—along with irresistible shelves-upon-shelves of little grey books.

Virago Books (also check out their separate news site)

It's not often that a single publisher literally changes the face of literary studies and the shape of the literary canon, but Virago, founded by Carmen Callil in 1973, did just that with the advent of its Virago Modern Classics imprint, which by the late 1980s had reprinted hundreds of titles by women writers—many of whom were more or less obscure and forgotten at the time.  By doing so, they gave a crucial boost to efforts to reclaim a literary heritage for women, and they forever exploded any notion that men dominated the canon because there just didn't happen to be enough good women writers to go around.  Probably a majority of the women on my Overwhelming List had one or more of their works published by Virago, and over the years the search for the distinctive green spines of the original Viragos has led innumerable readers to writers and works they would likely never have come across otherwise.

The Modern Classics imprint focused on titles that had particular literary, historical, or sociological significance in presenting the lives and roles of women.  They were less interested in what has come to be known as "cozy" or light fiction—seek elsewhere for your Elizabeth Cadells, D. E. Stevensons, and Margery Sharps.  In recent years, it seems that the demands of a shrinking marketplace for books has perhaps led Virago to focus more on contemporary writers and on those older writers who have more established audiences and reputations—Barbara Pym, Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor, Rumer Godden, etc.  There seems to be a bit less of a focus these days on unjustly forgotten writers like Edith Olivier, Dorothy Edwards, Lettice Cooper, or Pamela Frankau, with the result that many of the original Modern Classics are now out-of-print.  Fortunately, however, most of them are still fairly readily available at affordable prices second hand—and, I might add, Awesome Books (see below) is an...umm...awesome source for them.

The publishing arm of a well loved Edinburgh bookstore called The Old Children's Bookshelf, Greyladies is a relatively small operation, but it has nevertheless established a very distinct and unique tone in the works it publishes.  Their website describes their priorities: girls' school stories written for adults, adult books by children's authors, and "a spot of vintage crime."  Although I'm not sure the girls' school stories are my cup of tea, but never say never, and I do have one—Mary Bell's Summer's Day—on my shelf and on my reading list!  More "up my alley" are the "romance" novels published by Noel Streatfeild under the pseudonym Susan Scarlett, which Greyladies has rescued from total obscurity.  In the past couple of years, they've also been publishing several "lost" works by the inimitable D. E. Stevenson, including three novels—Emily Dennistoun, The Fair Miss Fortune, and Jean Erskine's Secret—a collection of stories called Portrait of Saskia, and another collection including stories and other writings, Found in the Attic.  Their list also includes books by Richmal Crompton, O. Douglas (aka Anna Buchan), and Mabel Esther Allan.  Greyladies books are primarily available direct from their website, though a few titles are also stocked by Anglophile Books (see below).  Second hand copies are few and far between, so grab one if you see it!

Founded in 2008, Capuchin Classics has developed a distinctive list of (as their website puts it) "great works of fiction which have been unjustly forgotten or neglected."  The focus is on literary—as opposed to "cozy"—fiction, and includes numerous writers of interest to this blog, including Ann Bridge, Rose Macaulay, Storm Jameson, Elizabeth Goudge, Barbara Comyns, Nancy Mitford, and Betty Miller.   I saw Capuchins readily available in bookstores in London, and I've noticed some in U.S. bookstores as well.  Amazon stocks many (but not all) of their titles too.  Personally, I think their list is just crying out for Edith Olivier's quirkily brilliant novel The Seraphim Room, but they haven't actually asked for my advice.  At least not yet…

This is a great imprint started by Bloomsbury Publishing a couple of years back, focusing on making worthwhile out-of-print books available again.  It's mouth-watering just browsing their list (though on their website there doesn't seem to be any logical order—could this be intentional to force readers like me to peruse the ENTIRE list, thereby discovering all kinds of new writers and books I've never heard of before?!)  In addition to many print-on-demand physical books, Bloomsbury Reader has a large selection of e-books at reasonable prices.  They've published Joyce Dennys' wonderfully funny WWII memoirs, D. E. Stevenson's Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, and several lesser-known E. M. Delafield titles, as well as Monica Dickens, Rose Macaulay, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Ann Bridge, Margaret Irwin, Storm Jameson, and the list goes on.  Oh, to have time to read them all!

Started in 2008, this is another imprint from a major publisher devoted to "republishing outstanding books that have fallen out-of-print."  According to their website, their list now includes more than 1,000 titles, which include a fair number of titles of interest for this blog.  They've reprinted several of Margaret Kennedy's later novels, some of Sylvia Townsend Warner's wonderful stories, as well as titles by Christina Stead and Elizabeth Berridge.  Only the savviest and most obsessive of middlebrows will be able to look over their catalog without adding substantially to their "to read" lists.  Many of their titles are also available in e-book format.

Although distinctly highbrow in tone and fairly overwhelmingly dominated by male writers, this imprint holds a place in my heart because they led me, a decade or so ago, to my favorite novel of all time—Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.  Other titles by British women are few and far between (considering how many books they publish in total), but NYRB Classics does publish Rose Macaulay's masterpiece The Towers of Trebizond, two Elizabeth Taylors, several of Nancy Mitford's biographies, two of Ivy Compton-Burnett's best novels, May Sinclair's innovative stream of consciousness novel Mary Olivier, Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter, and two more of Warner's wonderful novels.  Worth checking out, especially if you have an occasional yen for the artsy or avant-garde.

Mainly of interest here for one reason: in the past year or two, they have reprinted most of Stella Gibbons' novels—many of which had been unavailable for decades.  Bless their hearts.  In particular, this is exciting because Gibbons' World War II novels—The Rich House, The Bachelor, The Matchmaker, and Westwood—are among her very best, and I had been making do with ancient, crumbling, dusty, mildewy library copies.  No more!  Most of their other titles are more traditional "classics" (Melville, Conrad, Dickens, et al.), though they have also reprinted many of Iris Murdoch's novels and Vera Caspary's classic thriller Laura.

I just came across this publisher recently when I was yearning for Ruby Ferguson's early and impossibly scarce mystery novels, written under the pseudonym R. C. Ashby.  I was delighted to find that Valancourt had reprinted He Arrived at Dusk.  I promptly ordered it, and it's a lovely, well-designed book that features the original jacket art.  Although they don't publish a large number of women writers, their list is quite interesting, including J. B. Priestley, Francis King, and Beverley Nichols, and they're making a clear effort to republish some important but less-well-known early gay writers.  James at Valancourt was nice enough to comment here a while back and said they were actively working to expand their selection of women writers.  Definitely a publisher to watch.


Virago Modern Classics

This is still an active publisher (see above), but many of their more obscure titles were originally published in the 1980s and are now out-of-print.  If you're interested in lesser-known women writers, my best advice is to learn to scan second hand bookshops for the distinctive VMC green spine and white print like a hawk searching for prey.  Many are also available for reasonable prices on Amazon, but the best source I've found remains Awesome Books (see below), which generally has a truly "awesome" selection of VMCs at bargain prices.

Hogarth Press

I've never been able to find a complete list of titles that Hogarth published back in the 1980s, and they are certainly getting more scarce as time goes by.  But they published Edith Templeton's wonderful early novels, Summer in the Country, Living on Yesterday, and The Island of Desire, for which they deserve some sort of prize, and at least a couple of Gladys Mitchell's best mysteries.

Oxford 20th Century Classics

This imprint also seems to have flourished in the 1980s.  From what I've seen, their list seems to have been rather light on women writers too, but they made a few really worthwhile contributions in that area—not least of which was reprinting virtually all of Ivy Compton-Burnett's wonderfully bizarre novels, many of which have been out-of-print ever since.  They also published some Rose Macaulay, Joanna Cannan's High Table, and Osbert Sitwell's brilliantly eccentric Before the Bombardment, about domestic life in a rundown seaside resort just before the start of World War I.


Your local booksellers, library bookshops & book sales

Of course, first and foremost, check your local booksellers and give them as much support as possible.  The things I've stumbled across in second hand bookshops that I never dreamed I'd find have been truly astonishing.  And I've written here before about the amazing Friends of the San Francisco Public Library book sales, with their wonderful dirt cheap finds.  Not everyone will have a local book sale as awesome as ours, but many smaller public library systems have their own "Friends of" shops and fundraisers, so check to see.  At the last Friends book sale, I picked up no less than three pristine mid-century hardcovers with lovely dustjackets, all of which had book plates from the same former owner.  Even if you live in Des Moines or Boise, who knows who might just have donated their entire book collection to your local library's book sale?

Duh.  Although shipping costs can add up if you're in the U.S. ordering from Amazon UK (or vice versa), many UK booksellers seem to have a presence on Amazon US as well.  Incomparable selection, and I find it can really pay off to keep titles I'm interested in on a wish list and scan the wish list regularly for price variations.  On a few occasions, a book that starts out prohibitively expensive has been posted "priced to move" by a new bookseller.  There's nothing like the feeling of nabbing a hard-to-find book that has been $125 for a mere six bucks!

British bookseller offering free shipping to the U.S. with no minimum purchase required.  They sell new books only—no beat up old bargains here—but they're reasonably priced and a great source for books that are only in print in the UK.  They also stock a fair number of Persephones at prices slightly lower than buying direct (but without the free bookmarks that match the endpapers of each book).  

Southern California bookseller that specializes in British women writers, as well as children's books and Anglophile books more generally.  In addition to being a great source of second hand books that may be hard to find elsewhere in the U.S., Anglophile's website is a cornucopia of thoughtful book recommendations and descriptions that you can get lost in for hours.

I almost hesitated to add these guys, since they're my "secret weapon" for finding cheap books.  They're great for finding books published in the last 30 years or so that may have had a wider audience in the U.K. than in the U.S. (with the result that lots of copies are floating around London and environs).  You won't find a cheap copy of a D. E. Stevenson first edition (they're not crazy, after all), but you might get lucky enough to find one of the many reprint editions that are hard to find in the U.S.  They have lots of titles for around $4.00 (!), and you can choose whether to pay in British pounds or U.S. dollars—thus avoiding  currency exchange fees on your credit card.  They also offer free shipping to the U.S. if you purchase two or more books—meaning you can actually get two books shipped to you from the U.K. for $8.00 total.  I've found lots of great things here, including gently used copies of the Dodie Smith novels reprinted in the U.K. a couple of years ago and Vintage Classics editions of Stella Gibbons—receiving packages from AB is pretty much a bi-weekly event at our house…  As noted above, they're also great for the old Viragos (and the newer ones as well—I stocked up on the nice new Virago Barbara Pyms a while back).  Although deals on Greyladies or Persephone books are fewer and farther between, it has definitely been known to happen.  AB also stocks new books, including most Persephones at somewhat lower prices than buying direct.  The only caveat I have is that on a few occasions the used books I've received have been a little too worn or damaged for my personal satisfaction.  But for me, that infrequent quality control issue has been easily outweighed by the great deals I routinely get, and I feel it would be curmudgeonly to complain!

I have to admit I don't do a lot of shopping here, but they are a good resource to remember.  A lot of booksellers on Abe also have a presence on Amazon, but if you're really determined to find something not available on Amazon, this may be your solution.  They do occasionally send out 10% off coupons as well—and who doesn't love coupons!

I'm not sure if I've ever actually made a purchase as a direct result of an Add All search, but it's a handy resource for finding out just how impossible a given title is going to be to track down.  According to the website, this tool searches 41 different bookseller sites and sorts the results by price or other criteria.  You can also filter by location of the booksellers or by shipping costs.  For me, it's most useful in searching for used books—just click the "used" tab near the top of the page.  It searches international sites as well as U.S. booksellers, which can be useful if you're searching for obscure British writers, since the only available copy might very well be somewhere in New Zealand.  If so, the shipping won't be cheap, but hey, at least you know your options!


Of course, the other best way to track down obscure and hard to find books is to use your local library's resources. And don't forget to ask about Interlibrary Loan possibilities or other affiliated libraries (in California we have Link+, a collaborative sharing of books between libraries all over the state).  I've gotten Norah Hoult books from one brave public library in Texas that kept numerous of her books long after every other library in the country had tossed them out. And the SF Public Library has even found books I didn't think existed in the U.S. anymore.  If I wasn't a believer in supporting your local library anyway, I would make my annual donation for the sake of the hardworking Interlibrary Loan staff alone!

By the way, for research purposes--especially on writers who have no real web presence and who aren't mentioned in most reference books--Worldcat is incomparable not only for finding out whether their books are in any libraries, but even just for finding out what books they actually published.  For British writers, of course, the British Library main catalogue is a crucial place to check.  If it's not listed there, it might well not exist, and if a book is ONLY there and no place else, well, that sounds to me like a great excuse for a trip to London!

Happy hunting!!!


  1. Well, you know about Beauman's book on women's novels, and all the things - and more! - that I've discovered, so I shan't have much to share, except a hearty "ta" for affirming what I thought merely my personal quirk of keeping amazon-uk bookmarked, and wondering what some of the Greyladies authors were really like. Now I'll simply check your log!

  2. Actually, D'ellis, I'm very ashamed to say I haven't yet read Beauman's book. I've read her bio of Elizabeth Taylor and enjoyed it a lot, but A Very Great Profession is still on my (increasingly intimidating) "to read" list. Thanks for reminding me I need to bump it up the list!

  3. Oh, dear! Ne-vah mean to give anyone a twinge. If I'm remembering correctly--and I very well might not be!--she lists authors in the index, and I found it worthwhile, when doing my feeble "research" to read up a bit.

    But I do recall also having another book of similar ilk ('ilk' sounds too negative for such a good resource!) that was also extremely helpful, but didn't make a note of what it was. So I might be confusing the 2 sources. Anyway, you might try dipping an occasional toe into the Beauman, rather than reading it at one go.

    So slightly envy you your old, large library system. Currently reside in a small towny-suburbany area with few DES available. My collection will no doubt grow, aided by this excellently informative post.

    Thanks again!

    who lived down the Peninsula from '84 to '06


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