An Interview with Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books Page
Written by guest blogger, Dawn Kofie. Dawn is a content designer, writer and editor. She's a fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, yoga and butter.
Brad Bigelow is a rescuer and champion of forgotten books. We spoke to him about his website, The Neglected Books Page, which raises awareness of books that are languishing in obscurity, and helps put them back on the literary map.
Thanks for chatting with us, Brad!
Why did you start The Neglected Books Page?
I've been interested in books that have fallen out of print and their writers since my university days, during which I used to prowl the library stacks and pull down books almost at random. Carrying on this habit at used book shops ever since, I've come across hundreds of books that didn't deserve their having been neglected by publishers, readers, and researchers, and I created the website to try to do a little to correct that situation.
What's the reaction been like?
From the traffic data, I've seen since the very beginning that people who visit NeglectedBooks.com have two very different reactions. The vast majority of visitors take a quick look, say, "Oh, old books. How boring!" and move on in a matter of seconds. But a consistent minority, perhaps one in every fifty visitors, arrives, starts reading, and sticks around, sometimes for hours. Those are the folks I write for.
What's your definition of a neglected book?
With few exceptions, if I write about a book, it's been out of print for at least 20 years and usually longer. When a book falls out of print for that long, it usually loses its readers as well. Most readers won't take a chance on a book that no one else knows about in the first place, let alone one they can only find through some used book seller. That takes it out of circulation: no one reads it, no one talks about it, no one writes about it. And in many cases, that has nothing to do with how good the book is. What I'm doing, fundamentally, is pointing out some of the missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of literature.
Where do you find these books and how do you decide which ones to cover?
My primary sources are old book reviews from the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times, and other journals. I've read thousands of them by now and I've learned some of the clues that hint at whether the book is still interesting today. I let my instincts lead me in most cases: I never know for sure what I'll read next. But a big factor is whether it's something I'm going to want to write about.
In your opinion, what are the main reasons why some books are ignored, overlooked, forgotten or fall out of favour and fashion?
Bad luck. It's nothing more complicated than that. Alfred A. Knopf, one of the great American publishers, once said that most novels fail on the day they're published, and he's right. If you look at just about any major newspaper of the last 100 years, you'll find they reviewed as many as a dozen novels every week. There's no way anyone could keep up with all those books. Some of them deserve to be forgotten: they're formulaic, unoriginal, ineptly written. But some just had bad luck: an unjust review, a lousy cover, an unsupportive publisher, mistiming. And that's all it takes.
What's been your most surprising discovery in the 15 years since you started The Neglected Books Page?
Without a doubt it's the English novelist Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan, who published as G. E. Trevelyan. She wrote 8 novels of remarkable stylistic and imaginative innovation between 1932 and 1939. She died in 1941 after her flat in Kensington was bombed in the Blitz and that was it. Her books not only fell out of print, but she fell out of literary history entirely.
Now, this is a writer I would argue is the finest woman novelist of the generation after Virginia Woolf and she completely vanished. Several of her books are so rare that there are just a handful of copies available anywhere in the world. Not even academics were interested in her work. She's the most extreme case of neglect I know of in 20th century English literature, but since I first wrote about Trevelyan, publishers have begun to show interest. Her first novel Appius and Virginia came out late last year from the Lightning Press and the Abandoned Bookshop.
Your website is obviously very much a labour of love. What inspires you to keep going with it?
To steal a line from a TV show about coroners, I speak for the dead. The more I study forgotten books the more I've become fascinated with the people who wrote them. The cruelest fate for any writer is to lose their audience. And fate just ain't just. Imagine the frustration, the despair of knowing you wrote a terrific book and knowing that no one gave a damn about it. I'm trying to give these writers a second chance. I know it's a small thing in the scope of the universe, but I think it matters and I hope to keep doing it as long as I'm capable of reading (and typing).
How can we help raise awareness of lesser-known books?
I think every media outlet that deals with books has a responsibility to remind readers that literature is more than just what's in print today, so I'd encourage Bookishly to give space to neglected books and writers on a regular basis. And when reissues come out -- and with the work of NYRB Classics, Handheld Press, Valancourt Books, Abandoned Bookshop, Turnpike Books, Michael Walmer, and numerous other independent publishers, this is something of a golden age for reissues -- give them the same attention you'd give to new books that benefits from the support of authors, agents, and publicists.
What are your 3 favourite books by forgotten female authors and why?
Helen Bevington was an American poet and professor of English who wrote a memoir of her parents, who divorced at a time when divorce was rare and went on to live separate but both desperately unhappy lives, called Charley Smith's Girl. It's an amazing act of empathy while at the same time a rejection of the choices they made.
The next I just happened to have finished reading for the third time: Under Gemini, also a memoir, by an American woman named Mary Britton Miller who published under the name of Isabel Bolton. Born an identical twin, she and her four siblings became orphans when both their parents died of pneumonia on the same day in 1887. Then, when she was 14, she watched her sister drown when the two of them went swimming in Long Island Sound. When she was nearly 80, she revisited those events and produced a book that's both heart-breaking and glowing with love.
Finally, I’ll cheat by sneaking in 13 books by claiming Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage as a single novel. Arguably one of the greatest English novels of the 20th century, it's the most immersive experience in seeing the world through a woman's eyes I know of and I recommend it to any man with the guts to stick with it.
Do you have any other book-related projects in the pipeline?
I'm working on a biography of a forgotten American writer and editor named Virginia Faulkner for the University of Nebraska Press. I'm also working with the Boiler House Press on a new series of reissues called 'Recovered' that will publish its first two titles in November 2021.