Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Authors in Literary Fiction

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a freebie, so I decided to go back to a topic I didn’t get to post: the top ten underrated authors or books in a genre. I’ve chosen books by ten authors of literary fiction. Some of these authors are well-known (and some aren’t but should be), but I’ve primarily chosen books I love and wish had a wider audience.

Crooked Hearts, Robert Boswell. This is the simple story of a highly dysfunctional family, beautifully told. The Warrens are a clannish bunch, unable or unwilling to change things due to the compelling bond they feel toward one another.

The Bright Forever, Lee Martin. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 (March by Geraldine Brooks took the honor), this novel is part mystery, part family drama. Told from alternating points of view, it follows the events over the course of summer in a small town when a young girl goes missing.

The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss. If, like me, you were obsessed by books like the Little House series or stories of pioneers, you will enjoy this wonderful tale a of a woman who goes to live alone in the Oregon wilderness in the late 19th century.

Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill. Outside MFA circles, Gaitskill is most well-known for writing the short story “Secretary” that was the basis for the indie film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. This novel is about the lives of two women whose lives intersect at a point when they most need each other. Trust me, there’s nothing chick-lit about this darkly comic (and sometimes just dark) novel.

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates. It seems like most people know Oates primarily for her novels, but few people realize what a terrific short-story writer she is. I find her stories tighter than her novels, which ratchets up the psychological tension for which she’s so well known to terrific heights.

Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett. Okay, so this one won the National Book Award. The thing is—maybe because it’s a book of short stories?—people seem to have forgotten about it, and about her. Barrett’s background is mostly in science, which she marries beautifully with historical fiction to produce stories that should appeal to a wide audience. If you like historical fiction but are afraid of short stories, this book will allay all your fears.

The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. This book surprised me so much when I first read it—it completely knocked my socks off. Russell Harmon is a self-proclaimed dart-league king in a small town. We get his story and the story of people in his life over the course of one long evening when the league championship is at stake. It’s got mystery, suspense, and dark comedy all rolled up into a heartbreaking, entertaining narrative. (My full review.)

Preston Falls, David Gates. This novel about a man’s midlife meltdown should delight any fan of Richard Ford or Richard Russo. I’ve never understood why Gates isn’t as popular as some of his contemporaries, because he writes with such a keen eye, compassion, and humor about everyday life. this book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1999). Seems like so many award finalists (and winners) slip through the cracks, doesn’t it?

And a couple of authors whose works overall don’t seem to get as much respect as they should:

Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove gets attention, but then people tend to think of it as a Western. McMurtry has a wide canon that includes more “contemporary” literary fiction (Terms of Endearment, Texasville) and Westerns, among other less easily classified novels. He’s a first-rate storyteller who deserves more attention.

Lee Smith. I think Lee Smith gets the double whammy of being labeled a regional writer (Appalachia/Southern) and a writer of “women’s fiction.” Both labels are limiting and probably keep people away from her work more than they should, but also keep her from being considered “real” literary fiction. She has a lot in common with Kent Haruf in terms of themes, if not in style and location.

What about you? What works or authors of literary fiction do you think deserve more attention?

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10 comments

  1. Good to see Joyce Carol Oates short stories included here, I love them, particularly her more scary ones! I have Lonesome Dove in the 746, it was one of my Dad’s favourite books. I keep looking at it, thinking about reading it but it is so big! I must get round to it soon!

  2. A lot of names I’m not familiar with here, but I’ve got to agree with Larry McMurtry’s inclusion, although I suspect he’s better appreciated Stateside than here. A couple of good movie or tv adaptations have been developed from his work, particularly The Last Picture Show.

  3. I love Lonesome Dove and got both my sisters to read it too. Just added The Jump-Off Creek to my to-read list. And I love that you included Lee Smith. Such an incredibly talented storyteller. I’ve read five of her books. I’m eventually going to read her entire backlist.

  4. Well I haven’t read any of these so I think you’re doing a good job selecting underrated authors 🙂 Lee Smith sounds like an author I should try – thanks for drawing her to my attention!

    The book I think deserves more attention is The Half Brother by Lars Saaybye Christensen. If it had been written in English I’m sure it would be much more well known.

  5. Cathy, it’s a big book but the story is so engaging it goes by rather quickly. At least it did for me… so happy to hear someone else in the world appreciates JCO for her short fiction. It never gets enough attention, but I think it’s some of her best work.

  6. Linda, I love The Last Picture Show, both the book and the film. It’s actually part of a series about the character Duane (other characters like Jaycee are included). Texasville is the second book in that series, and was also a film. And everyone knows Terms of Endearment!

  7. Jackie, thanks for the recommendation! I’ve read so many great books because you’ve suggested them–I’ll put that on my list. For Lee Smith, I started with Fair and Tender Ladies. I think the title is ridiculous but it’s a wonderful book. I’ve been trying to get as many people to read it as possible.

  8. Good to hear another vote for Molly Gloss! I’m reading one of her books for our next podcast, and the beginning has been a little slow, but I’m hoping it picks up. You and Karen Joy Fowler have both recommended her now, which is two strong votes in her favor.

    And a big YES to Lee Smith. I read one of her books years ago (On Agate Hill) and thought it was marvelous. I actually need to read more of her backlist!

  9. Jenny, which Molly Gloss are you reading? I hope it does pick up for you.

    So happy to hear you also like Lee Smith. I’m planning to pick up a couple of hers this year, Oral History and Black Mountain Breakdown (where does she get some of these titles?). My mom loves her so she shares with me. 🙂

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