Notes on reading

Forgotten writers are a thing of the past

John Drinkwater

I recently caught up with a 2017 article by the critic BD McClay, ‘Enough with the “forgotten” writers’, in which she expresses her impatience with the regular flow of literary essays in which ‘forgotten’ writers are praised. The sub-title of the piece is ‘Can we please stop using this tired, contrived hook?’ McClay’s irritation is due to the fact that in general the writers selected aren’t forgotten at all. Her prime example is Barbara Pym, a writer who achieved the high honour of appearing on Desert Island Discs and was praised by Philip Larkin in her time, McClay cites several recent essays about this allegedly ‘forgotten’ writer, including one of her own. She’s right, of course. And as if to prove her point, not long after I read her piece, Pym was on the cover of the Times Literary Supplement.

The likelihood of any writer of merit or interest, however minor, being entirely forgotten seems unlikely in our present age. McClay cites the work of small literary publishers in excavating writers and novels of the past, but there is also the vast and ever-increasing repository of the World Wide Web. In addition, electronic publishing has made it cheap and easy to republish books of all types and ages. It seems inconceivable that any book will ever go ‘out of print’ again. There is also, thanks again to the Web, the means for anyone to create a page or two in tribute to their particular favourite.

This last point was brought home to me while I was doing some perfunctory research for a blog post on John Drinkwater’s 1937 novel, Robinson of England. I’d picked up the book in a second-hand bookshop and enjoyed its whimsical, patriotic take on my homeland. I knew nothing about Drinkwater, but I soon found a website dedicated to the man and his works. Obscure? Perhaps. Forgotten? Not a chance. There is no escape from the search engine bots, patiently, diligently, crawling into every nook and cranny of the Internet. Though the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled in 2014 that there is, in certain circumstances, a right to be forgotten, I can’t imagine many writers actually wanting to be erased from the collective electronic memory. And we won’t be, not now.

[Photograph of John Drinkwater used by permission of Dr Susannah Self.]