21 Underrated Novels That Deserve More Recognition (And More Readers!)
Knowing about something out-of-this-world amazing before others catch on feels good, but it feels especially good when you share the love — especially when it comes to novels that deserve more recognition. Being the person your literary friends turn to for recommendations of under-the-radar writers? It's the best. The only catch-22 with obscurity is that, as soon as one identifies the condition as such, some of the cultural currency is gone. Believe it or not, even with the internet at our fingertips, there are millions of books that most of us know nothing about.
And lots of them are amazing AF.
Seriously. Take a peek back at National Book Award winners from days gone by. Odds are, only a handful of those titles will be familiar to you. And while some books truly don't age well (or, perhaps more generously, are still maturing), others are perennially brilliant. They're the sort of books you could pick up and feel thrilled to have read, books you can't believe you've never heard of. So they become the sort of books that you need to talk about with all your book-loving friends. And suddenly you're that person, paying it forward in the world of literature, and keeping old, great books alive and current.
Want to start singing the praises? Check out these 21 titles:
1. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
I'm always interested in books written in the first-person plural (i.e., "we") and this gorgeous tale of girlhood in Ohio is narrated by multiple sets of sisters, whose identities can never fully be untangled.
2. Cleaning Up New York: The '70s Cult Classic by Bob Rosenthal
Breezy, irreverent, a little bit bawdy, Rosenthal's nonfiction account of NYC in the '70s is a special delight for poets, who'll recognize the likes of Ron Padgett among the author's clique.
3. Fat Girl, Terrestrial by Kellie Wells
An exceptionally tall woman named Wallis Armstrong is the character at the heart of this surprisingly spiritual novel set in Kingdom Come, Kansas, a town from which children have been disappeared.
4. Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders
The first sentence of this novelette is a gut punch: "The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures." Pretty much impossible to stop reading.
5. The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst
The first of her works to be translated into English, Hilda Hilst's novella — rendered in lucid and mystical prose — is about a mysterious woman's struggles with the limits of her body (mortally, sexually, physically).
6. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Singular and idiosyncratic and comfortingly verbose, Baker's novel spans an escalator ride and is crammed with so fulsome with minutia, footnotes, and digressions, you won't believe how slim this book really is.
7. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
Her name may be familiar from the children's section at your local library, but this taut novel is a modern-day dramatic classic, thankfully unearthed by Jonathan Franzen, who provides an introduction in most contemporary editions.
8. Memoria Del Fuego Trilogy by Eduardo Galeano
Acclaimed Uruguayan writer and advocate of Latin America rights, Eduardo Galeano's trilogy, Memoria del Fuego, is an encyclopedic cataloguing, and imagining, of the history of fire — and violence. His style, described as "poetic scrapbook," was, as he put it, a way to "recover memory as a key to open doors, not looking back but looking forward, not as an act of nostalgia but an act of hope."
9. Lucinella by Lore Segal
If you've ever wondered what goes on at artists residencies, this novella — set at Yaddo — will shed some light on the hallowed grounds. Touched with magical realism, Lucinella was written during the eighteen years in which Segal worked on her first novel, Other People's Houses.
10. In The Penny Arcade by Steven Millhauser
"I want [fiction] to exhilarate me, to unbind my eyes, to murder and resurrect me, to harm me in some fruitful way," Millhauser said in a BOMB interview with Jim Shephard, and the textbook-perfect short stories in this collection do all of that.
11. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo
Beloved by Borges and García Márquez, Juan Rulfo's novel tells the story of Juan Preciado, a man who, fulfilling his deceased mother's request, travels to his childhood hometown, Comala, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo, and discovers it has become a ghost town — literally haunted by apparitions and ghosts.
12. Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish
Lish's debut novel — the story of a down-and-out young couple struggling to survive a gritty, real, yet-undepicted-and-utterly-terrifying New York — garnered praise galore in 2014, but it's so devastatingly good, I don't think its riches can be revered enough.
13. Our Lady of the Nile by Scholastique Mukasonga
It might be hard to believe that a novel about the Rwandan genocide could be "fairytale-like," but Mukasonga's seething and sensual tale is just that, due, in large part, to the author's incredible facility with setting and atmosphere. Unshakeable.
14. Trumpet: A Novel by Jackie Kay
Poet Jackie Kay tells the story of a fictional jazz musician, Joss Moody, who, after his death, is discovered to have been passing as a man for the entirety of their career. Teeming with musical allusions and told in riff-like vignettes, Trumpet: A Novel interrogates the disparity between our public and private lives with rare bravura.
15. Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
Nobel Prize-winning fiction writing Yasunari Kawabata favored his tiny stories, collected posthumously in this volume, over his novels and longer fictions. Though the majority of the work in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is shorter than a page, these stories routinely present themes of great depth.
16. Being by Zach Ellis
This "mini-memoir" about Ellis' experience transitioning from female to male is layered, relatable, and lyric, a multifaceted exploration of identity, in all its complexities.
17. State of Grace by Joy Williams
Williams' kaleidoscopic debut shows sororities, love, mothers, and the American South to be stranger and seamier than you've ever seen before.
18. Diaries of Franz Kafka by Franz Kafka
You won't tire of picking up Kafka's diaries. The prose is as keen as it is in his fiction, and his insights about writing and the creative process are understated and expectedly brilliant.
19. Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
Choose your lit crit buzzword: metafiction? Check. Postmodern? Check. Poststructuralist? Check. Acker's singular novel — assembled from diary entries, letters, drawings, and found material — is challenging and entirely irrepressible.
20. Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis
"I am not merely in
this thing I am in. I am it,"
writes poet Thomas Sayers Ellis in this collection, which embodies and wrangles with the constructions and confinements of racial and physiological identities.
21. Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua
Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, Rebirth is worth tracking down. Written from the point-of-view of a mother addressing her unborn child, this novel is an intimate portrait of womanhood and marriage.