Some of the writers and books I hold in the highest esteem were discovered en passant: buried in the archives of a little-read blog; mentioned in a thirty-year-old essay devoted to more prominent writers; planted near the end of a long list on Wikipedia. (Idleness and obsession are the impetus for most of my discoveries.) Most of these books are rare tastes, not even well known for not being well known. They are not likely to come up at dinner parties, and they are not part of any canon or curriculum. I don’t get any credit for having read them. They are what some people call minor.
What does it mean to be minor? It’s not the same thing as being obscure. Leon Forrest’s oeuvre is a megalith, but there seem to be about six of us who have read him. Nor is a minor writer a bad writer. Guy Davenport proposed that Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, and Michael Gilbert were all “impeccable stylists” but also, next to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, and Proust, incontrovertibly minor. Davenport, a self-described minor prose stylist who was great enough to be genuinely self-effacing, said that “the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying.” When judged by this standard, he suggested, even Borges and Poe were minor, since “a Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.”
In 1950, Isaac Rosenfeld dissented from his contemporaries’ enthusiastic response to Henry Green on similar grounds, arguing that Green’s novels, while excellent, were overly concerned with style, and therefore not the products of a major sensibility. Green was all flash, no substance; he would not sleep with the truly great. (The irony, of course, is that most people these days only know Rosenfeld as Saul Bellow’s friend and rival, while much of Green’s corpus is still in print. All critics, even the major ones, are minor writers.)
Like Rosenfeld, Derek Walcott has argued that “minor writers think style is all,” but not everyone agrees that topicality is the sine qua non of greatness. For Doris Lessing, the notion that a book has to be about something in order to be considered important was a holdover from socialist realism:
To write a story for the sake of storytelling will not do; it is frivolous, not to say reactionary. Whole literary departments in a thousand universities are in the grip of this way of thinking, and yet the history of storytelling, of literature, tells us that there has never been a story that does not illuminate human experience in one way or another.
For me, the more important distinction between major and minor works has to do with their histories. To read a major work is to join a public conversation. As Borges knew well, when we open a book like Don Quixote, we are not only reading the words on the page but also the history of the book’s reception. Even the masterpieces we haven’t opened yet come to us pre-read. They belong to the world. Minor books, meanwhile, even those that are widely appreciated, seem to belong to us alone. Lately I’ve found that I’d rather spend time on the books I like than on the books I admire.
In her introduction to a new edition of Keith Waldrop’s Light While There Is Light, Jaimy Gordon writes that she wasn’t likely to be a literary giant, and therefore concentrated her efforts on being a literary pygmy, “writing one great but undoubtedly odd, sui generis, irreplaceable, one of a kind modestly immortal book.” That’s more than most of us will ever do, a fate to which I would be happily consigned.
A few years ago, I was browsing through the Everyman’s Library’s catalog with every intention of ticking another box on the canon. I was about to close the deal when I came across two volumes by Penelope Fitzgerald, who won the 1979 Booker Prize for Offshore, her short, semiautobiographical novel about the denizens of a boating community. I instantly recalled a stopover I’d made in London a few months earlier. Having never been to England before, I had stupidly paid seventeen pounds for a Gatwick Express ticket to Victoria Station. As we approached the city, the cascading sunlight illuminated the Thames, stirring to life the communities that were floating on its banks. I thought about those figures on the river, and then I thought about myself. I was just off an overnight flight, out of my native time zone for the first time, not entirely sure where I was heading, and trying to blend in with the busy men in dark suits who surrounded me on the train. The anonymous boat people in the distance mingled in my mind with the memory of familiar fishermen on a beach back home, who I guess must be as alien to a tourist as the boat-dwellers were to me. And then a pair of questions came to mind: Who are those people down there? And how would I find out?
Matthew St. Ville Hunte lives in Saint Lucia. He is one of the Daily’s correspondents.