“Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own.”
We’ve all experienced periods when the literary landscape appears dry and uninviting. Sometimes this takes the form of writer’s block, or a long time between books, or difficulty getting work out into the world.
But surely few writers can lay claim — or would want to! – to the long 14-year period in which Barbara Pym, a well-published British novelist, received a raft of rejection letters, including several for Quartet in Autumn, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Poor Barbara Pym! She had penned six modestly successful novels when her publishing house simply decided not to accept any more of her books because it just wasn’t profitable enough. How did Barbara respond to the 14-year drought? She felt frustrated and abandoned, but she kept on writing. She finished two more novels and filled notebook after notebook — she always carried one — with little gems of observation.
Finally, in 1977 she was identified in The Times Literary Supplement by several writers as one of the most “underrated authors of the last 75 years. Suddenly, she was on top again: Publishers wanted her books, her backlist was reissued, and she was filmed and feted. What a turnaround!
Today, Barbara is often compared to Jane Austen and Trollope for her acute eye and sympathetic treatment of domestic drama and ordinary lives. Excellent Women is among her best-known novels. I read it some time ago — and it’s truly a gem. It starts slowly, but gains power as it plumbs the human condition with deep sympathy and wit. How fascinating to think that Barbara is on top once again — she’s an original! And how instructive to remember that literary fashions come and go, but readers remain ever loyal to the authors they love. It’s readers who kept Barbara’s work alive. Write on!