Looking for something to read but don’t want to stray too far from the authors you know and love? Seeking undiscovered literary gems to talk about at dinner parties? Want to delve into the backlist of a certain Great American Author? Well, Flavorwire has got you covered. After all, sometimes, amazing books just get lost in the shuffle, whether it’s because they’re before their time, fall out of fashion, or their author has one blockbuster that blots out all the rest. So after the jump, check out 50 great under-appreciated, under-read, and overshadowed novels by 50 of your favorite authors, and be sure to add any missing ringers to the list.
Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading
Sure, everyone’s read Lolita, and the fans among you have probably delved into the excellent Pale Fire and Pnin. But – in the English-speaking world at least – less attention is, not surprisingly, afforded to those books Nabokov wrote in Russian, one of the best of which is Invitation to a Beheading, a surreal, Kafkaesque number rife with curiosities and metaphor. Plus, while Nabokov has said that he has the most affection for Lolita, it is Invitation to a Beheading which he holds in “the greatest esteem.” That should be good enough for anybody.
Daniel Handler, Adverbs
Now, you may be asking yourself, “Daniel Handler who?” Well, you may know him better – his bank account certainly does – as Lemony Snicket, whose popular series A Series of Unfortunate Events has won him fans both old and young. But better than those books are both his first novel, The Basic Eight, and this writer’s favorite, Adverbs, a collection of linked love stories that get progressively stranger, an unknown apocalyptic event hanging in the background, each line of text more deliciously colorful than the next.
George Eliot, Romola
Most of George Eliot’s novels are household names for readers of any kind (if not necessarily household accomplishments) — Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, even Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. But less renowned, if no less great, is Romola, her study of Florence, described by contemporary critic Richard Hutton as “one of the greatest works of modern fiction … probably the author’s greatest work.”
Gabriel García Márquez, The General in His Labyrinth
Fans of the Nobel laureate tend to argue over whether they cherish Love in the Time of Cholera or One Hundred Years of Solitude more dearly, but Márquez is also the author of four other novels, four novellas, and a handful of short stories and non-fictional works. One of the best of these is The General in His Labyrinth, a genre-bending fictionalized account of the final days of Simón Bolívar that caused an uproar in Venezuela and Colombia for its rough treatment of the famous general. Though lauded by critics in English-speaking countries, it has never really caught on.
Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman
Everyone has read (or at least, should have read) The Handmaid’s Tale by now, and with the third installment of the series that began with Oryx and Crake hitting shelves this fall, those who are behind on those great books should be hustling to catch up. But don’t forget Atwood’s first novel, a proto-feminist investigation into the interior life of a young woman engaged to the wrong man. Alienation, disassociation, and metaphorical cannibalism? Can’t go wrong.
Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden
Everyone’s heard of Atonement (hey, didn’t that movie win an Oscar?) and likely Amsterdam, McEwan’s 1998 Man Booker winner. But much underrated is his first effort, 1978’s The Cement Garden, a taut, dark psychological novel about four children alone. He didn’t have that “Ian Macabre” nickname for nothing.
Jennifer Egan, The Invisible Circus
Unfortunately for the world at large, the great Jennifer Egan hasn’t written all that many books (yet). Fans of her wonderful 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit to the Goon Squad likely ran off to read The Keep next, but Egan’s first novel, less often mentioned but still critically acclaimed, is just as brilliant — if less formally experimental than either – the story of a teenage girl in 1978 obsessed with her sister’s suicide.
Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase
Everybody loves Haruki Murakami for his bombastically strange, metaphysical novels — plus, er, Norwegian Wood. A quieter, but no less bizarre Murakami is apparent in his early novel A Wild Sheep Chase, which includes an unwilling sheep detective, a woman with magical ears, and tons of references to Arthur Conan Doyle.
Iris Murdoch, The Book and the Brotherhood
Murdoch herself is woefully under-appreciated and under-read, so finding a book of hers that matches that description isn’t much trouble. Let’s go with The Book and the Brotherhood, Murdoch’s 23rd novel, and one of her best, characteristically filled with intellectuals and philosophy, intricate and smart as hell.
Aldous Huxley, Island
The thing about writing a book like Brave New World is that your name becomes synonymous with it – even when you have other highly regarded works, like Point Counter Point under your belt, not to mention some 47 books in total. For those looking for another angle on Huxley, try Island, his final novel, in some ways a counterpoint to Brave New World, but a fascinating philosophical experiment all its own.
Mikhail Bulgakov, A Country Doctor’s Notebook
Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is inarguably one of the greatest books of the 20th century, but of course, that’s not all the man has on offer. Of his several other works, one of the best is A Country Doctor’s Notebook, a collection of short stories drawn from author’s own experiences as a fresh-faced young doctor, marked by his distinctive sense of where the surreal and the realistic collide. Plus, there’s this.
Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
We all know Carter as the preeminent purveyor of hacked-up feminist fairy tales and novels that recall them. But we should also know her as the author of this surrealist picaresque, which Jeff VanderMeer described as “the finest surrealist novel of the past 30 years. It perfectly captures the ideas and ideals of surrealist beauty.”
Philip Pullman, The Sally Lockhart Series
Could there be any Pullman heroine but Lyra in our possessive little hearts? Well, when you start things off this way, “Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man,” that’d be a massive yes. A Victorian thriller for the modern day.
Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine
Though she was in fact quite prolific, nowadays you rarely hear Zora Neale Hurston’s name unattached to her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And sure, Their Eyes Were Watching God might be best. But Hurston’s first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, described by Carl Sandburg as “a bold and beautiful book, many a page priceless and unforgettable,” is well worth adding to the list.
Mark Twain, Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Contemporary critics weren’t too sure about Twain’s fictionalized selection from the memoirs of Joan of Arc’s page, in fact generally deriding it, but Twain himself considered it his best and most important, writing, “I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none.” Trust in the Twain.
Italo Calvino, The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount
You can’t go wrong with Calvino, really. Though his major works are major for a reason (If on a winter’s night a traveller, Cosmicomics, Invisible Cities, be still my heart), some of his best writing turns up in the strangest of places, like in these two fantasy novellas which, with Calvino’s bestselling book, The Baron in the Trees, make up a loose little trilogy.
Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar
Walker has been canonized for The Color Purple, and rightly so, but her many other novels, poetry collections, and non-fictional works deserve more attention as well. Just for instance: The Temple of My Familiar, which J.M. Coetzee described as “a mixture of mythic fantasy, revisionary history, exemplary biography and sermon” and considered possessed of an even more convincing “message from Africa” than in Walker’s more famous work.
D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo
That’s right. D.H. Lawrence didn’t only write about fraught sex. He also wrote about Australia, in a book journalist Gideon Haigh called “one of the sharpest fictional visions of the country and its people.”
William Golding, Rites of Passage
Despite the fact that this novel won the Booker Prize in 1980 and despite the fact that the trilogy it kick-starts, To the Ends of the Earth, was adapted into a BBC miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch in 2005, all anyone thinks about when they hear the name “William Golding” is Lord of the Flies. But this one is even more disturbing. If you’re into that.
Joseph Heller, Something Happened
You probably thought that Joseph Heller had only written one book — Catch-22 — but you thought wrong. In a 1974 review of Heller’s second novel, Kurt Vonnegut wrote that it was “splendidly put together and hypnotic to read. It is as clear and hard-edged as a cut diamond. Mr. Heller’s concentration and patience are so evident on every page that one can only say that Something Happened is at all points precisely what he hoped it would be.” Later, Heller said, “I used to think Catch-22 was my best novel until I read Kurt Vonnegut’s review of Something Happened. Now I think Something Happened is.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
Though Ishiguro is best known for his pitch-perfect novels Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, his most divisive novel is The Unconsoled, a fat, difficult book that some critics called his best ever and some deemed his worst. James Wood said that it “invented its own category of badness,” but John Carey listed it among the 20th century’s most enjoyable books. According to Ishiguro, “Academics write about it more than any of [his] other novels,” so no matter which side of the fence you come down on, it’s definitely worth a look.
Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald
Mark this one down under “beloved children’s author writing scandalously sexy books for grown-ups.” Obviously a must-read, you guys.
A.A. Milne, The Red House Mystery
And in the category of beloved children’s authors writing outside the genres that they’re famous for, there’s also Winnie-the-Pooh creator A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery, a whodunit celebrated by New Yorker critic Alexander Woollcott as “one of the three best mystery stories of all time.” Wildly popular in its day, the book is much less well known now, but hasn’t lost any of its charm.
Charlotte Brontë, Villette
Though considered by many scholars – and by Virginia Woolf – to be Brontë’s best novel, Villette has been completely overshadowed by Jane Eyre. If there’s room in your heart for two tough, self-reliant Gothic heroines, give Lucy Snowe a try.
William Faulkner, Sartoris
Satoris may not be as grand as some of Faulkner’s later, more famous novels, but the first book to be set in Yoknapatawpha County is complex and empathetic, a fitting harbinger of things to come. Plus, Faulkner himself loved it, writing in a letter to his publisher at the time, “At last and certainly, I have written THE book, of which those other things were but foals. I believe it is the damdest best book you’ll look at this year, and any other publisher.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, Unlocking the Air and Other Stories
Though extremely prolific, Le Guin is best known for the Earthsea and Hainish cycles, and for her fantasy and science fiction writing in general. But she is equally wonderful when writing stories closer to home, as in the majority of tales in this 1996 collection, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman
Shirley Jackson is probably best known for a single short story, the much-anthologized and much fretted over “The Lottery.” Next, readers may know her by The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but an oft-missed gem is her 1951 Hangsaman, as dark and chilling a tale of disappearance as you’ll ever find. As Nicholas Rombes described it, “Reading Hangsaman is like entering a dark labyrinth, only to discover that you have always been it, and that the novel has merely awakened you to this fact, something you have tried all your life to forget.” The novel was recently re-released by Penguin Classics, the better to disturb your dreams.
James Baldwin, Just Above My Head
The iconic James Baldwin is duly lauded for his groundbreaking novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, but his sixth novel could do with a little more attention. As John Lingan explains, “James Baldwin’s last novel is an overwhelming experience, although it’s hard to see it in the shadow of stuff like Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time. Sprawling yet intimate, political and perfectly written, no gay novel does a better job of exploring how terribly and beautiful we are bound up with our families, and how much joy and pain they cause us. And there’s an exquisite sex scene.”
George R.R. Martin, The Armageddon Rag
Sure, it’s hard enough to get through all those thousands of pages in the (as yet unfinished) A Song of Ice and Fire series, so perhaps some of you readers, much as you love your Martin, aren’t ready to strike out into his backlist. When you do, you might pick up The Armageddon Rag — but not if you’re looking for more of the same. This novel is a character-driven mystery with a murder and a (nerd-alert) band called the Nazgûl at its center, and was dubbed by Stephen King to be “the best novel concerning the American pop music culture of the sixties I’ve ever read.” Different can be good.
David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System
People generally have two approaches to Wallace – either they hear that he’s really best with his essays, and start with Consider the Lobster, or they decide to grab the bull by the horns and dive straight into Infinite Jest. While both are valid tactics, the pattern can leave his first novel, flawed, bizarre, funny, featuring Stonecipher LaVache Beadsman, sometimes known as the Antichrist, who keeps drugs in his artificial leg, by the wayside. This is a big mistake.
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
Rushdie is known for his post-colonial, magical realist novels, but his lovely first book for children ranks with the best of them.
Kingsley Amis, The Alteration
Lucky Jim eclipses all, at least in contemporary culture’s view of Amis the elder, but it’d be a shame to miss The Alteration, an alternate history set in a 1976 where the Reformation never happened. The book is as funny as you expect from Amis, plus Philip K. Dick called it “one of the best — possibly the best — alternate-worlds novels in existence.”A handsome edition has recently been released by the New York Review of Books, along with several others in Amis’s backlist.
Malcolm Lowry, Ultramarine
Everyone has heard of Under the Volcano, sure, but fans of Lowry shouldn’t miss his other novel, written when he was still an undergraduate, a coming-of-age story set on the high seas.
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
Contemporary readers of Flannery O’Connor tend to pick up her Complete Stories and call it a day. That makes sense, but The Violent Bear It Away, her second novel, as dark and unceasingly Gothic as her shorter fiction, is essential and horrifying.
Denis Johnson, Angels
Everyone who’s anyone reads Jesus’ Son in their 20s, and Tree of Smoke is no slouch either. Johnson’s debut, Angels, a grimy, incendiary cross-country road trip, is nearly as good as these.
George Orwell, Coming Up For Air
This is the last work of fiction Orwell wrote before Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and as such, it is often ignored, though it is wonderful, as pessimistically vital as his more famous works, with an elegance all its own.
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café
Many know McCullers by her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, alone, a forgivable sin given how great it is. But there’s another great one – the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, now published helpfully with a selection of McCullers’ vivid short stories, is a must-read for anyone who has ever had a brush with loneliness.
Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen
Erdrich has gotten much-deserved attention recently, since last year’s The Round House raked in the prizes. A good opportunity, then, to delve into her backlist – perhaps the underrated, but luminous, The Beet Queen, which Angela Carter called “violent, passionate, surprising … The Beet Queen imparts its freshness of vision like an electric shock.”
Herman Melville, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities
Well, look, when you’ve written Moby-Dick, other things tend to go by the wayside. This was Melville’s follow-up to his masterpiece (then a total flop), and everyone hated it passionately (one review ran with the headline “Herman Melville Crazy”). It’s rarely assigned in schools, since teachers looking to give the Melville experience without all the whaling terminology usually go for “Bartleby the Scrivener” or Billy Budd, but this novel, which Melville called his “kraken” is totally audacious, frustrating, and ahead of its time. Like another novel we know.
Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out
Woolf’s first novel is not as stylistically singular as her later work, but is still wonderful. E.M. Forster described it as “absolutely unafraid… Here at last is a book which attains unity as surely as Wuthering Heights, though by a different path.” It also introduces Clarissa Dalloway, for any fanboys or fangirls out there.
Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music
Sure, Lethem’s first novel reads like a first novel. But it also reads like a crazy noir detective story set in a near-future Oakland populated by extremely rude kangaroos and babyheads and people blissed out on Forgettol. Which, of course, it is.
Richard Yates, The Easter Parade
Yates is, of course, best known for his wonderfully terrible Revolutionary Road, after which he floundered for a while (at least in the critical eye). The Easter Parade marked his resurgence, but it still comes second in the collective consciousness.
Hilary Mantel, A Change of Climate
Attention: Hilary Mantel was writing great books long before Wolf Hall. A Change of Climate, which Francine Prose called “witty, disturbing and memorable,” is the magnificent tale of the implosion of a family.
Edith Wharton, The Reef
Everyone reads The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and maybe even Ethan Frome — as they should, of course. Wharton’s most often snubbed masterpiece is The Reef, a story of four romantically intertwined Americans living in Paris, as psychologically complex and beautifully written as her other works.
Iain Banks, Espedair Street
Banks may be most famous for The Wasp Factory, but this is a rather different kind of novel – following a faded rock star trying to make his way forward. Much more understated than much of his work, but still the novel of a master.
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah
Countless American students were given their first (and in some cases, only) taste of African literature via Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. But the novelist has written a number of excellent books, including this finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize, which was hailed as the “most important novel to come out of Africa in the 1980s.”
Louisa May Alcott, A Long Fatal Love Chase
The author of Little Women had a side project: blood-and-thunder suspense novels. She wrote this Gothic thriller two years before her most famous work, but it was lost until 1995, when it finally emerged to good critical reviews.
Philip Roth, The Breast
Philip Roth is so constantly praised that it’s a surprise any of his works remain under-appreciated. Let’s just say that The Breast, a slim work in which literature professor David Kepesh wakes up one morning as a 155 pound breast, is surprisingly delightful, particularly for those who love Kafka and Gogol in addition to Roth.
Toni Morrison, Tar Baby
Again, Morrison is very widely praised, and for good reason, of course. Yet Tar Baby is often ignored for works both earlier and later – surprising, as it is gorgeous, powerful, and mischievous, and among her best.
Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
Those who stop after The Road and Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses are missing what is arguably McCarthy’s greatest book, the grotesque, funny, dark, sprawling semi-autobiographical Suttree.