Unloading the canon: Making the case for authors’ unsung masterpieces

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

Let’s just admit it: there’s a bit of an obsession, amongst book-lovers, with categorising, ranking and reordering the canon. We love debating what makes a must-read classic, which authors are considered among the pantheon, which titles or writers have fallen out of fashion — and which unsung works, particularly by authors of note, might deserve inclusion.

For every agreed-upon masterpiece, there are plenty of incredible works by those same great minds. Below, we’ve chosen five lesser known works by authors who are probably already on your bookshelf. If you loved the ‘classic’, you might love these titles even more.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

It’s likely more people know the title The Sound and the Fury than the name William Faulkner, such is the literary heft of the American writer’s masterpiece. It’s omnipresent on lists of the best novels of the 20th century, and of the best novels, period.

Yet, there’s plenty of reason to consider As I Lay Dying just as crucial to the canon, its story of human nature potentially — in being less shackled to Faulkner’s obsession with Southern-ness and the modernist moment than his other work — more timeless. The book, which tells the story of the Bundren clan’s journey from their home to Jefferson, Mississippi to bury the deceased family matriarch Addie according to her final wishes, painstakingly pieces together a picture of sacrifice, greed and desperation from 15 different narrative viewpoints, including those of neighbours, doctors, reverends and the family members themselves.

The result is a nuanced portrait of humanity that, if a few inches less complex than The Sound and the Fury, is miles more captivating and just as rewarding.

Chosen by Stephen Carlick

Sula by Toni Morrison

‘Author of Beloved’ reads the citation on most editions of Toni Morrison’s books, and with good reason; Morrison’s most famous novel is a masterpiece that will endure for decades to come.

Add Sula to your list of classics. The book tells the story of childhood friends Nel and Sula, who grew up in a poor black neighbourhood, and had shared dreams for their futures. Ten years after running away to live those dreams, Sula returns to find that no one, especially not Nel (who stayed behind and got married), trusts her. Cast as a witch, Sula is the story of a woman with power who challenges the small world that resents her for it.

Sula was Morrison’s second published novel, and shows an author already in command of her craft. Themes Morrison comes to explore in her later work are already evident here, and Sula needs to be on your list if you truly want to understand her as a writer.

Chosen by Sarah Shaffi

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Starting one’s Virginia Woolf journey with Mrs. Dalloway makes sense – it is a swift and beautiful introduction to the Modernist writer’s fascination with interior monologue and time. But from there, skip over To the Lighthouse and The Waves (both excellent, and to be dealt with later) and, particularly, to Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel. Published, technically, against her will – days before her suicide, she decided she hated the ‘silly and trivial’ manuscript – it is a beautiful and pertinent read, capturing the mood of hiatus and angst of between-war Britain through the lens of a village am-dram society.

Chosen by Alice Vincent

Persuasion by Jane Austen

While I love Pride and Prejudice, I've always been most drawn to Austen's more subdued, grown-up story of second chances, Persuasion. Having perfected her craft by this, her final novel, it's passionate, heart-breaking, more political and, in my opinion, the most poetic of all her works.

Following a brief but heartfelt courtship, Anne Elliot, the second daughter of a vain and narcissistic baronet, is forced to turn down a proposal after being persuaded that the match is unsuitable. The novel opens eight years later, when they unexpectedly meet again; Anne still consumed by thoughts of lost love, her former lover now a weather-beaten but successful captain in the Royal Navy. In true Austen fashion, things are never straightforward, and the path to reconciliation is laden with missteps, misunderstandings, and a fateful trip to sleepy Cornish town Lyme Regis.

If you don't linger on the repeated descriptions of Anne's lost youth and ‘faded bloom’ (she's only 27 years old!), you get Austen at her most witty and astute, savvy on society and affairs of the heart, able to perfectly articulate complex feelings of missed opportunity, regret and, eventually, redemption.

Chosen by Francesca Pymm

Slapstick, or Lonesome No More! by Kurt Vonnegut

Man, where do I start? I loved Vonnegut's most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, but Slapstick jellified my mind. It's a completely bonkers, post-apocalyptic black comedy that Vonnegut described as 'the closest I will ever come to writing an autobiography’.

Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain is so hideously ugly that his parents cut him and his sister off from society, forcing them to grow up in isolation. But they soon realise that together they form a super-brain of indomitable intelligence, which they decide to use as a force for good by ending loneliness in America.

Wilbur becomes U.S. president, but society is collapsing. Oil is running out, minute Martians are invading and, to make matters worse, the Chinese have learned how to shrink themselves so that, when inhaled by normal-sized humans, they unleash a terrible plague. It's brilliant, grotesque, hilarious and weirdly echoey of a few themes some of us may recognise today.

Chosen by Matt Blake

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