By John Warner
6:24 PM EDT, August 10, 2012
Let's play the author/title association game. I'll give the author, you tell me a title.
Here's what you didn't say: "Mardi, and a Voyage Thither," "Franny and Zooey," "The Third Life of Grange Copeland" and "Something Happened."
These authors' best works are so well known, they go without saying. But is a writer's best-known work necessarily his/her best work?
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Often, this seems to be the case, particularly when time has had its say. Melville published better than a dozen books in his lifetime, but in addition to "Moby-Dick," only the novella "Billy Budd" survives — and mostly as a kind of "Moby-Dick lite" that substitutes for its doorstop cousin on college reading lists.
Despite a dismissive review in The New York Times, "Catch-22" became a sensation, and while Heller's follow-up novel, "Something Happened" received a very positive Times review from none other than Kurt Vonnegut, the life story of the hapless businessman Bob Slocum is remembered only because the same author wrote "Catch-22."
Where we see a best-known book, there's often a prize attached, two in the case of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
Precocious debuts often become "best-known" books. "Catch-22" is one, and while many people believe "The Catcher in the Rye" is the last book Salinger published, it was actually his first. "Franny and Zooey" was his last.
And in some cases, the "best-known" book really is an author's only book, like Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," or Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind." In other cases, the best-known book isn't an author's only book, even though it should be. Here, I'm thinking of "A Fan's Notes" by Frederick Exley.
One way to avoid the "best-known" problem is to publish a lot of books. There was a time where a group of cheerleaders shouting "I say Philip Roth, you say…?" would've been greeted with "Portnoy's Complaint," but almost 30 novels later, different readers would make different choices.
Another way to avoid the problem is to win a very big prize. "Beloved" is Toni Morrison's best-known book, but she will forever be introduced as "Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison." It really doesn't matter what comes after that.
However, best-known does not always mean "best" — and certainly doesn't indicate it's the only book worth reading by a particular author — so for this week's recommendations, we will celebrate lesser known books by big-time authors.
John Warner is the author of the novel "The Funny Man."
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