Word of Mouth Bay Area is a group of women writers who’ve all had at least one book traditionally published. Recently, the enormous talent, Thaisa Frank, whose long-awaited first novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, will be released in November, sent us a link to the controversial Huffington Post article, The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers. (With photos!) As a group of writers grappling with the changes to the publishing industry, our response to seeing icons torn apart was not one of glee.

What we noticed right away was that, unusually for these lists that circulate (100 Best Writers, 50 Best Books), this disparaging list included women, people of color and even gay people. Small wonder that icon status would be awarded only to be torn asunder. The article’s author offer to come up with an Underrated Authors list, but we decided not to wait. Even to be a famous author in America is no piece of cake. There are no screaming lines of fans waiting hours for the new release, no instant recognition that accords respect, no government funding for the arts to speak of and a risky living to be made at best. And for the other writers, it’s a struggle that only a passion for stories and books, bred early and deep, can sustain. You have no recourse other than to market your own work, and if you do, you are damned for–as witnessed by this cruel and brittle write-up in The Huffington Post.

“Let’s put together our own list of underrated writers,” Karen Joy Fowler, best-selling author of The Jane Austen Book Club and, more recently, Wit’s End, wrote to the group. “I’d love to get some new suggestions, particularly of people I’ve never heard of.  And I’ll start things off by recommending Maureen McHugh, who has written several beautiful books, but if I were reading her for the first time I’d start with Nekropolis.”

“I’ll recommend Josh Emmons,” replied Tanya Egan Gibson whose own How to Buy a Love of Reading was just released in paperback. “[Emmons] wrote The Loss of Leon Mead and Prescription for a Superior Existence (the latter of which it seems to me some reviewers just didn’t “get”). I think they’re both brave novels. The narrator of PFASE is very unlikeable for a lot of the novel, which is a challenge, I think, for readers. But it’s a very smart (and in the end, a very heartfelt) book about loneliness and emptiness and the lengths we’ll go to in order to fill the void.”

“One of my favorite books,” wrote Jessica Barksdale Inclan, whose own Being With Him comes out in its mass market version next month, “written by an author I don’t hear much tell of–is Into the Forest by Jean Hegland.  It is just a lovely, beautiful book, and I’d love to see it on more lists that feature strong young female characters.  It’s way before the dark maleness of The Road and The Passage and all these apocalyptic novels that have gotten so much attention.”

Mystery writer Cara Black added, “My quick two centimes for local writers that readers deserve to know about: Zoë Ferraris. She’s the author of Finding Nouf, an LATimes Book Award winner for First Novel and her new book, City of Veils. Zoë lifts the veil on Saudi Arabia weaving an engrossing, taut tale of conflicting cultures in a society ruled by the religious police, hidden passion and greed.”

Cara Black’s latest mystery, Murder in Passy, will be released March 2011.

Stacey D’Erasmo, The Seahorse Year, gorgeous in form and content, groundbreaking in both realms,” wrote Meredith Maran, whose own groundbreaking memoir, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, is due out next month.

“I have several authors who fit the bill,” Jana McBurney-Lin chimed in. “Their writing is so masterful, I feel as if I’ve been transported to a different country, a different world.

I second Zoe Ferraris.  She navigates us through a world most authors have never ventured–beneath the veil as an American woman.

“Four others I’d include:

Susanne Pari wrote of an Iran I never knew existed–of alcohol, parties, bikinis and short skirts.  Fortune Catcher is the story of two American-raised young lovers who return to Iran to wed, and get caught up in the chaos of the 1970’s revolution.

Mohsin Hamid is an amazing talent–his masterful telling of stories is as beautiful as the plots themselves.   Moth Smoke is the story of two boyhood friends, one born of privilege and the other struggling to survive in the corrupt streets of Pakistan.  The telling is poetic, dreamlike, amazing.  His second book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is another surprise about an American-educated Pakistani who returns to defend his country. The telling is original and thought-provoking.

Mahbod Seraji is another whose words just make one stop and sigh.  And let me re-read that sentence again.  He does a masterful job of interweaving everyday life with the chaos that is erupting in the revolution in Iran in the 70s (Rooftops of Tehran).

Susan Gilman takes us on a journey through China in the mid-80’s, a time when China had just recently opened her doors to the rest of the world, and day-to-day travel was a huge challenge which included the unwavering eyes of the secret police. (Undress Me In the Temple of Heaven)”

Jana McBurney-Lin is the author of My Half of the Sky–now available as an e-book. She lived in Asia for fifteen years and wrote for media in seven countries.

Mimi Albert, Chair of the Fiction Committee of the Northern California Book Reviewers, “read through other peoples’ suggestions and was struck by two: Finding Nouf, which I found an exceptional book (and I’m glad to know the author has just published another — does anyone know if she still lives in this area?) and Into the Forest by Jean Heglund.”

“The book I’d like to suggest,” Mimi adds, “is Maria Espinosa‘s Dying Unfinished. It is the sensitive, quirky, and highly unusual story of a mother/daughter relationship which journeys through the slums of New York, through various love affairs and trysts and personal tragedies, and which ends only after the death of the talented poet/mother is redeemed by the love of her writer/daughter.

“It’s a writer’s book as well as a daughter’s book, and it strikes me deeply on many levels.

“Other books I’ve loved? Elizabeth Rosner‘s Blue Nude; Andrew Sean Greer’s most recent novel, The Story of a Marriage. I’ll come up with others after a while, but that’s about enough for now.”

Catherine Brady, recent winner of the Northern California Book Reviewers Award for her short story collection The Mechanics of Falling capped the conversation fittingly: “I’d recommend Marianne Villanueva, whose most recent book of stories is The Mayor of the Roses. Some stories are set in the Phillippines and others in the U. S, but all of them trace a sense of internal displacement. In the best stories Villanueva is a genius at making silence speak, at knowing just what to leave out, and in the most beautiful, evocative way.” Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction is forthcoming this October and is eagerly awaited by writers everywhere who are familiar with her underrated (though award-winning) brilliance.

So that’s what we’ve been talking about, and we’d love to hear from you. Who are your favorite underrated authors? What are the names of their books that you love?

P.S. Here’s a free 10-minute video about structure, drawn from character, in fiction and non-fiction books.

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