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What Does an Underappreciated Book Look Like?

The folks over at The Believer have awarded the fifth annual Believer Book Award to Percival Everett’s novel, I am Not Sydney Poitier. The book was picked from a short list of novels and story collections that the editors deemed “the strongest and most underappreciated of the year.” I’ve been thinking about the underappreciated thing. With so many books coming out, what does “underappreciated” even mean in the book world anymore? I sent this question in an email to Believer HQ and editor Heidi Julavits sent me this response:

Indeed, who in 2010 is not underappreciated? Even the appreciated are underappreciated. For example, the week after the Pulitzer Prize for fiction was announced, one of the two finalists was scarcely to be found in one of Manhattan’s most tasteful and typically on-the-ball indie bookstores (the clerk had never heard of it; she finally located their lone copy in an unfrequented and shadowy corner shelf).

Or take, as an example, Remainder, by Tom McCarthy, the winner of our 2007 award. That book was published by a big and powerful press (it was a Vintage Paperback original); it was even featured on the front cover of the New York Times Book Review. But astonishingly, despite that level of so-called appreciation, very few people—and by “people” we mean people we know personally, people who read The Believer and other books that we ourselves read, people who would seem to be the perfect audience for a book like Remainder—many of these people had never read the book even heard of it.

So by underappreciated maybe we mean that we’ve found a book that a certain sort of person should be appreciating, and based on our anecdotal and highly unscientific surveys, this book is not being adequately appreciated by those people.