THE BLOG
06/10/2011 12:21 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2011

Less Famous Literary Masterpieces

Sometimes, an author's best-known book is also the author's best book. Other times, an author's most accomplished novel gets less adoration than a lesser novel by the same writer.

These rather obvious facts occurred to me after I wrote a recent piece for this section about the great Margaret Atwood. Some of the people who posted comments knew her work only through reading The Handmaid's Tale, which is Atwood's most famous book and a great book -- but not her greatest book. My vote would go to The Robber Bride, though many Atwood fans might disagree.

Of course, there are plenty of cases where an author's masterpiece deserves the top billing it gets in the author's canon. Among the many examples of this are Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Toni Morrison's Beloved, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (well, the first two-thirds of that book, anyway).

But then there are the cases where a writer's most famous book is not the writer's best book.

For instance, Willa Cather is best known for the elegantly written, elegiac Death Comes for the Archbishop. But I don't think it's quite as good as her slightly-less-known My Antonia, a sprawling novel (about a man's lifelong regard for a woman he first knew as a child) that's ultimately more satisfying. Perhaps the former book's focus on two religious characters gave it a little extra "umph" with the mainstream reading public.

Cather contemporary L.M. Montgomery is primarily known for Anne of Green Gables -- a lovely, moving, funny story about a whip-smart orphan girl who finds a family. But as great as that book is, it doesn't match Montgomery's The Blue Castle. That relatively obscure novel focuses on a young Canadian woman treated badly by family members until a terminal-illness diagnosis changes her life. You'll be totally absorbed as Valancy Stirling comes out of her shell to toss hilarious one-liners at her narrow-minded relatives, and seek independence and love. Why hasn't The Blue Castle received its due? One possible reason is that, by the time this adult-targeted book was published in 1926, Montgomery was pigeonholed as a children's/teen author because of 1908's Anne and its sequels.

Then there's Erich Maria Remarque, whose All Quiet on the Western Front is by far his most famous work. But as superb as that antiwar novel is, Remarque went on to write at least a couple other books that are even better. His best might be 1962's The Night in Lisbon, a mesmerizing novel about a refugee from the Nazis who hears a harrowing, romantic tale from another refugee. Maybe the fact that the 1929-published All Quiet came out when the German-born Remarque was a wunderkind writer of barely 30 has something to do with its incredible cachet. And it didn't hurt that All Quiet was turned into an acclaimed 1930 movie.

The controversial nature of a book can make it more famous than a better book that doesn't raise as many eyebrows. For instance, Emile Zola's frankly sexual Nana might be a bit more known than the French author's coal-mining epic Germinal, but the latter is the highest literary achievement of Zola's many literary achievements.

I could go on and on. Sir Walter Scott's most famous books are Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, but his Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are superior novels. I think the eerie, understated From a Buick 8 is Stephen King's top fictional effort, even though a dozen or so other books by that ultra-prolific author are candidates for his best-known title.

You undoubtedly have your own favorite masterpieces that aren't an author's most famous novel. Meanwhile, I'm still trying to figure out whether my favorite Harry Potter book is J.K. Rowling's best Harry Potter book.