Many places – this own website included – become over-the-moon when they receive word that a new hotshot novelist is generating heat with their first novel. It is thrilling: seemingly out of the blue, some person with a clear talent and a strong voice has come along, ready to share a thrilling story or new point of view with us. It’s like a first date!
But the lopside of that is that it’s also like a first date. (Not sure what you mean here)
It could go either way. All we as readers are expected to rely on is the endorsement of the publisher and any advance reviews you might read. It raises the question: why are debut novels talked about with such disproportionate enthusiasm than new novels from older, established writers?
On the one hand, it’s a valid question: There are plenty of reliably productive writers whose works go underrated or underread, and while there’s (hypothetically) a seat at the table for everyone, debuts are more often given that buzzing anticipation. It theoretically would make more sense to have that same feeling for vetted authors who have gone through the hype cycle of a book four or five times. And while getting published is an impossibly inexact balance of effort and plucked-from-above luck, the rule of thumb in life is usually “the first is the worst”. That’s harsh phrasing and a weak rhyme, but it’s still a decent guide: Ghostwritten probably won’t come up in a David Mitchell conversation before Cloud Atlas, and a date would find it peculiar if you brought up Elizabeth Strout and led with Amy and Isabelle rather than Olive Kitteridge or My Name is Lucy Barton.
One explanation for this phenomenon: personal ego. If you consider yourself an expert on novels and go to the effort to read critically-praised debut, you secretly want to imagine that they’re witnessing greatness or identifying talent long before the vulgar masses do. It’s a comforting mix of pride and self-congratulation that occurs when an artist of any kind that you’ve supported for years is finally validated on a national or international level. We all want to say we remember reading a Jonathan Safran Foer short story long before Everything is Illuminated won the Guardian First Book Award. It’s the intellectual equivalent of betting on the youngest colt at a horse race.
But after the confetti’s fallen and the ‘debut novelist’ title no longer applies, what’s next? Unlike visual or musical artists that can dramatically change their direction by incorporating new sounds, materials, and textures, writers’ explorations are essentially limited to form. If it’s a known style -epistolary or picaresque – the writer’s at getting called out my critics and tastemakers as feigning it. (awk sentence) (Genre could be considered a change as well, but in incapable hands is little more than a shift of the writer’s tone to an environment on which they’re not as comfortable writing.)
To be fair, that line of logic extends to older writers as well, so the appeal of first-time writers is not about youth or some newfound precociousness you’ve never experienced. It’s the electricity of trusting the writer and your own intuition that they have ‘the magic’, and you both know it. Even if it’s to hold you head higher than your most well-read friends at a hypothetical dinner party years down the line.
Featured image courtesy of ___.