Wednesday, 25 January 2012

First time novels

Picture this: you're struggling to write your first novel and the last thing you want to hear is some bloke on the radio opine that "debut novels need a big idea to stand out from the pack". He's got one of those authoritative BBC voices so that even though you try to dismiss them, the words lodge themselves in a cranny of your subconscious where they echo each time you dare to think about the already remote chances of ever getting published in the traditional way. Worst of all his words chime with something you heard a couple of years ago, from the mouth of a publisher, about would-be published writers needing to be "the complete package". 

It's not enough, apparently, to have a compelling story, great characters, a fabulous first line, first paragraph, first chapter. Oh no. The novel itself must be utterly unique - and the author must be obviously marketable.

It just goes to show it's never safe to listen to seemingly innocent items on Open Book on Radio 4 if you're at all inclined to paranoia.

The bloke, who was writer and critic Matt Thorne, was reviewing
Waterstones' 11 - their pick of 11 first novels to watch out for in 2012 - and merely observed that many of those on the list seemed to use the theme of 'confinement', perhaps in the response to the need for first novels to have a standout idea.

Wait a minute. Back in the good old days, weren't most debut novels semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories? The novelist got a big advance to cover their expenses to write the next two in the hope that one of them would strike literary gold, and everyone was happy. I'm not quite sure when these good old days were (OK, the good old days are always an unspecified period of time that never really existed, but always occured at least ten years ago) - but it's clear they're over.
A quick scan of my mental list of recent (ish) first novels confirms what Matt Thorne said. Most first novels tend either to tell a story in a new unique or innovative way, or to tell 'a story never before told'.

In the 'never before told' category think The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Both present, in a reasonably straightforward way, experiences and characters never before seen in print. As for the first type, the new or unique way to tell a story which may be familiar, well the titles positively line up. The Virgin Suicides by Jeff Eugenides springs to mind - it's written in the first person plural for goodness sakes, never done before (hardly ever anyway). What about Bright Lights Big City by Jay McKinerny- written in the second person, fresh and innovative back in 1984. Or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, written in a style heavy in adjectives that was equally loved and reviled but altogether commercially succesful. And of course Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - what an audacious piece of self promotion with such self referential, 'postmodern' style of footnoted writing, yet wrapped round a recognisable 'heartbreaking' story in a straightforward realist style.

These novels all turned their authors into literary stars, for better or for worse. Their careers were certainly launched in a spectacular way on the back of a 'unique' first novel, which gave them perhaps a certain amount of leeway with their second. And that seems to be the model now for all first time authors. I wonder if there's still room for new writers who will steadily improve, like Howard Jacobson (Booker prize winner with his eleventh novel) or Jonathan Coe, perhaps, who has written nine fantastic novels, and who clearly gets better over time.

Of course, the other opportunity is to bypass the whole traditional publishing set up and make an ebook yourself (or with the help of
a company like this one, run by my friend Matt). It looks like this year plenty of novelists, first time or otherwise, will be doing just that.


  1. I'm a bit late to this post, but just wanted to say how much I appreciate all you're saying here. This is the sort of thing I sometimes worry about, too, and then have to keep reminding myself to just write the darned thing and try to enjoy that process since I have so little control over what happens after. And thanks, especially, for your insights re: where is the place for new writers who will get better and better... that kind of steady persistence gives me hope! :)

    ~ d

    p.s. I hope your novel is percolating along? Sending you good writing vibes from here in SoCal.

  2. Hi Dawna, I try not to air my neuroses too much on this blog, but sometimes they do make an appearance... "Just write the darned thing and try to enjoy that process" is extremely sound advice - thankyou! xx