Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Novel or the Novelist?

The Poorhouse Fair, Goodbye Columbus, Dangling Man.

What have these in common?

Of course - these are first novels (a novella in Roth's case) - by three writers who are amongst the most celebrated of American novelists. A book or three later you'd have...

Rabbit, Run; Portnoy's Complaint; The Adventures of Augie Marsh...

three novels which were profoundly influential on American literature.

Try again...

Metroland, the Rachel Papers, Grimus...

maybe a bit easier...of course, you'll soon have Flaubert's Parrot; Money and Midnight's Children.

Lets play the game slightly differently...

Alentejo Blue; The Autograph Man; Ludmila's Broken English; Us.

Second novels following highly successful or much hyped debuts by Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, DBC Pierre and Richard Mason.

Whereas I did know the early novels by Updike et al, I had to Google the latter list (with the exception of Zadie).

Though its inevitably selective, it does make me wonder about the first novel syndrome - the big book that launches a career. In music its also well known (it might almost be called Stone Roses syndrome) where a band appears fully-formed with a debut that everything that comes after is a mere shadow of. For a novelist it can be disastrous. After all, though there are some great one-offs (To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye) the level of fame that those books brought was possibly partially responsible for the lack of a follow-up. Whereas a rock band might spend five to ten years working on a debut - with all manner of false starts (the equivalent of the "bottom drawer" novel) often finding their way into the public domain after the "hit", you could argue that music is still a young person's game.

No novelist, I would think, would hope to have written their best work at 22 or whatever - and even those getting published a little later might hope that they get better with the 2nd or 3rd book. I wonder when Grimus or Dangling Man were delivered whether the publisher was bowled over, or rather, discerned promise that this book wasn't going to necessarily fulfil? Its not the whole story of course - Updike already had a bit of a name for short stories; Rushdie was a successful copywriter; Amis was already an enfant terrible. Yet there does seem a sense that writers were being published not because this was "the book" but because this was "the writer." In other words, old hands in the publishing industry felt that the 2nd, 3rd or later novel would be the one that went beyond the respectable reviews and small sales of a well-regarded debut. I don't know if you could actually predict the actual books from those debuts? Reading pre-Money Amis for instance I've always found disappointing as that was the book of his I've first read. I can see that they are decent enough books, but their ambition seems so much less.

As for the debut sensations they're all cautionary tales. Zadie Smith's debut brimmed with confidence - and yet the follow-up The Autograph Man seemed to be struggling to keep up with the young American writers she so admired. There's some doubt now, it seems, whether she wants to be a novelist at all - and though successful, her third, On Beauty, looked back to Howard's End for its inspiration. Monica Ali's post-Brick Lane books have confused her publisher and audience by taking place outside of the millieu which she'd mined in that debut; whilst Richard Mason had a backlash virtually from the moment The Drowning People was published. (Not surprisingly, it wasn't a good book.)

No doubt a big early "success" brings with it its own pressure. Monica Ali (who was in her thirties when "Brick Lane" was published) has written a diversity of books since her debut - but one imagines that they've not done anywhere near as well as her debut. It seems that the investment in a big "book" does no favours to writer or publisher - and, inevitably, few writers have "big books" in them every time. A writer such as Nicola Barker, for instance, seems to be consistently close to a breakthrough book - Wide Open did very well, and Darkmans was highly regarded - and David Mitchell has achieved something critically and/or artistically with each book. The idea of a "midlist" author always seems a particularly British phenomenon - but in the US, its worth noting that Frantzen had books out before The Corrections, for instance.

I'd like to say to publishers, invest in the novel and you may well have a big book, but invest in the novelist and you might have something much more. I'm sure it still happens, but I'm not sure to what extent. I've met quite a few writers over the years who are clearly "one book" authors. Everything they have is invested in this first novel - and (often because of its personal nature), one can't quite see where they'll dig another one for. Then there are other writers who live for the word, who have an idea a day, and, if they have a fault, its in not being able to get the ideas out quick enough - or in the right way.

And part of this is about the quality of the writing. My disappointment on reading The Drowning People was partly the flatness of its prose. Surely, a young writer should be brimming with something new? This was a polite, middle-brow debut. The Rachel Papers brims with the brio that we'd find in later Amis. Amis's reputation, one feels, will rest on a couple of books (Money and London Fields) and his prose style and persona, much as Anthony Burgess's does. Another successful debutant, DBC Pierre has failed to live up to his debut, (as, arguably did Irvine Welsh). Flashy writing can be as impotent as the workmanlike, (think of Henry Miller, for instance.)


Shelley said...

I'm a big Mockingbird fan (book and film), and I think, as you imply, we have to respect an author who says what she has to say and then cannot be bribed to write for any other reason.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Salinger wrote more than Catcher in the Rye The book of stories (Nine Stories) is arguably better than Catcher.

One thing I've noticed lately is that authors with "big" books that I assume are debuts (because I've never heard of the authors before the "big" book came out) have often got a good handful of previous books on small publishers. I don't think publishers or even agents are looking at writers' careers any more, though they all say they are. Everyone is looking for a best-seller. I think that in this day and age, a lot of debut novels have been shaped by agents and publishers into something they know how to market, and after that writers drift back toward their true natures. Maybe. And do we know that all of these debut novels were actually written before the second or third books? I know enough writers whose debut novels were actually their third or sixth or eighth book. My own debut, out next year, is the fourth book I wrote. I have hopes of getting books 3 and 5 published as well, but who knows in what order? Book 6 might come out before either of them, if I ever finish writing it.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Yes, I'm a great fan of Salinger's stories - was just referring to the "big" novel. I'd be interested in examples of writers whose big book has come from a major after small publisher work? (Writers like David Mitchell and Jon McGregor certainly had stories/novellas in anthologies before their debut novel).

As for the "first book" often not being the "first book" - true enough - and I'm pretty sure I've read a few "follow ups" which must have been written before their big breakthrough. Its the same point really, though, about the "book" rather than the author; authors need nurturing, and maybe its only the small press publishers who can do so nowadays? Good luck with your "debut" Scott.