Monday, 13 January 2014

Monday Musings: The debut novel

When David Mitchell published his fourth novel, Black Swan Green, the critical response was interesting. Reviewers were positive, but seemed a little puzzled. Most notably, Ali Smith wrote in The Telegraph: 'If I didn't know better, I'd say that Black Swan Green was a fine first novel from a gifted young writer. If I didn't know that David Mitchell's real debut, in 1999, was the startling, many-storied Ghostwritten… I'd maybe be persuaded that this was nothing but a sweet, expertly-done piece of narrative contrivance.' She concludes, of course, that this is not all that Black Swan Green is, but the implications in that first paragraph are worrying (this is not a criticism of Smith, who is bringing these issues to our attention rather than necessarily concurring with them). Firstly, there's the assumption that if Mitchell hadn't already shown what he could do, this parochial novel centring around an adolescent boy in Worcestershire in the 1980s could easily be written off, which raises some worrying questions about why Ghostwritten is somehow a more valuable novel because it is set in more places and has more different narrative voices. (Cloud Atlas: greatest novel ever written, using this rubric!) But secondly, and more interestingly for the purposes of these musings, Smith suggests that if this novel was just a 'piece of narrative contrivance' then that would still make it 'a fine first novel.' I'm not sure I understand why.

Why do we expect different things from debut novels that are of course rarely debuts at all? (Hilary Mantel, to take just one example, published her real debut, A Place of Greater Safety, after her first novel.) There seems to be this assumption that debut novels are: semi-autobiographical; experimental; introduce a 'new voice'; often shorter; often 'less ambitious' [read: set in a single geographical location, or not set in Foreign Climes.] In contrast, 'breakthrough novels' are: 'ambitious' [read: set in many geographical locations in Foreign Climes]; told in many voices, or through many sets of eyes; often longer; and have often 'found their voice.' Of course, there are so many contradictions to these assumptions, and that's why I want to talk about them: why do we continue to insist that debut novels somehow stand apart from the rest of an author's career when often, as with David Mitchell, that isn't the case?

My concern is that debut novels do, to an extent, fulfil these stereotypes because some publishers are looking for a certain type of debut, or because later novels simply wouldn't have been picked up if they were the writer's first. Eleanor Catton's Booker-winning The Luminaries is a wonderful novel, but would you really want to publish an 800-page debut? No; you'd pick up something like her real debut, The Rehearsal, short, experimental and new-voicey. To take an earlier example, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece, but the opening is (deliberately) stiflingly boring; would this have caught an agent's eye if he had been allowed to submit only the first fifty pages? (That might about get Stephens past the county border). A Pale View of Hills is a better first novel; intriguing, brief and flashy in a way that Ishiguro's more mature writing is not.

There are two issues here, I think. First, there's this assumption - and of course this doesn't hold true in all cases - that shorter, more autobiographical, and home-country-set novels are less worthy than long epics that span the globe. As Alice Munro wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, one would hope this assumption is being challenged, but sadly I don't think it's that easy. Second, there's the one-size-fits all approach to an author's career, when some authors may only produce one book, or refuse to produce them on schedule, as Donna Tartt and Marilynne Robinson refuse to do. A debut shouldn't just be a sign of better things to come, or the herald of a new voice, whatever that might be; it should be a good book in its own right, or it should not have been published.


  1. I find this fascinating, and I need to think some more about it. I think your right that publishers' expectations of what constitutes a good first novel has shaped readers' perceptions of debuts. And I also think you're right that we shouldn't expect first novels to be an inferior quality than later ones. All that said, I think there is something different and essential about the debut, or at least about a writer's first finished work no matter when it is published in their career. Inevitably, I think there must be, because everything we do the first time is different and every time we do that thing subsequently we change, adapt, improve, develop our own ways of behaving. Often when you hear that a writer has hit on their break-through novel I think it's because they have found their groove, tapped finally into their talent. It's not often with their first book; first books are like prophecies of what is coming.

    I think Eleanor Catton is a good example - The Rehearsal, for me, is exactly that, a dry run for The Luminaries. And Sarah Hall is someone I always think of in this way: for me How to Paint a Dead Man is the book where she pulls together the experimenting of Haweswater and The Electric M and The Carhullan Army, and comes into her full strength.

    So it's not that I think we should consider debuts lower quality than later books, but I think it is true that they are often more about potential and grasping and almost getting there.

  2. It is fascinating to watch writers develop throughout their careers, and I think that's why I so often end up reading a lot of books by the same writer - ironically, often writers that I don't actually think are fantastic, like Sadie Jones! - rather than trying out new writers, because there's something quite satisfying about it as a reader. And it would indeed be strange if writers didn't develop from the debut. I think what I'm trying to get at here (a bit incoherently and rantily) is two things: 1. challenging the idea that a writer's first completed full-length novel is necessarily going to be their debut, as so many writers have sheaves of unpublished work behind them before they're published and 2. questioning why certain qualities are associated predominantly with the debut. In the case of 2., I think you're quite right to note that often debuts *are* experimental and autobiographical and whatnot. I guess my concern is whether that's all they're ever expected to be.

    Maybe all of this will feed into our upcoming Oyeyemi discussion, as I personally will be jumping from her debut novel to her fifth...