“Jane Eyer.” “To kill a mockingbird.” “The Heart Catcher.” “Catch-22.” “A Hundred Years of Solitude.” “Things are falling apart.” “The bluest eye.” “Lord of the Flies.”
Venture to guess what all these novels have in common.
It’s probably a surprise to learn that all of them are first novels. And despite the fact that there is no shortage of stellar evidence, the early novels have an image problem.
I have often heard people at dinner parties bragging about having discovered the work of a famous fiction writer (insert name here) very early on, when no one else had heard of it yet. Boasts want to appear artistically daring, ready to give new talents a new chance.
They are in the minority. In my many years of booking and interviewing authors for radio, television, and live public events, first novels have always been a hard sell. I’ve tried everything to get people interested in new literary voices: bringing together early novelists, linking a new author to compelling news, even pairing a novice with an established writer. Only the latter seemed to work, as everyone tuned in or showed up to hear from the most famous author, and the books sold accordingly.
As booksellers will tell you, unless it’s got a big buzz ahead of time, a hardcover first novel doesn’t usually fly off the shelves. When the paperback comes out, often a year later and if the book has received sensational reviews, sales take off. It happened recently with “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens.
Maybe it’s just us book nerds who compulsively read literary reviews and reviews and get excited about news of new talent.
I love the delicious surprise of a distinctive new voice. I remember howD I had to read “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan, “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen and “Cutting For Stone” by Abraham Verghese. All the first novels. Everything is fine. And while I’m on a roll, think of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” and Junot’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” Diaz.
My latest happy discovery is “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart. I was not surprised to learn that Stuart, a renowned fashion designer, grew up in a council estate in Glasgow with an alcoholic mother. Not only does he clearly know his characters, he clearly loves them: the eponymous Shuggie, whom we first meet at the age of 5 – a “little pee” as his peers derisively call him – and his beautiful but beautiful movie star. tragically doomed mother, Agnès.
Stuart describes their lives with compassion and a keen ear for language. It places us in low-income housing, where women eagerly await Friday card games “supposed to be their respite from watching TV and heating cans of beans for thankless weaning,” and the family’s move to the pile of blackened slag from the ailing town left by an abandoned coal mine. Stuart’s talent is such that this painful, sometimes atrocious story is often very beautiful. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Sara Collins, whose first book is The Confessions of Frannie Langton, only started writing her first novel after raising five children and working as a lawyer for 17 years. (Wow – after all that, I just want to take a really long nap.)
The novel begins when Frannie is in prison in 19th century London awaiting trial for a brutal double murder, and returns to a sugar cane plantation in Jamaica where she is a slave. It’s a gothic tale reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace.” It’s a story of race, class and oppression as well as horrible work done in the name of science, in this case Frannie’s debauched master’s attempt to prove the inferiority of the African race.
As with Stuart, Collins loves his main character. I’ve come to love Frannie too for her emergent feminism, strength, humor and sheer liveliness over the course of this intriguing and compulsively readable book.
Sometimes, unfortunately, the first time you walk through the door is the pinnacle of an author’s achievement. Those with a great novel in them include Harper Lee (“To Kill A Mockingbird”), Margaret Mitchell (“Gone with the Wind”), Boris Pasternak (“Dr Zhivago”), Oscar Wilde (“The Picture of Dorian Gray ” ) and Emily Brontë (“Wuthering Heights”). (As for Bronte, it should be noted that she died only a year after her novel was published, so she has a good excuse.)
But hey, having a great romance in you is more than most of us. For my part, I would be happy to rest on those laurels. I’m working on it.