Thursday 3 February 2011

The Deb Ball

I couldn't resist kicking off with a picture of a debutante (source) but that's actually not got much to do with today's post. Simon S. wrote a post a little while ago about debut novels - whether we were drawn to them or not. Read it here, if you so wish. He was mostly discussing (I think I'm right in saying) reading choices from among recently published books - the latest Margaret Atwood being his example of a rival to an unknown author's firts novel. Now, I'd probably choose a great deal of books over Atwood, but that's by the by.

His post got me thinking, but more about debut novels in general. I buy far, far more second-hand books than new ones, and I can't remember the last time I bought a new book without having had it recommended - either by a friend or an e-friend! So it's unlikely that I would buy a debut novel published in 2011, unless someone had told me about it.

But, following on from our discussion the other day about authors' timelines
(thanks again for your fascinating replies - it was so interesting to have responses from people all along the scale on this topic) I've been thinking about the debut works of favourite authors.

Some - like A.A. Milne (Lovers in London) and Ivy Compton-Burnett (Dolores) tried to distance themselves from their first novels. Milne even went so far as to buy back the copyright to prevent it being reprinted. (That work I have read, and while it's not up to his later stuff, it's still pretty good, and I can't see why he was so ashamed of it.)

But thinking through some authors I love, I haven't read their first books. E.M. Delafield (Zella Sees Herself); Rose Macaulay (Abbots Verney); Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers).

There are some whose first works weren't up to their later ones (I'd put forward Virginia Woolf with The Voyage Out, and definitely Shakespeare's early comedies; Katherine Mansfield's early stories, and Richmal Crompton's The Innermost Room.)

Others peaked with their first books - Edith Olivier's other novels aren't close to as good as The Love Child; my limited experience of Monica Dickens suggests One Pair of Hands is far from her worst (and the best of the three I've read); Lynne Reid Banks got off to a brilliant start with The L-Shaped Room.

And some seemed to start off just as well as they continued - for my money, Jane Austen was brilliant from her Juvenilia onwards; Decline and Fall is as good as any of the other Waugh novels I've read; Stephen Leacock's wonderful, recognisable style kicked off in his debut, Literary Lapses - if you discount Elements of Political Science and two similar works, which were actually his first three publications.

All of which goes to show that there appears to be little rhyme or reason to where a debut work fits in an author's canon. But it's an interesting topic, and one we've already sort of touched upon - but I'd love to hear incidences from you of debut works which are much better, or much worse, than those that followed. And if you disagree with any of my assertions, then let me know!


  1. I agree with all you have said. There are some authors whose debut make instant 'hit' and no matter what they try are not able to equal let alone better it. That's why when the Guardian (??) presented the list of the best under 40 novelist there was a rebuttal that followed your line of thought.

    I enjoyed Chimamanda's Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun than The Thing Around Your Neck. Thomas Mofolo became popular with Chaka than his earlier novels. Ayi Kwei Armah's books are all good. etc.

  2. This is such an interesting topic. I absolutely love Decline and Fall, Amis's The Rachel Papers and I also think that Harry Potter is a pretty good example of a very successful first novel. Can't come up with a debut that is much worse than the followers... Except maybe for some of those streamlined crime fiction ones where the crimes become more and more outrageous for each book... (Jo Nesboes books for example)

  3. And then there's Anne of Green Gables.

  4. The two that I can think of off the top of my head are Anne of Green Gables, which somebody already mentioned, and Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple. I've read almost all of L. M. Montgomery's work, and Anne of Green Gables is not my favourite work of hers. At the same time, it is far better than all the other Anne books, and it is better than most of her other work. I've read all of Dorothy Whipple's novels except for High Wages, and I would say Young Anne, although not a bad book by any means and an enjoyable read, ranks below her other novels in my estimation.

  5. There was a time when I would browse in a bookstore and buy whatever novel sounded good whether I had heard of the author or not, but now my tastes have changed considerably. I still will try new authors but I tend to get more of my reading suggestions from other readers. And I read quite a few older authors than I used to. I read Mollie Panter Downes's first novel, The Shoreless Sea, which was a bestseller when she published it, but I preferred One Fine Day (and I imagine it would be considered a better novel now, too, the other being a bit too sentimental, but still interesting to read). Interesting topic--I'd have to think about the books I've read--I'm sure there must be loads that were debut novels where the succeeding ones didn't quite measure up.

  6. What an interesting thing to think about! I still think Pickwick is one of Dickens' best books.

    Yesterday I saw a prodution of Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare's minor plays. My seatmate told me she thought it was Shakespeare's first comedy, although as I started the post, I looked it up ans see it is not. Funny how easily it fit itself into the analysis of debut style. It seems very much a practice space.


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