Hi there, ho there! Welcome back to Writing Wednesday.
Yes, that’s how books make me feel.
I’ve been thinking about first novels and how rare it is that an author’s first is the novel people remember or hold up as their best, or even one of their best. Rummaging through my book collection and brain, I made a mental list of the authors of my favorite books and then tried to remember what their first novels were, and…
Yeah…kinda hard. I just finished reading Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s first (solo) novel. Putting that story beside his most recent work is almost like looking at the work of two different authors. Of course Neverwhere has certain elements that you can’t not recognize as Gaimanisms — like his penchant for dry humor, magic, and strangeness — but on the whole it’s quite different from, say, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or the stories in his collection Trigger Warning in that his confidence and comfort in his role as a teller of stories is powerfully evident now (which makes a lotta sense). In his later works, everything flows. He’s not working as hard anymore to draw you in because it’s unnecessary; you fall in gladly. At least, I do. It’s like slipping into a warm bath. Neverwhere is still a noted work, but not the novel I usually hear referenced when people talk about Gaiman. American Gods, his third novel, is the one I’ve heard people cite most often as their favorite. After that, it’s either Stardust or Coraline. But never Neverwhere.
This is pretty common. An author’s debut intrigues readers enough to make them want more. As their career progresses, their writing gets stronger, they come into their own and start churning out their best work. (Just as an aside, this is one of my favorite things about writing as a career: unlike being a professional athlete or a neurosurgeon, age typically makes you a better writer.)
However, there are a few anomalous authors whose first novels are frequently brought up as favorites or one of their best. Two examples I (eventually) thought of are Donna Tartt, whose first novel was The Secret History, and Stephen King, whose first novel was Carrie. What’s great about these two in my opinion is that each author exists at the opposite end of the writing spectrum. The first has an established pattern of publishing a novel approximately once a decade (she’s published short stories and non-fiction stuff in between), while the latter is regularly counted among the most prolific authors writing today. The Secret History and Carrie are both beloved by fans of these authors. The film adaptation of Carrie probably had a hand in maintaining people’s love for that story, but it’s far from a forgotten debut left to gather dust on bookshelves.
Some debuts are brilliant, but completely eclipsed by the success of later novels, like Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero (which I wrote a bit about here). This is a novel I would never read again — it was that intense for me — but I would recommend that everyone (who can handle it) read it. Of course American Psycho is what you immediately think of when you hear the name Brett Easton Ellis — the friends I mentioned Less Than Zero to after I read it hadn’t even heard of it — in fact, all of his other books mostly fell through the cracks for me until I made a point of looking them all up and reading a few. Makes me wonder just how many amazing novels I’ve overlooked. Then again, there’s so much out there to read that we can probably all forgive ourselves for missing the memo on some of them.
What are some of your favorite first novels? What’s the worst you’ve ever read?