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!