A best-selling first novel is the literary equivalent of a wet dream. It gets everyone in the business very, very excited. Publishers bask in the glory of having “discovered” the next Salinger, Rushdie, Updike, etc. Journalists get a feel-good Cinderella story that makes their editors happy. All that publicity in turn feeds the fondest hopes of countless wannabe authors, who are essential grist to the vast mill of publishing, ensuring the salaries of book editors, agents and PR hacks everywhere.
Following up: (left – Rick Rycroft/AP) Arundhati Roy recently said she has begun working on her second novel; and Joseph Heller could never recreate the magic of his debut Catch-22. AFP
Everyone wins, but some more than others. The biggest winner is, of course, the author himself, the new-found wunderkind of fiction. A splashy debut, however, comes with its own baggage: A rising star today is so often the one-hit wonder of tomorrow, when all that envy can find satisfaction in unrestrained Schadenfreude.
The history of literature is littered with examples of those who peaked far too early. Poor Joseph Heller was never able to recreate the magic of Catch-22, Jay McInernay is still trying much too hard to top Bright Lights, Big City, and Laura Weisberger has already exhausted her limited store of talent with The Devil Wears Prada. The Times’ Top 10 list of “Cursed Second Novels” includes some of the best-known names in fiction: Norman Mailer, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Irvine Welsh.
Others have escaped inclusion by either never attempting another full-length novel—J.D. Salinger, for example, limited himself to novellas and short stories in the wake of Catcher in the Rye—or by simply never writing again, as did Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Emily Bronte and Arundhati Roy (though she recently announced her return to fiction, and is supposedly working on her second novel).
Performance anxiety is part and parcel of a writer’s life, as are the long odds against enduring success. What is new is the inordinate weight now given to a first novel; the splashy debut is now a requirement for a successful literary career. Authors no longer have the room to experiment—and sometimes fail—along the way to that work of staggering genius. Gone are the days when publishing houses would invest in no-name talent, offering the long-term security of a reasonably funded multi-book deal.
With publishing companies less concerned about literature than their balance sheet, most first-time novelists don’t get the nod unless their manuscript looks like a sure winner. And those who strike out on their first attempt very rarely merit a second chance. Much as book editors obsess over discovering the next Salman Rushdie, the author whose first novel Grimus sank like a stone would be struggling to get Midnight’s Children published today.
Then there are the chosen few, an elite group of first-time authors anointed as potential geniuses and showered with gargantuan advances by the literary powers-that-be. Gautam Malkani, for example, received £380,000 (around Rs80 lakh) for Londonstani, which was over-hyped and then resoundingly panned by critics. As of last November, it had sold an underwhelming 15,000 copies.
The book has instead become a cautionary tale for industry insiders keen to avoid the “Londonstani effect” created by hyper-inflated advances and expectations. Malkani luckily has a two-book deal and, therefore, one more shot at redeeming himself, a task now made all the weightier by this very public debacle.
Where great authors in the past were allowed to fail in obscurity, they are no longer afforded such luxury. The feast-or-famine approach to first novels does little service either to the authors or their work. In art, unlike commerce, it is more important to nurture talent than to market it.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org