The Power of the Debut Novel

Last month I read two fantastic books that were the authors’ debut novels (The Hate U Give and The Leavers). That got me thinking about other great first novels I’ve read, which got me to thinking: why are so many authors’ first novels their best ones?

I think it’s because there’s a raw, emotional quality to a first novel.  The novels that follow may be more sophisticated, but they often lack the emotional punch.  I’ve often read that many people become writers because they have a story in them that needs to be told — and this story becomes their first novel but it may be hard to replicate.  A related reason is that first novels tend to be the most autobiographical (again, back to the emotional punch).

Having an amazing debut novel is both a positive and a negative. The upside is that many of these first works are among our greatest literary works. The down side is that for whatever reason, the books they published later didn’t resonate as much.

Of course many authors have great debut novels and go on to publish even better works. And identifying an author’s best novel is entirely subjective.  Is Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen’s best work?  Is The Edible Woman Margaret Atwood’s best work?  How about The Bluest Eye for Toni Morrison?  Impossible to say.

Maybe the magnum opus first novel is the exception, not the rule.  But when I looked for good examples of powerful first books, I found many examples that resonated:

  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (not a favorite of mine but clearly should be on this list)
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (we could argue this one given her other excellent novels)
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  • The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt (also arguable, but certainly my favorite)

The following authors only published one novel but it was a great one.  Plath, Wilde, and Salinger wrote plays, poetry, novellas and short stories but only one novel.  Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison both had uncompleted fiction published posthumously.  John Kennedy Toole died before even publishing his first work.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

And then there are authors who haven’t come out with their second novel yet, but some of us are waiting anxiously.  These authors experienced great success and critical acclaim with their first novels, which must create quite a lot of pressure.

  • Go Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
  • Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (second novel to be published soon in U.S.)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (second novel to be published soon in U.S.)

I only included novels I’ve read on this list, with the exception of Catch-22, and that one because it’s a favorite of so many (and because I mean to finish it one day).  For a list of great debut novels, see here and here.

Do you agree or disagree about the power of the first novel?  Do you have other favorite first novels?

13 Comments on “The Power of the Debut Novel

  1. I agree with you, but I think the importance of it becomes more nuanced if a reader has been following an author since their debut novel. Have you ever found that you loved an author’s debut novel or series and then found that their later works don’t resonate for you, or vice versa?

    • Yes, I find I often like a writer’s first novel and then I’m disappointed. Donna Tartt is a good example, and Isabel Allende. I also love Barbara Kingsolver’s earliest novels, although I do think she’s written very good ones since. I wonder though, if it’s more a question of what order you read in? Maybe the first work you read by an author tends to be the one you like the most?

      • J.K. Rowling is an example of an author whose earlier works I love but not the later, although I think for her it might be that I prefer her children’s books to her adult books. Cassandra Clare might be better because I’m finding it hard to get into her spinoff books. Maggie Stiefvater might be a good example for me of an author whose later books I like better than her debut books.

        On your point about bias on the books that introduced you to an author, I think that bias does play into it. I normally notice it when I didn’t care for the book that introduced me to an author but I gave the author another try. I think I’m more forgiving if I liked that first book that introduced me to an author.

      • Interesting, I really like Rowling’s books for adults, and I thought the Harry Potter books got better with each one. I agree that if I don’t love a book I might give the author one more try – but even then I’d have to have a good reason.

  2. When I read this, the novel that immediately came to mind was Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Such a great read, but it’s her only book thus far.
    I also thought of something my high-school psych teacher told me, which was that often times artists’ later works aren’t as great as the first because after the success, they’re no longer in the emotional space (or have the freedom) to create as they did. Very similar to what you said above.
    Sometimes all the attention after success can be paralyzing. I think Elizabeth Gilbert touched on this in a TED Talk about fear or failure (I forgot which).

    • I still need to read The Night Circus! I always hear how good it is. Thanks for the comment. It would make sense that a really good first novel would make it hard to follow up.

  3. I’ve never understood when people mention how surprised they are by how amazing a book is for a debut novel since I’ve read so many AMAZING novels that were debuts. I’ve never thought about why though, so your post has made me think, and those do sound like they could be the reasons!

  4. Pingback: My June Reading Wrap-up | The Book Stop

  5. Pingback: Best of 2017: Debut Novels | The Book Stop

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