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?