Friday, 27 November 2009


What proportion of first novels are published? I’d love to know. Of course there’s no way of finding out, but I suspect it’s low. That means there’s an awful lot of manuscripts collecting dust in drawers around the world. Probably best that most of them stay there, but chances are there’s an absolute gem or two among them – a Booker winner, even – that was submitted to the wrong publisher at the wrong time, that wasn’t polished enough, that couldn’t be fitted neatly into a marketable genre, that was too experimental, too risky. But most will be ordinary.

Plenty of writers, with hindsight, are happy to not see their first effort grace bookshelves, going to great lengths to destroy what has since become an embarrassment. Others, once their second and third attempts start selling, suddenly receive a renewed interest in that initial labouring behemoth that had racked up rejections for fun five years earlier.

What should be possible to determine – if I had the time – is how many published novels are first efforts. (There are plenty of great examples, such as this, this and this.)

Again, though, I imagine the overall number to be low (one in ten as an utter guess, not including self- or vanity publishing. Probably fewer). There’s a sense of catch-22 here: the more of a name you have, the more titles behind you, the less risk a publisher has to take, though a proven track record is certainly no guarantee.

All this is to say it’s very hard to write your first novel and see it published. But then that’s the way it should be. I firmly fall into the camp of writers who wouldn’t really want my first novel to be published – not in its current incarnation, at least. I loved writing it, I learnt an enormous amount, it got some wonderful feedback, coming close a couple of times. But I have moved on. I’m not that writer any more. I would like to think I’m a better one.

And so I’m taking my time with finishing this one, keen not to make the same mistakes of verisimilitude. There seems little point devoting a year to something if it's not the best you can do.

So, what’s the best first novel you’ve read? The most disappointing second?


Paul Lamb said...

John Kennedy Toole's first novel, The Neon Bible, was written when he was 16, and he reportedly put it away as an amateur first attempt with no intention of it being published. But then his hilarious A Confederacy of Dunces was published (posthumously) and won the Pulitzer Prize here in the U.S. (equivalent to the Booker, I think), and there was a clamor to publish his first novel. And so it was published. I read it, but a long time ago, and I don't remember it being anything special. Someone surely made a lot of money out of it though.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Interesting stuff, Paul. Think money also had something to do with the posthumous publishing of the recent Nabokov 'novel', though obviously not a debut.

JFKlaver said...

Like you, I wonder about those first published novels. How many are really first efforts? Chances are, not very many. In answer to your question about supposed first novels published, I like The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd. Most disappointing second novel? The Mermaid Chair, also by Sue Monk Kidd. Go figure...