Ha ha ha. That’s the sound of my sly laugh I do just after reading a really good debut novel. I turn the last page, close the book, and immediately start planning my campaign to tell everyone I like or respect to start reading it too. One) because it’s nice to share. Second, because it makes me look scholarly and cultured. As much as I love her, bragging about having read Elizabeth Strout’s seventh novel doesn’t make me nervous or pulse ahead. There is an undeniable complacency in spotting great talent first. That makes me very complacent. Oh yeah, I like the books too.
Which is good for me right now, because the whole energy of the publishing world is crucial behind debuts. This fall brings new novels from prolific, award-winning hits like Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Strout, Kate Atkinson, Barbara Kingsolver and Maggie O’Farrell. But the buzz so far this year has been about books by new talent. Bonnie Garmus Lessons in chemistrythe endearing story of a wayward scientist-turned-TV chef in the 1950s was in the Sunday times bestseller list for months. Joanna Quinns The Whalebone Theateran English country novel in the Cazalet style, also went straight into the bestseller list after rave reviews.
Many of the best novels of the last year were also debuts by Torrey Peters’ punk detransit baby to Patricia Lockwood is very online Nobody talks about it. Jo Hamya’s Dalloway-esque Three roomsabout the millennial rootlessness and gothic horror of Virginia Feito Mrs. March flew under the radar, but both deserve to be future classics. And this week Waterstones announced the shortlist for its first-ever Debut Fiction Prize, awarding the winner £5,000 and putting its weight behind supporting the six new novelists. Garmus made the list, as did Tessa Gunty The rabbit hutch, an enchantingly unique series of interconnected stories that I’m racing through right now. It’s an eclectic list that prides itself above all on its delicious readability.
Debuts have always had a special appeal because they mark our first encounter with a writer. They may hone their craft, but there’s something raw and electric about the first book they bring to the world. We will never know what Sylvia Plath would have written afterwards The bell jar, but it is a novel that has stood uniquely in its power for generations. Richard Yates may have written a better book the easter parade, but it is Revolutionary Street that’s embedded in our consciousness for his enchanting portrayal of middle-class malaise in America’s suburbs. The catcher in the rye was a debut novel. So were Carrie, The Secret Story and Killing a mockingbird. Debuts are a “sit up and listen” moment, an unmistakable “Blam!”
In recent years, the growing fixation on debuts has prompted a degree of cynicism — a sense that it comes from a scaly publishing world driven insane by Sally Rooney, endlessly trying to replicate its success until it finds itself eats up. “Gossiping about the over-hyped debut novel has become a kind of contact sport of its own,” wrote author Leslie Jamison in the NYT. It’s the much-mocked search for the “voice of a generation,” the tendency to fume about bidding wars and swanky movie rights deals that hints at a short-attention-span industry that fetishizes youth rather than long-term career investments. After all, Bernardine Evaristos Booker-victorious triumph for Girl, Woman, Other was all the more remarkable because it was her eighth novel and her publishers have remained loyal to her throughout a long, left-wing literary career.
Hype aside, for most authors, publishing a novel for the first time is a vulnerable, hard-won, and not necessarily life-changing experience. Debut doesn’t have to mean youth: Garmus publishes her first book at the age of 64 after working as a freelance copywriter for many years. Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker Prize for Shuggie Bain at the age of 43 after being rejected by 44 publishers. Patience, faith and discipline determine their success, as does talent. Also, a debut doesn’t always guarantee a long career: it’s called the tricky second album for a reason. And even those that make an impression don’t mean writers can quit their jobs and live on the fruits of their creative labors. A 2018 industry report found that the average income for writers was just £10,500 a year. So, support for first-time authors isn’t just nice to see – it’s needed.
But why are debuts thriving right now? We live in a multi-platform world and consume more content than ever before. We’re hungry for stories, and we’re more willing to take risks. Explosive hits in other media like i can destroy you and fleasack have fed the appetite for new voices. And book sales are increasing. The lockdown-inspired reading surge has continued: According to data from Nielsen BookScan, book sales in the first half of this year totaled £767.7m, the highest on record, and 25 per cent of that is fiction. We are in the process of passing the baton and are looking for new voices and perspectives. Not just to broaden the playing field, but because we’re ready for stories that are new and different. We are in a moment of transition, an era searching for our cultural totems, time capsules to show who we were and where we are. We want to find ours train spottingour White teethour wasp factoryour god of small things
But debut novels only achieve cult status because they are read. And then tell other people to read them. It’s a sequence of people like me closing the book and making a list of friends to agitate. The Waterstones Prize was chosen by booksellers – people who love books and read a lot. Because after the busy marketing campaigns and the fancy movie deals, debuts have stood the test of good old-fashioned word of mouth. There’s a unique joy in discovering a brilliant new author and breathlessly recommending him to your favorite friends. And there’s another treat – the promise of great books to come. Or, as Jamison puts it, “the embryonic blueprint of what we cannot yet imagine.”