Memorable Debut Novels

Last week I talked about excellent late-career novels. This week, the focus will be on some of literature’s best debut novels!

First books are often a mixed bag, with many novelists in that situation still getting the hang of the fiction-writing thing. But a number of them hit the ground running — some helped by having had short stories or other non-novel fiction previously published.

For a sampling of great debut novels I’ve read, let’s go chronologically, shall we?

Jane Austen’s first published book was Sense and Sensibility (1811) — pretty darn good for a fiction debut!

Mary Shelley wrote the 1818-released Frankenstein in her late teens, and that precocious work is still riveting and influential in its bicentennial year.

The Pickwick Papers (1837) remains one of the funniest books ever written, and jump-started an amazing run of novels for Charles Dickens over the remaining 33 years of his life.

Adam Bede — George Eliot’s 1859 debut novel about a young man, a young female preacher, and more — gets a bit overlooked in that author’s canon. It’s a tremendous book that would be the best of many an author’s efforts, but Eliot went on to top it with The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda.

Like Dickens, Colette started her novel-writing career with a hilarious book — 1900’s Claudine at School — before moving on to deeper, more serious fare.

Eight years later came L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, my favorite young-adult novel ever.

Two exceptional debut novels of the 1940s included Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. McCullers’ 1940 book, written when she wasn’t much older than Mary Shelley had been when penning Frankenstein, is a compelling chronicle of several characters. Michener’s 1947 book is an example of related short stories coalescing into a novel.

Ray Bradbury’s haunting novel debut The Martian Chronicles (1950) is also a book of loosely connected tales.

Isabel Allende’s first novel was the ambitious, multigenerational, magic-realism-studded The House of the Spirits (1982).

A decade later, the college-set The Secret History (1992) became an impressive career opener for Donna Tartt — though that author’s The Goldfinch would eventually surpass it in quality.

In the action-thriller realm, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor (1997) is almost unbearably exciting.

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) juggled all kinds of characters and multicultural situations in a way that was both deadly serious and hysterically funny.

And Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), set in both Afghanistan and the U.S., was an intense and powerful debut.

Then there are authors who had only published novel, which made that book not only their debut but also their swan song. Memorable examples include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,  Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, to name a few. (The last two came out after the authors died.) Of course there are gray areas when it comes to whether one-novel authors are really one-novel authors — for instance, Ellison’s Juneteenth was edited into publishable form and released posthumously, while Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was marketed as a distinct novel but was probably an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

What are some of the debut novels you admire most — either the ones I mentioned or the many I didn’t?

Speaking of impressive debuts, here’s a live version of the first single from the great Irish band The Cranberries, whose singer Dolores O’Riordan tragically died last month at the too-young age of 46.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — a Gettysburg Address parody — is here.

107 thoughts on “Memorable Debut Novels

  1. Oh, the Cranberries were amazing. She had such a fantastic voice. Got their Cds still. AND another fascinating post. Debuts that were the best, debuts that were swansongs. (In the never know category whether an author would have topped them. OR suffered second book syndrome. Let’s face it, if i had been Emily Bronte whether I’d ‘toped it’ in another way or not, I’d have said Je rests ma valise with Wuthering Heights.) ) Debuts that were surpassed. Gonna go with a mostly forgotten racy debut…being a ‘racy’ author.. but a book that topped the charts with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber. Even in the 70s when I discovered it I mind my mam having a fit and saying how her mother threw it out the house. Personally I couldn’t see what the fuss was all about but i lived in hope. I read it again a few years back and could see why it had perhaps not stood the test of time, the hero was flatter than a pancake. Margaret Mitchell at least had the sense to give us Rhett butler and not make Ashley Wilkes the hero. Still, in terms of the historical research …and I am not saying that tongue in cheek, she never bettered it. And her other books were a bit like her hero.

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  2. Hi Dave,
    As there aren’t any new topics at the moment, I hope it’s not too annoying for me to comment on this older thread. I’ve just stumbled on the Classic Movie channel again, and am watching the film adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”. What a terrific ‘debut’ novel from Margaret Mitchell! If all she ever had in her was a thousand pages of story, I’m so glad that she gave us this epic instead of five so-so short stories. I’m currently trying to decide whether I love Scarlett more than Rhett, or is it the other way around?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not annoying at all, Susan! “Gone With the Wind” was certainly a great debut (and final) novel from Margaret Mitchell, and the movie was obviously memorable, too. Too bad so much racism is threaded into each, but, then again, given the topic and setting, it was what it was. My favorite character is The Cowardly Lion. Oops — wrong 1939 movie… 🙂


  3. Jhumpa Lahiri’s debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999) won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and her first novel, The Namesake (2003) later was a popular movie.
    Then there is Arundhati Roy , wrote her first Novel, “The God of Small Things “, was so sad very recently she wrote another one very recently “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,” I have no plan of reading it.
    The world is full of sorrow and unhappiness and unkind people and I am satisfied my Lee Child`s thrillers.

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  4. James Patterson came to fame when he started writing Alex Cross series with his first book “Along Came a Spider”, then there was the movie with Morgan Freeman . That`s the time I started reading his Alex Cross series . Now Patterson is writing so many books that library can not hold enough of those and is writing with some other authors or the other-ones are writing with his name as authorship ?
    John Grisham`s first book was “A Time to Kill “, took three years to write and was rejected by many publishers, later then every single book became a blockbuster movie for a long time. After reading so many I stopped reading Grisham`s book until a few years ago.
    ” The Racketeer” is an excellent thriller , and the author wanted Mr. Washington to play the role. I don`t understand why ?There are so many Black actors particularly Mr. Idris Elba comes to my mind, saw his ” The Take”, thriller where Mr. Elba was a CIA agent with perfect American accent.

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    • Interesting, bebe, how some authors (such as John Grisham) with great debut novels had those books rejected lots of times. I’m convinced that many publishing executives and editors, and many literary agents, are not as smart as they’d like to think. And of course they have a bias toward known writers rather than newcomers who may be just as talented or more talented than big names.

      The number of James Patterson books in my local library is even higher than the number of lies Donald Trump tells every minute! Which is very high…

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      • You are too funny..but even Patterson will never catch up to trump lies ever….the Scoundrel as Charles Blow called him as such.
        It is so sad with Politicians taking money from NRA and spreading lies. This time the teenagers are speaking out and are so articulate .
        Everything is in the hand of voters to vote out NRA puppets like trump and Ruibio and the rest of the liars 😦

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        • Thanks, bebe! Hard for ANYONE to catch up to the number of lies Trump tells. 😦

          The NYT’s Charles Blow has been writing fantastic columns blasting Trump and the rest of the cruel, corrupt Republicans. I like that he pulls no punches; writers can’t pull punches with this evil GOP crew.

          Those teens HAVE been amazing in blasting the NRA and more. Telling it like it is — unlike so many lying, timid politicians.

          I think there’s a lot of desire to vote out the NRA puppets. Of course, Republican voter suppression, gerrymandering, propaganda, and so on have to be overcome.

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  5. Dave officially the first published book of Harper Lee is ” to Kill a Mockingbird”, Also one of my favorite book. No one knew about the existence of ” Go set a Watchman “. I have read it and definitely not my favorite one.

    I`ll write more but right now my mind is livid with the mass shooting in Florida, All the children will not be coming home to their Mother`s arms.

    This day this poem comes to my mind, they will not be there near the seashore

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      • A wonderful/poignant poem, bebe. Very appropriate for yesterday and today. 😦 Thanks for linking to it.

        Livid is the exact word to feel about what happened in Florida, and will keep happening again and again in various places in the U.S. while gutless politicians remain beholden to the evil NRA.

        As people know who read my first book, I lost a child at the age of 3 (not to gun violence) and just thinking about what parents in Florida, Connecticut, and elsewhere are going through in recent years boggles the mind. Especially when most of it could have been prevented with stricter gun laws, better mental-health care, etc.

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  6. Dave, I just went off on a mini-rant about the latest mass shooting in Florida — the 18th school shooting this year alone, yet there are still people who keep saying that it’s too soon to talk about gun control. I find this hard to grasp. Since my comment wouldn’t post, instead of trying to rewrite it, I’ll just add here the lyrics that have been going through my brain by Pete Seeger and his song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Oh, when they ever learn, oh, when will they ever learn.”

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    • I hear you, Kat Lib. Eloquently said. The time to talk about gun control is now, yesterday, last week, last month, last year, last decade… The people who don’t want to talk about it now would rather see children massacred then buck the disgusting NRA. Every time a spineless NRA-bought politician says “thoughts and prayers” without suggesting measures to reduce gun carnage (like Australia successfully did in the 1990s), I feel like screaming.


      • Dave, I know you have an adorable daughter, Maria, and wondered how you talk to her about something like this. I’m assuming that her school goes through drills like this school in Florida does. I just remember the times when I was in grade school that we went through drills for nuclear attacks, which seems ridiculous now, when the threat of gun violence seems so much more likely, and when we huddled together out in the hallway or spent time under our desks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, Kat Lib.

          We haven’t talked to Maria about this Florida tragedy yet, but we’ve definitely mentioned previous school gun rampages. Not much one can say except lying a little and saying these incidents are rare. And advising her to listen to teacher and principal instructions.

          Yes, definitely drills at Maria’s school — at least one a month. Also, a person can’t just walk into her school; doors are locked and parents have to announce themselves on an outside intercom that I assume is also monitored with a camera.

          I remember those dumb nuclear drills, as if huddling under desks would save anyone if a nuclear bomb hit. And, as you noted, a nuclear attack was an infinitely remote possibility compared to the threat of a homegrown white male American terrorist shooting up a school. 😦


          • I’m glad to know that there are protocols in effect in your daughter’s school, but why should there be any at all? I’m glad to know there are also drills for other things as well. I know you’ve been trying to read “We Need to Talk About Kevin” for a while now, and I know I won’t reveal any spoilers by continuing to encourage you to read this book.

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            • I know what you mean, Kat Lib — in a different country, this level of security wouldn’t be necessary. 😦

              I definitely want to read “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” After reading three of her books, Lionel Shriver hasn’t disappointed me yet!


  7. I have to add my favorite current novelist, Liane Moriarty, whose debut novel was “Three Wishes.” That wasn’t the first of her novels that I read, but a later novel, “What Alice Forgot,” which started me on my quest to read everything that she wrote. I found “Three Wishes” on the bargain book table at B&N, and just loved it. Of course she became immensely popular with “The Husband’s Secret,” and now with “Big Little Lies” becoming a TV miniseries and winning so many awards.

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    • I haven’t gotten to “Three Wishes” yet, Kat Lib, but absolutely loved the three Liane Moriarty books I HAVE read: “Big Little Lies,” “The Husband’s Secret,” and “The Hypnotist’s Love Story.” She might be my favorite current novelist, too.


    • I’m going to cheat a little here and add Alexander McCall Smith, whose “debut” novel was published in 1998, “The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.” Prior to that he had published quite a few children’s books, anthologies, and textbooks (none that I’m aware was published here), but this novel was the one that catapulted him to fame in the US and Great Britain.

      Another favorite debut novel was “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, followed up by “An Abundance of Katherines,” “Paper Towns,” and of course, “The Fault in Our Stars.” I also want to read his latest, which was being promoted by Bill Gates the other day as one of the six books to read, “Turtles All The Way Down.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Kat Lib, thanks to the many recommendations I’ve seen here, including your own, I made it a point to introduce myself to Liane Moriarty, also starting with “What Alice Forgot”. I cannot say enough about how wonderfully absorbing and funny that book is to read. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to read “Big Little Lies” before seeing the mini-series. Although, when I think about it, there is only one chance to read the book first, and there will be lots of chances after I read the book to see the series. As you can probably tell, I’m leaning toward the book first.

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      • Pat, I’m so happy that you read “What Alice Forgot,” and that you enjoyed it. I’d recommend that you read “Big Little Lies” first, mostly because the printed word is to me much more satisfying than the TV/movie versions, but that’s just my personal preference. I’m still trying to decide whether to watch the filmed version.

        As I think most people here know, Jane Austen is my all-time favorite author and I’ve seen all of the films based on her books multiple times. Some have been very successful, and they are usually the ones that are truer to the printed version. There have also been those that I’m yelling at my TV — there are filmed versions of Pride & Prejudice and Emma (done by Hollywood) that have an archery scene, and I can’t understand why they are there. Does an archery scene make them more like adventure movies — there’s no reason at all for them to be there. Oops, I guess I’m on my hobbyhorse today!

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  8. Hi Dave,

    I completely agree with you listing Harper Lee as a one novel author 🙂

    The first novel I thought of was Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries”. Only 28 when it was published, Catton is currently the youngest person to win the Man Booker prize. Of course I had to google her to find that out, and of course, it turns out “The Luminaries” wasn’t her only novel as I’d thought. Not even her debut novel. So it doesn’t really fit here, but I still think to be winning the Man Booker at 28 with such an ambitious work, that I personally loved, is worth a mention.

    Stephen King’s first novel published was “Carrie” which I think rates amongst his best. Published when King was in his 20s, it’s just as good, if not better, than the stuff he’s published in his 60s (OMG, if he’s that old, then I mustn’t be a teen-ager anymore. Where does the time go?!) “Carrie” is only a short novel, and you can see that King gets more and more ambitious later in his career, but it’s clear from the beginning that he was going to be a writer.

    I’ve just started reading George Orwell’s first novel “Burmese Days” 🙂

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    • Thank you, Sue!

      I know we’ve discussed “The Luminaries” before, ever since you recommended it to me, but it really is an amazing/intricate/ambitious novel for so young an author.

      “Carrie” was indeed a riveting debut. King had quite an early run with that book, “‘Salem’s Lot,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Shining,” “The Stand,” etc.

      I’d be very interested in hearing what you think of “Burmese Days.” Like many people, the only Orwell novels I’ve read are “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Animal Farm.”

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  9. You know who I just started reading for the first time a few weeks ago? Wilbur Smith. I started with his debut novel “When the Lion Feeds.” I was drawn in from the get-go, it was hard to believe I was reading a first book! I’m going to start tackling the rest of the series, which I’m sure will be equally good.

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  10. “White Teeth” was lengthy but prose was brilliant, infer much with British reverence., extremely deserving of all accolades to Zadie Smith on her first novel.

    On another sad note on Delores O’Riordan’s passing: I have been a fan of this group since my 20’s, having three cassette tapes (dating myself!) and also seeing them in concert at Jones Beach many years ago.

    Was quite surprised on her passing. Took a few months to learn about Tom Petty, the toxicology results showing excess of medications, infer this may apply to O’Riordan, may she rest in peace. Music lives on.

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    • Thank you, Anonymous!

      “White Teeth” IS a brilliant novel. I agree — a bit long, but never boring. Zadie Smith’s later novel “On Beauty” was excellent, too, but I thought not quite as good as her first.

      Wonderful that you got to see The Cranberries in concert! I regret never having done that. (I still have a bunch of cassette tapes from various bands and no way to play them; of course, virtually all the songs can be found on YouTube.)

      I’ve heard that the toxicology results on Dolores O’Riordan might be available in April. I’ve read that she had severe back pain after years of very energetic concerts and toting a heavy electric guitar while singing; maybe painkillers contributed to her death, but who knows?


        • Glad you liked that great song, Kat Lib! More frenetic than the studio version. 🙂

          I was a fan of The Cranberries in their first years (until the mid-1990s), and then they unfortunately fell off my radar until I read about Dolores O’Riordan’s death last month — after which I’ve listened to them a lot on YouTube. Many excellent songs in addition to “Dreams” (“Linger,” “Zombie,” “Ode to My Family,” “When You’re Gone,” “Just My Imagination,” “Analyze,” etc.).


          • I finally have a car (my little Beetle, which I think we’ve named “Black Beauty” or rather BB, sorry, bebe, but it seems to suit my car very well)) that has Sirius FM, which right now I’ve got set on mostly Bruce Springsteen, then The Beatles and even Elvis, though I still have much to explore. Well, I just noticed that my top favorite stations also begin with B — Bruce and the Beatles. So lots of B’s involved, including Bill, though I have to say his idea of good music is Lawrence Welk (which will generally chase me from the room!).

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              • Me, on the other hand, I like Lawrence Welk– not even most of what he offers, but certainly some. In the early days of the teevee program, Pete Fountain played clarinet in the band, and he was good. Also, there are a couple of members that play the guitar very well. In fact, all of the musicians are pretty able, though Lawrence often hitched their talents to kitschy vehicles. In the early ’60’s, the arrangements became quirkily catchy, and I admit a certain fondness for them, as they are so brightly strange, yet poppy.

                My favorite singer in the group was Joe Feeney, a tiny man with ten children, who could sing songs like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” so as would bring a tear to even a statue’s eye. His rendition of Dionne Warwick’s hit “I Know I’ll never Love This Way Again” is breathtaking in the sweep of its shameless sentimentality. Thanks to irony, my teevee often entertains me when otherwise I might not be so lucky….

                But seriously, at least a little. Strict Welk looked upon himself as a sort of father to his musicians, and for decades, many stayed with the group– there were only occasional public appearances, one show a week for which to prepare, and a camaraderie among the cast that felt like family, to hear them tell it. Heck, you could, and were encouraged, to raise a family of your own! While playing music! Well, muzak sorta, anyway.

                Like Duke Ellington, Welk discovered the secret to a steady working group: he paid them regular, though not spectacular, salaries. For decades.

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                • A very interesting, positive take on Lawrence Welk, jhNY! I think one or both of my parents watched him (I’m not remembering exactly), so I saw his show here and there. It all seemed kind of bland to my young rock-and-roll-oriented brain, but I can see from what you say that there was some substance and decency there.


                • jhNY, I forgot about Pete Fountain, who was a favorite of my eldest brother, and the youngest one did take clarinet lessons for a short time. I also admit to having a soft spot in my heart for the Lennon sisters, and of course my favorite one was Kathy, which is my given name.

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              • Well, I realize I wasn’t being quite fair to Bill with this comment. There is a remarkable radio station here in Philly that is owned by Temple University and streams Classical music all day, and Jazz all night. I must say that neither of us are too fond of Jazz, but we love the Classical music. It’s probably one of the last stations that does so, and I try to support it when I can. For years, the only radio station I could listen to was this. For some unknown reason, my 6 CD Bose system wouldn’t play once the temperature dropped below 50+ degrees. So this was my winter music. Once the temperature rose above 50 I could then play my CDs. Now that I have my new Beetle, I can listen to both SiriusXM and CDs, but I won’t forget about my beloved Classical station. An embarrassment of riches!

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                • Sounds like a wonderful station, Kat Lib, though I must admit I’m not much of a classical or jazz listener. My wife loves classical music, and actually saw Itzhak Perlman in concert this past Sunday in Newark, NJ!

                  Weird about your temperature-sensitive Bose system…


              • I could add three of my favorite classical musicians — Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, not necessarily in that order depending on my mood. There’s also Samuel Barber, who lived in West Chester, where I grew up in PA, and wrote the school anthem/song for our high school.
                I learned again yesterday about the perils of distracted driving. I was fiddling with my radio’s controls, when I hit a curb, knocked off the rim and blew out one of my tires, which I didn’t even know until the car behind me pulled alongside to tell me I had a flat, and then was nice enough to go get my rim and give it to me at a nearby local shopping center. I didn’t know until this morning that yesterday was “Random Acts of Kindness Day” and this complete stranger was very kind to me. Something to think about…

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            • Ha HP folks would call be BB, so I decided to be bebe in Dave`s, then yesterday I posted this in Jack`s blog and he teased me that it rhymes with no worries. 🙂
              Actually Kat Lib I love those cars, so enjoy

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              • Yes, bebe, “B” is a prominent letter in many ways these days! 🙂 As for the Bibi pictured, I think that Israeli leader is a corrupt right-winger who I’d love see ousted from office! He’s Trump-like in several ways, albeit smarter.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Good, so from now on my little car will forever be known as BB, especially since I’ve had it reinforced that a small car can’t take as many hits to the tires that my SUV could. Fortunately, my deductible for my car is $100, which is what it would probably cost to replace it. So, according to my insurance company it’s a wash and I don’t need to even report it as a claim! Yay!

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  11. Howdy, Dave!

    — What are some of the debut novels you admire most . . . ? —

    Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” leads by a country mile the list in this category, which also includes Mark Twain’s and Charles Dudley Warner’s “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” and Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction.” My great respect for these books may be best reflected by the fact I have read many other novels by the same authors, excepting Warner, whose work outside his collaboration with Twain is completely unknown to me.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, J.J.!

      The fabulous “Catch-22” is about as good as it gets for a debut novel. Perhaps it helped that it had a long gestation rather than being written in just a few months.

      I’ve read “The Gilded Age” and thought it was very good rather than great. Mark Twain’s portion had wonderful moments of satire, of course, and Charles Dudley Warner’s more conventional portion was also pretty absorbing in its way. Yes, Warner is not exactly a household name except for his collaboration with Twain.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Dave, I’ll have to go with “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie, which was published in 1920. She had six rejections, which is hard to believe now, after how successful she became. It makes one wonder if she might have given up at that point, and thank goodness she didn’t. I even had to look it up, because while I thought this was her debut novel, I wasn’t completely sure. She wrote 66 mystery novels, 14 short story collections, and one play “The Mousetrap” which as of 2017, has been performed over 25,000 times. “Her novels have sold roughly 2 billion copies, and her estate claims that her works come third in the rankings of the world’s most-widely published books, behind only Shakespeare’s works and the Bible.” Which is truly astounding when you consider that the number of people who have read either all of Shakespeare’s plays or the entire Bible must be a very small number, though I don’t have facts to back that up! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib, for the very interesting comment!

      It’s amazing how many great/mega-selling writers — Agatha Christie (as you note) J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Dr. Seuss, etc., etc. — had their first books rejected a number of times. Speaks to their perseverance, and the oft-cluelessness of publishing companies.

      Those Agatha Christie numbers you gave are eye-popping! So prolific, and so many sales.


  13. For first and last novels combined, I’d have to mention Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, and Karolina Pavlova’s (not to be confused with the dancer Anna Pavlova) A Double Life, although then that gets into the question of were any of those actually novels, and was Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter a novel and if so, should it actually count as his first novel since it was written in prose instead of verse. Tragically, Pushkin and Lermontov both died in duels at a young age and were unable to continue developing their talent, while Pavlova was so harassed as a female author that she produced much less than she might have otherwise.

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    • Thank you for those excellent examples, Elena! You are an expert on Russian writers, female and male!

      I recently read and enjoyed “The Captain’s Daughter,” and it did seem like a novel to me, albeit a fairly short one. Novella… 🙂

      I think of long works in verse as long poems rather than novels, but I’m no expert on poetry…

      And it’s interesting — and rarely a happy story — why some writers produce only one novel.

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      • Yeah it’s an interesting question–how do we classify both Eugene Onegin and The Captain’s Daughter? What is a novel?

        To add to the complexity, one could bring up Tolstoy, who published a number of stories and short sort of novella things before coming out with War and Peace, which he himself considered not to be a novel but something new and different. So what is his first novel? The Cossacks? War and Peace? Anna Karenina?

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        • Great questions, Elena!

          Then there are works — such as A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” and Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” — that are part-novel/part-poetry…

          I didn’t know that Tolstoy considered “War and Peace” to be not a novel but rather a different form of literature! Seems a bit of an egotistical notion to me. 🙂 Of course, “W&P” is one of the greatest works of all time, but clearly a novel!

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          • I don’t recall if it was Tolstoy himself or a 20th century literary critic that likened ‘War and Peace’ to ‘The Illiad’, more of an epic than a novel. My feeling is that if Tolstoy wanted to writer a Homeric epic he would have written ‘W&P’ in verse rather than prose. Perhaps at the time he wrote it, historical novels as a genre i.e. based on actual events were not as prevalent as they later became. However, it is written in prose with characters, dialogue, internal monologues, etc. so in my view, if it looks like a novel and smells like a novel, it must be a novel.

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            • bobess48, I also think of an epic as a work in verse rather than prose.

              And historical fiction certainly predated Tolstoy (with Sir Walter Scott’s many novels in the 1810s and 1820s being one example of that), but you’re right that it wasn’t as prevalent a genre as it would later become.

              “…it is written in prose with characters, dialogue, internal monologues, etc. so in my view, if it looks like a novel and smells like a novel, it must be a novel” — exactly!


              • W&P was so loose and baggy that people didn’t really know what to make of it when it came out and its status as a “novel” was under debate, although now we automatically classify it as a novel. On the other hand, Pushkin specifically called “Eugene Onegin” a “novel in verse” and considered it a novel, while Gogol classified “Dead Souls” as an “epic poem in prose.” Throughout the 19th century Russian authors were playing with the concept of “novel” rather cheekily, so there’s what they were doing and how we classify things now, which are not necessarily the same thing. Likewise, Russian authors were and are playing with the concept of “fiction” vs. “non-fiction” and it’s hard to say what it is many authors were and are producing; e.g., Nobel-Prize-winner Alexievich’s work could potentially be classified either way.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Interesting, Elena! I guess what authors call their work and what readers call that work can be different. Labeling “Dead Souls” an “epic poem in prose” is all well and good — and Gogol, as the writer, was entitled to call it anything he wanted — but it sure read like a novel to me. 🙂 An excellent, very original novel.


  14. The first one that popped into my head when I read your interesting list, Dave, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. An unknown writer, who labored for 6 years over the manuscript, took off like magic. Instant sensations are often far from instant I’ve heard, but it is fun to imagine, isn’t it? But the same goes for Stephen King’s Carrie. His wife pulled his first draft out of the trash, and it became a huge success catapulting his prolific career.

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    • Those are two GREAT examples of memorable first novels, Shallow Reflections! Excellent books that sold tons and were made into popular movies.

      I guess Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is among the other novels that fit into that category, too.

      And, yes, often a LOT of work goes into “instant sensations.”


    • Second attempt: Actually, Dave, Ray Bradbury’s first book was ‘Dark Carnival’, reissued a few years later in a slightly altered form as ‘The October County’. It is, nonetheless, an outstanding debut collection. ‘The Martian Chronicles’ was his breakthrough book and the first classic that he produced. He had been writing and publishing short stories since he was a teenager and didn’t write a novel length narrative until ‘Fahrenheit 451’ a few years later.

      Your favorite, ‘Jane Eyre’, of course, was also a debut novel. Although Charlotte was more prolific than her sister Emily, she ultimately only published a handful of books though none on the level of ‘Jane Eyre’.

      The two most impressive debut novels I’ve come across, that both reside on any list of great novels I would ever compile are Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer’ and Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Housekeeping’. Based on what I’ve read of Percy after ‘The Moviegoer’ (his second and third novels, ‘The Last Gentleman’ and ‘Love in the Ruins’) he never topped ‘Moviegoer’. And although I haven’t yet read any of Robinson’s subsequent novels, from what you’ve told me they don’t reach the level of ‘Housekeeping’.

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      • Thank you, bobess48! Glad your second attempt posted!

        Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping” are tremendous debut novels. Very happy that you mentioned them! I haven’t read other Percy books, but as you alluded to, I thought Robinson’s “Gilead” was an overrated snoozefest.

        Re Ray Bradbury, Wikipedia may have failed me. 🙂 It has “The Martian Chronicles” listed as Bradbury’s first novel and “Dark Carnival” listed as a collection. (I’ve read the former, not the latter.) Of course, “The Martian Chronicles was sort of a collection, too.


    • bobess, I was having the same problem as you with posting comments on this blog, but I finally figured out that I was OK as long as I was logged in to the Word account, and I stopped copying all my comments. Of course, I then had one I tried to post yesterday and it wouldn’t post it for any reason that I could figure out, so I’m having to go back to copying all my comments. Go figure!

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