After discussing great debut novels in last week’s post, I naturally thought about so-so debut novels by authors who eventually became great writers. In some cases, they made the leap to excellence with their second novel. In other cases, it was more of a slow build.
One author who immediately sprang to mind was Jack London. In 1902, he came out with what’s considered his first novel: A Daughter of the Snows. I love the fact that it stars a strong woman, but the book’s clunky dialogue doesn’t sound like how people really talk, and London’s narration is also not very good. Then The Call of the Wild was published a year later, and it was brilliant. I don’t know what happened during those 12 months, but someone please bottle it!
Around the same time, Edith Wharton wrote the novellas The Touchstone (1900) and Sanctuary (1903). Mildly interesting books. Then came the quantum leap to The House of Mirth (1905), a justly iconic novel with an enormous emotional wallop.
Let’s move on a few years and look at Willa Cather. Her debut novel Alexander’s Bridge (1912) is good but not that distinctive. A year later, Cather found her “prairie” voice with O Pioneers! — uneven, but with many great moments. Then she knocked things out of the park with The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918).
F. Scott Fitzgerald? His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), has terrific writing in some places, mediocre writing in others. Five years later…The Great Gatsby, about as close to prose perfection as an author can get.
Terry McMillan made her novel debut with the good Mama in 1987, and, five years later, wrote the superb Waiting to Exhale.
And Barbara Kingsolver started with 1988’s excellent The Bean Trees. A decade later, she took a humungous leap with her amazing fourth novel, The Poisonwood Bible.
But enough about American authors.
When Sir Walter Scott turned from poetry to novel writing, the first result was 1814’s Waverley — and one could tell he was still trying to master the new format. But it was not long before he wrote several top-notch novels, including Old Mortality (1816), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1820).
Anne Bronte’s debut novel Agnes Grey (1847) is absorbing, but several steps below her superb second novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
I haven’t read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s not-that-well-known novels from the 1840s and 1850s, but they surely didn’t approach his 1866 masterwork Crime and Punishment. Same for the Leo Tolstoy novels that preceded 1869’s epic War and Peace!
Emile Zola wrote quite a few novels before everything came together with The Drinking Den (1877), after which he penned several other excellent fiction books — most notably Germinal. Prior to The Drinking Den, Zola’s best novel was perhaps 1867’s Therese Raquin, but that potboiler was not great literature.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) was Erich Maria Remarque’s riveting third novel — kick-starting a run of a half-dozen other powerful fiction books through 1962’s The Night in Lisbon.
Some of your favorite authors who wrote non-stellar first novels?
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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s schools superintendent search and a nasty comment aimed at a fellow Board of Education member — is here.