For Novel Readers, It’s Love at Later Sight

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.

51 thoughts on “For Novel Readers, It’s Love at Later Sight

  1. I’m a little late to the party again, Dave. I know I’ve mentioned Rosamunde Pilcher in past posts. She started her long writing career in 1949 as a romance novelist using a pseudonym, but in 1988 she wrote the truly memorable novel “The Shell Seekers”. I had never heard of the woman until then. Since then, I read one more but I don’t remember the title. It was that forgettable, I guess. She is in her 90’s but retired in the year 2000.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never too late to comment, lulabelleharris. 🙂

      “The Shell Seekers” is prominent on my to-read list. Impressive that it came out nearly four decades after Rosamund Pilcher started writing novels!

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  2. A great many writers have but one really good novel in them; but only a lucky few know it before having written several, and even then, only because readers let them know.

    Most of the writers who can qualify for discussion here are in a special category: they’ve got several good ones in them, to start, and got better at making novels as they wrote along.

    In an industry dominated by best-sellers and those who would publish them, the pressure to repeat success is enormous, and we’re all the luckier that there are some writers who can rise to the occasion, and even luckier, as readers, when they go beyond. But most, in an effort to repeat the degree of their earlier success, merely repeat, and often are very much encouraged to do so by agents, publishers and their public.

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  3. As we are free to range over an author’s entire output at leisure, once he’s been dead a while, it’s most important to most of us today to make literary quality foremost as we consider his works. But maybe we’re missing something when we do so to the neglect of contemporary reception.

    Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is considered his best (by me too!), but barely made a blip on the sales charts, whereas his first novel, “This Side of Paradise” sold more than anything else he did ever in print, establishing him as the voice of his generation, the post-War flapper bunch, and providing him the chance, via a great many articles and short stories, of making good money from magazines, which he did. Fitzgerald was a professional writer, whose income derived from his work, most of which during most of his life, as I recall, came from such publications. He managed, very early, to strike a pleasing chord with the reading public, which reverberated for years in magazines, but less so in long fiction, though “Tender Is the Night ” sold a bit better than “Gatsby”, but was, like “Gatsby”, no kind of best-seller at all. He made, toward the end of his life, about $100,000 in a year working in Hollywood– the most he ever made anytime. But by then, he was, in his own mind too, a bit passe and out of touch with the generations that succeeded him, until his critical resurrection later– probably beginning with the Malcolm Cowley-introduced republication of “Gatsby” by New Directions.

    Guess I’m trying to make a point about his kind of success, which was outsized and which he never bested. His first novel really resonated with the public in a way that nothing he would write ever did– while he lived. He was very zeitgeisty for a while (but for less of a time than his short life), and some of what made him so we can hardly get at from so far away in time. Gatsby is his best, but some of what made Paradise so attractive to his contemporaries we can only conjecture about today.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Great, thought-provoking comment!

      I can see how “This Side of Paradise,” which I found to be a hugely uneven novel, captured the young-adult zeitgeist just after World War I. And I see your zeitgeist-capturing vs. literary quality point.

      I didn’t realize that “This Side of Paradise” was Fitzgerald’s best-selling book — although “The Great Gatsby” eventually/probably far surpassed it in sales with the help of posthumous purchases. Reminds me a bit of how Herman Melville’s debut novel “Typee” was his best-selling book in his lifetime, even though a number of his later novels were better. And I assume “Moby-Dick” and “Billy Budd” sold enough starting in the 20th century (long after Melville was gone) to top “Typee” in total sales.

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  4. Hmmm… I might be out for this one, as I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head. However, I can say that “All Quiet on the Western Front” is, I think, one of the finest war novels I’ve ever read. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Dave,

    You mentioned Anne Rice earlier, who I feel could have been included in last week’s blog. I’ve read a few of her earlier novels, but nothing quite compares to the first time you meet Louis in “Interview with the Vampire”.

    You may remember from last week that I had just started reading Orwell’s “Burmese Days”. Well, I’ve still only just started it as it’s so rambly and kind of pointless, and hard to pick up. Which of course is the exact opposite of his brilliant “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

    A few years back I stumbled on a quirky YA / fantasy book that I can’t even remember the title of. I discovered that it was one of the later volumes of Terry Brooks’ “Shannara” chronicles. I enjoyed it so much that I recently went back to the first book in the series. Bleh! His first novel should have been called “What would Lord of the Rings look like if it had been re-written really badly?” I do still have fond memories of enjoying that nameless book, but I wonder how many bad ones there were before Brooks figured out what he was doing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Susan! I’ve read just one Anne Rice novel — “The Witching Hour” — and found it absorbing despite its nearly 1,000-page length.

      Sorry “Burmese Days” (which I haven’t read) isn’t better. Orwell was always an excellent nonfiction writer; I guess it took a while for the novel ability to completely kick in. I agree about “Nineteen Eighty-Four” — totally riveting.

      “What would Lord of the Rings look like if it had been re-written really badly?” — ha! Great line. 🙂

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    • Hey Sue! Giant Terry Brooks fan here, ready to weigh in! The Sword of Shannara is indeed like a bad rewrite of The Lord of the Rings, although (I speak from experience) much more accessible to the adolescent imagination. I believe both Brooks and his publisher were flummoxed by its success, and it took him something like 5 years to put out the sequel, The Elfstones of Shannara, which is an enormous step forward in terms of writing. It’s there that you see Brooks really develop his flair for fantasy action sequences, and also there that he wrote the first of his compelling and important female characters. The MTV show The Shannara Chronicles is based on Elfstones but, despite a strong start, in no way lives up to the book

      While The Sword kind of sets up the whole series, I would recommend to those with a weak stomach for ponderous fantasy cliches to leap directly over it to Elfstones or The Wishsong of Shannara, the third book.

      Even better, in my opinion, is the four-book series beginning with The Scions of Shannara, which is one of my all-time favorite fantasy series.

      This all reminds me that I have a new-ish Brooks book waiting on my Kindle that I need to go read 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • OMG, thank you so much for that! I didn’t think anybody here would have a clue what I was talking about. I really appreciate you weighing in 🙂 It’s funny that you mention Brooks’ female characters, because the book that I randomly picked up had a little girl protagonist. Well, maybe not little girl, maybe adolescent, but definitely female, and she was such fun.

        I’m not actually a fan of “LOTR” and I would probably agree that “SoS” is more accessible. I guess my problem with it is if the book already exists, why re-write it? Especially since it still wasn’t very good. I think the book that I randomly picked up came much later than “SoS” and I was daunted by the fact that there might be dozens of clunkers in the list before I got to the good stuff, but you’ve got me very, very tempted to put Shannara back on my TBR. I really wish I’d had your recommendation to skip the first one a few weeks ago…

        I love new books! I hope you enjoy your new one 🙂

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        • I actually started with The Heritage of Shannara series, which comes after the first trilogy, and I loved it. I only read SoS after I’d read several other things and was kind of dismayed, but like I said, all the books starting after that were in my opinion much better. I’m currently about halfway through Armageddon’s Children, which is one of the prequel stories. It’s a post apocalyptic story set in a not too distant future in the US, and while post apocalyptic fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, it’s well done and if you like Brooks, you’ll probably enjoy it.

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          • I should add that in SoS one can already see Brooks’s ability to create sympathetic characters, exciting action sequences, epic plots, and fantastic landscapes. The main issue, in my opinion, is not so much how derivative it is of LOTR as far as having elves, trolls, etc, because Brooks actually reworks them in interesting ways, but that he tried to imitate Tolkien’s very high, ornate style. But Tolkien was a British medievalist and an Oxford don, while Brooks is an American lawyer by training. When Brooks moved to a simpler, more American prose style, it became much more readable. I admit that I do cringe at times when I read about half elven epic heroes carrying mythic swords who use words like Sure and Okay, but it works much better than the pseudo epic style of the first and The Four Lands is, after all, supposed to be a post apocalyptic Pacific Northwest.

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            • I must admit that I don’t really know anything about Terry Brooks. Have you heard of / read the “Legends” anthologies edited by Robert Silverberg? It’s a collection of sci fi / fantasy novellas. I enjoyed most of the stories and a few series made to it my TBR list. These include Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, Raymond Feist’s “Rift Saga” and Terry Brooks’ “Shannara”. And I must admit, they all have that little orphan boy from the small village, setting off on a world saving quest, meeting some dwarfs and elves along the way. After Feist’s “Magician”, I thought I was done with the genre. But I decided to give it one last go with Brooks. It was the same tale as so many fantasy stories, but I think what really got me was the almost obsession with the Sword. I think it was in the hands of a gnome when we first glimpse it? And I swear I could almost hear him calling it My Precious. But I’ve taken your opinion on board, will read at least the next two books. Thanks again 🙂

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              • Yeah, I have the Legends volume with GRRM and Terry Pratchett in it, whom I also highly recommend if you’re into fantasy! I found Robert Jordan to be sort of good–he’s a good world builder–but sort of perverse, and not in a what for me was good way–a lot of stripping and spanking of a not very consensual sort, although a lot of people are into reading about that sort of thing, so, you know, no judgment.

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                • Funny, because GRRM was the one series I said I wouldn’t read, but then got swept up in the TV show, and have re-read those novellas about four times! The Pratchett stories didn’t do anything for me, but I’ve got “Good Omens” on my list because I love Neil Gaiman, so I may revisit Pratchett after that. I’m up to book 4 of “Wheel of Time” which I’m not loving, but I’m determined to finish because I’m really stubborn. I don’t think I’ve come across any spanking yet, but as long as it fits the story, then I’m ok with it. If “Fifty Shades” is anything to go by, I guess a LOT of people are into that kind of thing.

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  6. I don’t have anyone to add to your list, Dave, but I am pleased to note I skipped ahead to read the best works of most of the authors you mention. I’ve yet to read War and Peace or Crime and Punishment but they are on my list. And I have not read anything by Anne Bronte. My education is incomplete!

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  7. Great topic! Re: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s early works: They hold considerable interest and are extremely worth reading, especially Tolstoy’s Cossacks, but are overshadowed by the magnificent epic novels the authors produced later in their careers.

    Another Russian author of a slightly earlier era who got off to a shaky start was Gogol, who started by putting out some kind of an epic poem, I believe, that he was then later so embarrassed by that he went and bought all the remaining copies and destroyed them, or so the story goes. He then switched from verse to prose, and the rest is history.

    I also think that Terry Pratchett is another author whose first works were promising but who didn’t really come into his own until half a dozen books. He put out a couple of things like “Strata” before launching the Discworld novels, and in my opinion even the first couple of Discworld novels are weaker than the later ones. He didn’t really star tot hit his stride until about three or four books in, it seems to me.

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    • Ooo and another author I should mention: Madeline L’Engle wrote several realist novels featuring adult protagonists before producing “A Wrinkle in Time,” which I believe was her fourth novel. Having read a couple of the earlier works I can see the talent and the promise, but her “YA fantasy,” if one can call it that, is definitely a step up and where she found her true metier.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena!

      I’m not surprised Dostoyevsky’s and Tolstoy’s early works hold a lot of interest, even though they were overshadowed by later masterpieces. Heck, those early works were probably better than the best novels of many other great authors…

      As for Gogol, all I’ve read of his was the quirky, memorable novel “Dead Souls.” I’m not a fan of epic poems in general, whether they’re terrific or not, but that’s just me. 🙂

      I’ve gotten to only one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Will have to remedy that at some point…

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        • Surprisingly enough, I received one of my gift cards from Barnes & Noble the other day and was rather stumped by what to order from it. I’ve got probably 4 or 5 books already on my bed, but can’t seem to get through any of them. I came across a Himalayan Salt Lamp, which intrigued me, but then after buying that I had another $5 left on my card, so I purchased “A Wrinkle in Time,” a book I’ve wanted to read for many years. Good to know that it has such great reviews from you and Elena.

          I’ve been a bit quieter this week than I usually am, but it’s been filled with so many medical appointments, it’s hard to keep them all in my head. Plus, I’m getting my home ready to be placed on the market, though I’ve given up the idea of Texas. Sometimes I think I’m crazy to go through all this again, but I need to do so, especially from the safety aspect.

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          • Kat Lib, so sorry you have to go through the very difficult process of selling and moving again. 😦 I hope you find a great place in a great location.

            And a much-smaller-in-importance hope that you enjoy “A Wrinkle in Time.”

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            • Thanks to you as always, Dave. I’ll be spending the weekend going through my book/DVD/CD collections to see what I can donate to the Senior Center, the Goodwill, or add to the yard sale Bill’s daughter-in-law is going to be having soon. I went through my CD collection yesterday and was amazed by the number of them I’d collected through the years. And as so many of them become obsolete, it seems even more crazy to keep them all — though I did keep a medium-sized box full of my favorites!

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  8. I mentioned this mystery writer fairly recently, Josephine Tey, whose first two novels “The Man in the Queue” (1929) and “A Shilling for Candles” (1936) were good, but she really came into her own as a writer with a series of books written in the 1940’s: “Miss Pym Disposes,” “The Franchise Affair,” and “Brat Farrar.” However, her best book was “The Daughter of Time,” (1951) about the killing of the two princes in the Tower supposedly by Richard III. This one featured her Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant, being laid up in the hospital and as a way to pass the time, researches and “solves” the murders. It was fascinating, especially to me by being a history major, although not really well versed in British history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      “The Daughter of Time” is prominently on my to-read list. 🙂 Interesting that Josephine Tey wrote her best novel 22 years into her publishing career, but I guess that’s not super-unusual. Almost exactly a century earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the little-known “Fanshawe” in 1828 and his masterpiece “The Scarlet Letter” in 1850.

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      • Dave, I hope you like it as much as I did, although that’s not really necessary. I guess I’ve never gotten over the nervous feeling I have when I recommend certain books to people. Though why that’s important, I can’t tell you. We all have different tastes, which is a good thing, just as we don’t always like the same books, music, plays or artwork, which is how it should be — who wants to live in a world in which we all like the exact same thing. Which would be boring to say the least. My former friend that we saw many Broadway shows together went to see “Rent” and didn’t like it all, though the reviews were so great and everyone we knew loved it, but it wasn’t for us. Which is why I loved “War and Peace” and many others couldn’t get through even a few chapters!

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        • Like you, Kat Lib, I also get nervous when enthusiastically recommending novels — wondering whether the “recommendees” will like the books as much as I did.

          And, yes, it’s a good thing we all have different favorites! But of course the better novels usually have a higher percentage of “likes” (to use the Facebook term) than lesser novels.

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        • Kat Lib, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I think my silly fear is that I’ll be judged by what I recommend. That someone will read it and think really? She likes this crap?! But of course that would never happen here.

          I just realised that another silly fear I have is of saying something more than a little stupid. Like I’ve heard of Jane Eyre, but I can’t remember what she wrote (a question I’ve genuinely seen as part of an online book club). But again, I’m sure I’d be forgiven for any accidental errors, or even huge knowledge gaps.

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        • Perhaps you know this already, but your opinion of “Rent” was not an outlier– at least in the sense that you’re in good, if not rarefied company: David Bowie, at the height of the play’s rise to fame, attended, and didn’t make it past the first act. Instead, he commented loudly “This is rubbish!” or something similar, and left the theater.

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          • jhNY, Thanks for that comment by Bowie about “Rent.” I hadn’t heard it before, but my friend and I said the same thing at the intermission, but one pays so much for a ticket to a Broadway show we decided to stick it out and see if it got any better, but it didn’t.

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