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Why I Love Debut Authors


In fact if I had to choose between only reading debut novels for the rest of my life, or eliminating them completely, I would choose the former.

I know that most of you think I’m mad. In the last few weeks I have seen several tweets/comments knocking debut authors and even a post revealing a cautious attitude to them. I thought it was time for me to explain my passion for them and try to get you to embrace debuts as much as I do.

Take a look at the following list:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe 
  • Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Sense & Sensibilty by Jane Austen
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  • Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Apart from being classics loved by millions of people across the globe, they are also all debut novels. You may not enjoy all of the books on the list (I certainly don’t!), but you can’t dispute the quality.

The thing about debut novels is that they tend to reflect whatever the author is particularly passionate about – authors put their whole being into that book, unsure as to whether or not they will ever write another.  

It is also increasingly hard for authors to get their work published. That means any debut snapped up by an agent must really stand out from the crowd. I find that established authors can get away with printing fairly average books, but unknown authors have to produce something really special to even have a chance of seeing it on the shelves.

Many people noticed that my list of the best debut books of 2011 was much more appealing than the list of books written by established authors and I think this proves my argument – debuts are far more interesting and emotionally powerful than second or third novels.

Which is your favourite debut novel?

Do you think you can spot the difference between a debut novel and one from an established author?

In case you were wondering – all the books pictured in this post are debuts too.

66 replies on “Why I Love Debut Authors”

You’re right – and what about those authors who only ever write one brilliant book?! (e.g. Sylvia Plath).

I think I’d add The secret history by Donna Tartt to that list of “first books”; perhaps also Susan Fletcher’s first book.

Verity, I think there are a lot of authors who just write one fantastic book and then disappear. It tends to be when they just have one story they really need to write and no desire to write anything else. (or even live any longer as in Sylia Plath’s case 🙁 )

I didn’t realise The Secret History was Donna Tartt’s first book – great addition to the list!

So many great debut novels – often works of creative, if not traditionally literary genius. The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole; Gun, With Occasional Music – Jonathan Lethem

… and a big recommend to the suggested Lucky Jim, surely one of the funniest books of the 21st Century

Alex, I haven’t read Lucky Jim yet, but it is on my wishlist. It is wonderful to see such enthusiasm for it – I’ll have to try and get to it soon.

I didn’t realise The New York Trilogy was Auster’s first either. Even more reason for me to pick it off my pile and read it soon.

Great post Jackie. You know I like debut novels, and for the same reasons you state (especially the point on author putting their whole being into it).
Warmest regards

I was going to make the same point as Verity. One of my greatest pleasures cum reliefs so far this year has been reading two second books by writers I thought might prove to have only one book in them because that happens so often. I have to say though, that my pleasure in a good first novel is definitely secondary to my pleasure in watching a novelist write a second and third that show a maturing and developing writer at work.

Annie, Well I’ve just read two disappointing second novels in a row and so don’t share your relief 🙁

The main problem I find with amazing debuts is that it generally leads to that disappointing second novel. Some authors will mature and improve with subsequent novels, but so many only have that real passion for one (or end up writing lots of excellent books that are all clones of each other)

I’m glad your authors produced wonderful second novels for you though. I hope the rest of your reading year is just as rewarding 🙂

Jackie, thanks for standing up for debut novels. I think not enough books are being published, especially in Africa, so I’m for new writers. Like you point out, it’s hard enough getting published. It’s hard getting support to write. It would be totally counter-productive and dangerous if we only read authors who have a huge backlist. Great post, as usual 🙂

Kinna, Thanks Kinna 🙂 Before blogging I used to read the entire backlist of any author I liked, but now I’ve discovered that my time is better spent investigating new authors.

I still like a good mix — some authors improve and mature in their writing, with each book better than the next. But you are so right that many authors really shine in that very first one.

Beth, I agree with you and I like to have a good mix of debut and established authors too. It is just a shame that so many people ignore those shining examples of debut fiction. 🙁

I agree, authors’ debut novels are often my favorite books of theirs. I have heard that debut novels are written with the most passion, a story that the writers simply have to tell.

David, I think you’re right. A fantastic novel is created when a story is so strong that it can’t be contained in a person’s head and leaps straight onto the page. I think this often happens to a person, whether they planned to be an author or not. You can feel the emotion in books like that and I love them 🙂

Your list of debut novels is wonderful and I loved them all except Black Beauty. I’m not sure I have a single favorite, I have had such a good experience reading debut authors in the past that I often look for them in the library or bookshop.
For some authors, their first is their best and they never seem to live up to that one; for other, they get better as they write.
Interesting post.

Alex, I haven’t read Black Beauty, but I did love the TV series when I was a child – do all girls love horses at some stage?!

I don’t think I could name a favourite, but Gone with the Wind is definitely up there.

I completely agree that as it gets harder and harder for authors to find publishers, so those first published novels are going to become more spectacular. I’ll read anyone and anything, so long as it sparks my curiosity, but I’d hate to think of debut authors being consistently seen as a poor bet – that’s a good way to make sure we have to have just the old, tried and trusted authors!

Hi Jackie,
Jane Austen, one of the most exceptional writers ever, saved her first novel Pride and Prejudice to be published second. She did not want to give her best away the first time around. But I think that only proofs your thesis. She knew herself that her first novel would be the best she had to give.

Sabrina, Wow! I didn’t know that. I always thought Sense & Sensibilty was her first. Thank you for correcting me and for letting me know that Jane Austen agrees with me. 🙂

Just one more for the list: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, perhaps the most important American novel of the 20th Century….too bad he could never get around to writing another.

Totally agree with all of your points. These authors put their heart and soul into these books, everything they’ve got, just to get the attention of a publicist. The problem comes when the debut hits it big, then the author has a gun held to their head to produce again…and quickly. Enter “Ape House” or “The Swan Thieves” for example.

I wish I could list all the wonderful debut novels I read in 2010. Too many!

Sandy, Sara Gruen wrote two books about horses before writing Water for Elephants, but your principle still holds. It sounds as though Greun just isn’t as passionate about bonobos 🙁

I think you make a good case for debut authors – in order for someone to break into publishing, I think they have to produce something that’s really special, so first novels really tend to be out to impress. I think I tend to read a good mix of debuts and already established authors, which makes me happy. It’s always great to alert other readers to wonderful new talent!

One of my favorite debuts that I read last year was The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. Just really loved that book and it was so impressive for a debut. As for this year, it’s still young, but I recently posted about The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown and I really liked that a lot too; it was really very masterful for a first novel.

Steph, I could never decide if The Rehearsal was genius or just trying too hard to be clever. I think Catton is an example of an author who will improve over time. I look forward to reading her next novel and hope it will feel more natural, not as though she is just trying to be clever.

Everyone is raving about The Weird Sisters at the moment. I hope I enjoy it as much as everyone else seems to.

I always feel sorry for authors who write fantastic first novels, because there is so much pressure on them to produce something equally amazing the next time around. Maybe that pressure is what makes subsequent offerings from excellent debut authors a bit lacking? Their passion is replaced by fear of failure, and also, the second time around, they are more likely to be writing to a deadline, or be more influenced by an overzealous editor, which can affect their ability to write as well as they did first time around.

I don’t have any prejudice against debut novels. What I DO have a prejudice against is very average debut novels that are overhyped. I know the publishing companies need to get these debut authors noticed, but nothing turns me off more than a Richard and Judy/ TV book club sticker. Often these novels are not particularly good, but because they are ‘crowd pleasers’ they get far more attention than they deserve, when excellently written, less universally pleasing first novels languish on book shop shelves for lack of any publicity, just because they’re not likely to sell millions of copies.

Rachel, Interesting comment. 🙂 Do you not think the fear of failure would be just as great each time? I’ve never been in the situation so don’t really know, but I’d wonder if complacency would set in? They managed to write a fantastic novel first time, so it should be even easier second time round?

I totally agree with you about over hyped average novels. The TV Book Club/R&J sticker shouldn’t be a total turn off as I think they select some fantastic books (eg. Henrietta Lacks this time round), but I wish those quality debuts were easier to track down

Fascinating! I often enjoy debut novels too. I find this topic quite interesting, and I’m trying to think of reasons why debut novels might be better. In many cases, I think great writers can be great writers but only write one great novel. In a book business fueled by capitalism, there’s pressure to replicate success more than quality. Must authors keep writing if not inspired? Often they must to meet deadlines. I think it’s much rarer to find authors with multiple great novels in them. Some peak early, but some do get better with age. I wonder how much the pressure of a contract for future books affects authors. I’m also curious if there’s a distinction between debut authors who were funded to write full-time or those who wrote part-time as a labor of love. Wonderful topic, Jackie!

I hit send to quickly and had more thoughts! I’m also curious about distinctions between authors who first published story collections (Junot Diaz) and those whose first published work was a novel. Also, is the first novel published the first one written? Jane Austen is a classic example: her canon as we now know it was not published in the order in which she wrote it.

Carrie, I love that this post generated so many thoughts for you 🙂

I’d love to be able to answer your questions, but I think your guess is as good as mine! I’d llike to see a study into the quality of books written full-time vs part time. I’m not sure how we’d ever know for most though. 🙁

I think authors who write short stories first are tricky to classify. Do they normally write both on the same subject? No idea!

I take your point about the first novel written vs first novel published. I know that many authors write several before getting one published. I think the first one published will be special, but you have to seek the authors who write their first novel and get that first book published to find the real passion.

I love debuts think that the writers have ussually spent all there life to get to this point think about this one debut book ,I m looking foirward to tigers wife this year ,all the best stu

I’ve read and enjoyed many of your debuts. When I look at the lists of books I’ve read and/or reviewed each year, I am always pleasantly surprised by how many debuts there are, and how good they are. One from last year is Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai, which has been shortlisted for the Costa best novel prize – it’s very good I think.
A crime fiction debut that I think excellent is Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin (tr Marlaine Delargy). In its portrait of the people and island of Oland, and of a mother’s grief, it transcends genre. I’ve just read a recent debut (also tr by Marlaine D!) which I enjoyed, Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder.

Maxine, I was surprised when I looked too. I think at least 2/3 of my favourite reads last year were debuts. Thank you for all the recommendations – I have heard of Witness the Night, but the others are all new to me *heads off to see if they look like my sort of thing*

I just finished reading The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks – an AMAZInG debut novel. That said I am so glad I don’t have to make a choice between debut and later novels…although nine times out of ten I would sacrifice an authors ninth, tenth or eleventh books in favor if the first several…

Courtney, I’ve just started reading The Year of Wonders and am loving it – I didn’t realise it was her debut. I hope I end up enjoying it as much as you did.

Jeane, I’m not sure I’ve experienced that, but perhaps that is because I haven’t tried their subsequent books after being disappointed by their second?

I usually give them a few more tries- at least three or four because I’m so convinced if their first book was so good, there has to be another of like quality! I give up after a few, though…

I do love a good debut novel. In fact, I reviewed a stunner of a debut just today (The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard). It’s fun to get in on an author’s work in the beginning, and it’s probably true that some people only have one really great novel in them.

I will admit, though, that I’m more open to trying out a book by an established author than by a debut author. Too often, as Rachel suggests, it’s hard to separate hype over a new mediocre author from genuine enthusiasm for a great new talent. At least with an established author, there’s more information to go on. So a lot of the time with debut authors, I like to wait and see what certain like-minded readers think before I take the plunge. (The Pittard was an exception to my usual tendency, and I’m glad I took a risk in that case. There have been many, many more times when I’ve been disappointed.)

Teresa, I agree about the increased amount of information surrounding established authors and often find that helps me to decide whether the book is for me or not.

I also agree that hype can be dangerous. I’m starting to learn who to trust when it comes to overly hyped books, but I think taking a risk on an unhyped author is something we should all do sometimes. I’m really pleased that it paid off for you and hope you’ll decide to do it again.

I love debut novels reasonably often, but too many of my favorite books aren’t debut novels, so I couldn’t make the choice you would. Or would it only apply to books you’d read for the first time? And what about second editions?

There are authors who only had one good novel in them (Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, John Kennedy O’Toole) and then there are authors whose first novel was the best. I think you’re right, in general, that the first novel has the most passion, but there are writers who aren’t equipped to present that passion as well in their first novel as they are by the time they get to the third or fourth (I’m thinking of Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver here). If Nick Harkaway can top his first novel, The Gone-Away World, I’ll be astonished. And very pleased.

Jeanne, You make a good point about authors having the time to write their subsequent novels. I always get more excited when I learn that the author has worked on the book for 10+ years.

I would choose a debut author any day! I feel like the book was probably brewing in their mind for probably years before they first started writing. Especially this past year, I have read some amazing debut novels.

You certainly have a point, here! I’ve never thought about how many amazing debut novels are out there. I always assume books get better as their authors gain experience, but clearly that’s not always the case!

I doubt I could spot the difference between a debut work or not, but I do love debut works as you do. A lot of my favorites were also debut works I believe! I would definitely keep them as well.

After looking at this list I would have to say that I love debut authors. The one thing I really dislike is falling in love with a debut author only to be disappointed with their second novel!

I definitely agree: debuts are far more interesting and emotionally powerful than second or third novels. and thanks for speaking out as I thought I was the probably the few who think this way.

I probably have a few more to add, but I have to go pick my little boy up now. 8 runs to and fro a day, with two boys on different going and coming home from school / nursery time a day! I’m exhausted!

Like you, Jackie, I absolutely love reading debuts (in fact, much of my reading over the last two years has been debuts because of all the review books I have been accepting). I agree with you – they tend to be wonderful, for the most part. Stand out debuts from 2010 for me included The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart, Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye, and By Fire By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan. Already this year I’ve been discovered an amazing debut novel: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.

Thanks for a great post!

I love debut novels too, seeing the first attempts at greatness. I used to accept a lot of them for review, but it really is a hit or miss thing. As much as I love the ones you’ve listed I ‘ve had to wade through many more terrible books than good ones.

The Secret History is also one of my favourite books. I’m a huge fan of debut authors too and like trying out new authors even if I haven’t really heard much about them. It’s exciting.

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