Last year, I was invited to be a judge for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize which, as you all know by now, was awarded in November to John Pipkin’s Woodsburner, a choice I wholly and enthusiastically approved of. (I was also tremendously impressed with Paul Harding’s Tinkers – I’ve had a note on my desk since then to add the book to the Recommended sidebar.) I’m not going to talk about the judges (who were all smart and cool and engaged) or the deliberations (which were cordial and effortless). There’s no gossip to be had here – the experience was nothing short of wonderful.
I spent the second half of the summer and the beginning of the fall reading a long list of more than twenty first novels. I still do quibble a little with the inclusion of writers like Yiyun Li, author of an award-winning short collection, in a field full of writers who are just getting up and on their feet – but the award does say First Novel, not First Fiction. Still, one learns a lot in this kind of intensive debut laboratory, and I thought I might share some things I took away from My Summer of Debuts, to be filed under “If I Knew Then ... “ First novelists, in particular, take note – something here might come in handy.
Back in the day, when I first came to Los Angeles, I got a job as a script reader for Tristar Pictures. I read something like 20 scripts a week, hated them all and in the six months I did the job (it burns you out quickly, especially if you have any plans of your own to write), I think I recommended one script. But it was a seminal time for me in that I learned what mistakes not to make. When I signed with my first agent, he said of the spec script in question, “You don’t make all the usual beginner mistakes.” Though to be sure, I made plenty of others. And although I don’t get to write another debut novel, I think things I observed do tend apply equally to any novel, not just a debut. They just seemed to pop up more frequently in this reading list. I learned some valuable lessons as a result, which I share here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.
They try to take on too much. I read too many overstuffed novels, books that seemed to be trying to record and solve every social problem or cultural phenomenon. But first-timers seldom have the chops to maintain control over this kind of material, and so one gets stuck with a book spinning frantically in a million directions at once. Lesson: Ambition is great; challenge yourself, push yourself – but don’t try to be Atlas the first time out.
They don’t take on enough. We are still living in the wake of the literary elevation of the micro, the attention to the small, quiet moment. Individually, these moments can carry great power, and the short story naturally fits this impulse. But too many of these first novels have taken the slenderest conceit imaginable and attempted to hang a novel on it. You can feel the spindly branches bending under the weight, almost to the point of breaking. And there comes a point in the story when the reader begins to wonder why the author felt there was a novel in this idea. Lesson: Tea towels do not a novel make.
They rely on a quirky voice to carry the book. Of all the things I observed, I think this is the one my own debut was most guilty of. Quite a number of these books had engaging, quirky voices that pulled me in quickly. But as the novel wore on, it became clear that the author’s energy was invested in maintaining this voice, as opposed to bringing the other pieces of the novel up to equal strength (or else relying on the voice to distract readers from those shortcomings). Lesson: The quirkier the voice, the more attention a writer should pay to everything else spinning around it.
They are too chatty ... A sort of corollary to the previous note. It’s not that I mind informal, but too many of these books are so riddled with topical references that are dated before the ink is dry. Not every book is trying to be Proust, for sure, but one should have a sense of something that can sustain its place on the shelves. Think of Pound’s “news that stays news.” Lesson: Be mindful of cultural ephemera.
... or they are too formal. A few books I read seemed to be written in another age altogether, stiff, formal, anachronistic. Or, worse, they seemed to be hewing very carefully to some approved list of Rules of the Novel. (And here is where the whiff of MFA workshops could be most strongly detected.) Whatever the reasons, these excessively polite books were among the hardest to read. Lesson: A little restraint is enough to go a long way.
They start out strong, then fade away. My cycling coach used to discuss the importance of not going all out at the start of a race, leaving something in the tank to “finish strong.” Otherwise you risk watching more disciplined cyclists buzz by you at the about the halfway mark as you run out of steam. This is good advice for the novelist, too. I would read debuts that got promisingly off the ground, pulled me along with the narrative, but petered out before the end – either a pell-mell dash to an abrupt end, or a sighing collapse of the narrative, as though the writer had no real idea how to bring things home. Lesson: Pace yourself, apply the same discipline and energy to the end as to the beginning.
They are familiar. Perhaps my biggest complaint. Too often, I kept seeing the same kinds of relationships, the same kinds of situations set in the same kinds of social classes. Alienated sisters of privilege. Struggling blue collar outcasts on the verge of lawlessness. There were far too few surprises during those weeks of reading debuts. Which ties directly to my last observation:
They don’t justify their existence. About a year ago, in a P&W interview, an editor – I can’t recall who – said when she reads a book, she always asks why did this need to be written? (The implication, by extension, is why it should be published and/or read.) Andrew Sean Greer approvingly quotes Toni Morrison about writing to fill a space on the shelf that is presently empty. To sit down to read a novel is a mere fraction of the commitment required to write one, but in both cases the commitment must be made, and it needs to be driven by something very deep: What is essential about this story? Why does it need to be told, other than to begin the career of a new writer? Lesson: To be sure, there are no new stories or new truths, but if we are going to revisit certain ones time and time again, it seems absolutely necessary – at least to this writer and reader – that it’s a story that needs to see the light of day, a story without which we’d be somehow poorer.
So there it is, my gift to all you first novelists, free of charge, utterly subjective and perhaps totally useless. But I leave this experience with all these lessons under my belt, and there’s not one that I won’t take into consideration as I plod along on my new book. What a different book I'd have written, had I judged this prize before writing it. (And if this post makes it sound otherwise, I should say that I was completely enthusiastic about our short list, and even about a few that did not quite make it onto that list.)
Please feel free to contribute your own first novel observations in the comments box below.