Illustration of Penguin books in baby cots
Illustration of Penguin books in baby cots

“It was only at the longlist meeting that we counted up how many debuts there were, and realised there were eight,” says Sameer Rahim, a literary critic and author who is judging this year’s Booker Prize for Fiction. “It was a surprisingly large amount, that is true.”

With bookshops closed, publication schedules paused, furloughed staff, warehouse delays and a deluge of the year’s new releases arriving all at once, 2020 has not been the best year to release a first novel. And yet, debuts dominated the most prestigious books prize of them all: not only did Douglas Stuart win the prize with a debut, Shuggie Bain, but eight of the 13 Booker-longlisted novels, and four of the six shortlisted, were written by first-time authors.

But even putting such extraordinary circumstances aside, the lure of the debut has long been established in literary history for readers, often changing the course of fiction in the process. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written when she was still a teenager, was her debut novel and ended up creating science fiction in the process. Trainspotting, the first novel from Irvine Welsh, became the kind of cultural touchstone that was quoted on posters in teenagers’ bedrooms. White Teeth by Zadie Smith, famously written while she was an undergraduate at Cambridge, won a fistful of awards and saw her hailed as “the voice of new England”. More recently, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine opened up conversations about mental health on a nationwide level upon publication in 2017. Its author, Gail Honeyman, has all but vanished from the public eye since.

What is it that’s so consistently appealing about a debut? Hermione Thompson, an editor at Hamish Hamilton who has edited Booker-longlisted debut authors Sophie Mackintosh (The Water Cure, 2018) and Avni Doshi (Burnt Sugar2020), among others, says the initial appeal of a first book can be equally intriguing for both publishers and readers: “There’s always the thrill of the new: people like discovering things,” she tells me. If reading the latest work from an established author can be likened to “entering a long conversation with somebody and their ideas”, then Thompson says reading a debut can be like “finding a voice you’ve never discovered before, in that you totally don’t know what to expect and get the excitement of giving yourself over to that experience.”

“It’s all to play for with a debut” says Chantal Noel, Group Rights Director at Penguin Random House, who oversees the selling of books’ rights to other languages and platforms. “It’s something that’s completely fresh and unknown. If you believe in a debut, if it gives you that kind of tingling feeling and you feel like you’ve got something really special, with that other added layer that nobody knows this person and they’re coming from nowhere, it’s quite seductive both for the sales person and for an editor.” The excitement around a debut novel can be infectious, which can lead to a big international payday for the author themselves.

Debuts can also benefit from certain sales practicalities: no track record to look up and a real freedom to, as Noel says, “create a story around the book”.

Strip away the novelty, though, and debuts can also contain invigorating writing. As this year’s Booker longlist attests, first novels can be just as accomplished as works by established authors. Rahim, who is judging the prize, says that most of them were selected without any understanding of their provenance: “There are 162 books on the list that we read, and in fact we read more. The sheer number of books means that you don’t find out much about them – you simply do not have time to research. Even as a literary editor, I don’t necessarily know if it’s someone’s first book or not.”

Rather, those eight debuts – The New Wilderness by Dianne Cooke, Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze, Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Real Life by Brandon Taylor, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang, Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward and Shuggie Bain – stood out because of what lay between their covers. “They’re all really accomplished and it’s surprising that they’re all first books because they do seem really technically proficient and polished,” says Rahim.

While a Booker-longlisted debut is – usually – extraordinary, first books have an innate appeal. It’s something Rahim sums up as “a certain innocence. A kind of energy, a freshness, that you get with debuts that you don’t necessarily get with a third or fourth.”

Andrew Biswell, who has taught a course on first novels as a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University and kept a weekly column reviewing debut fiction for The Telegraph in the 90s, can still remember where he was when he read certain then-unknown modern classics. “What I liked about first novels is that you were just judging the book, you didn’t know anything about the author necessarily, only what was on the press release or the bio,” he says, echoing Rahim’s experience. The good ones, Biswell says, were “stylistically very fresh and had a really original voice”.

While Biswell recalls discovering voices, such as those of David Foster Wallace and Alex Garland, that built on the success of their first-published novels to become household names, he also tells of those who never quite achieved the hype of a hefty advance. Biswell cites Bo Fowler, who “got an advance of £140,000 when he was in his early 20s. The novel, called Skepticism Inc, was just really poor – a kind of sub-Vonnegut. When the book came out there was very heavy promotion but nobody thought very highly of him.” While stratospherically high advances have always raised eyebrows and made headlines, Rahim suggests they aren’t as common as the media can suggest. “It’s much less than it used to be, which I think is healthy,” he says. “I think it’s healthier to just give small amounts earlier on and not put so much pressure on writers.”

“If the first book sold well and the second book is on point and delivered, then the author’s done their job,” says Noel. “But it can put pressure on an author, if you’ve got all these rolling advances and excitement and they’re in the spotlight, that can be huge pressure to write a second book that can stand up – but there’s no reason why it couldn’t other than what’s in people’s heads.”

Because a debut novel is only defined as much if a second follows. In fact, Rahim is swift to explode the notion of “debuts” – “a debut novel is often not a debut novel at all in the sense that a lot of writers will have written one or two novels beforehand which are unpublished,” he points out. “Just because it’s the first published book, doesn’t mean it’s the first book they’ve written” – as evidenced by Stuart in his Booker Prize acceptance speech, when he explained that his second novel was finished already. He had already spent 14 years on his body of work, even if the world only became aware of him in the past few months.

Derek Owusu, whose critically acclaimed novel That Reminds Me won the Desmond Elliot Prize this year, is candid about what it means to follow up a successful first novel. “It does feel like a lot of pressure sometimes,” he says, “and you think, ‘OK, this has happened once. I’m never going to get this attention again because I’m never going to write another debut. What does that mean for my second book?’”

Owusu’s second book, which is non-fiction, has already been optioned for screen adaptation by Idris Elba’s production company although, he admits with a laugh, “I haven’t written the book yet!” He wrote That Reminds Me over the course of a year, and says that the added complexity of lockdown has made working on a second difficult. “You can put a lot of pressure on yourself trying to write a book as good as your debut, even though in your mind you might think, ‘I can write a better book than my first one' because those outside say 'this is a great book', you start believing it to be better than you thought it was”.

But we are, perhaps, entering a golden age of the debut novel. Belt-tightening in publishing has also contributed to debuts needing to be truly brilliant to earn a deal. “The retail landscape for all of us means that, more than ever before, the editor will have to have really fallen in love with the book they’re bringing to the table,” says Chantal Noel.

There’s also the argument that it's the newest voices in fiction that are best responding to the issues of our time. “I wonder if the number of debuts on the longlist is a response from judges who have lived through these special shifts this year, and the conversations around trying not to tell the same story over and over again,” says Thompson.

At a time when the lack of inclusion and diversity in books has never been more passionately discussed, debut authors that offer different perspectives have never been more vital. “One of those exciting things as an editor finding new writers is that you have the opportunity to try and bring in those voices who are speaking for communities and experiences that feel still very new to lots of readers and trying to consciously address that lack and that gap we’ve created as publishers historically,” Thompson continues.

And, of course, an author only has one debut; after that initial icebreaker, there’s a conversation to be had that can last decades. “Most writers would agree that they learn from every book,” says Thompson, “so when we discover a really extraordinary debut that’s exciting because the book itself is incredible, it’s also exciting because you think, 'What is this writer going to do in three or four or five books time?'”

Image: Mica Murphy/Penguin

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