Bookplanet: the first novel blues (it's a wonder they ever get published)
That difficult first novel
There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist - only a tiny fraction receive six-figure advances, and most manuscripts end up in the shredder. So, what makes or breaks the first-timers?
By Kate Kellaway/The Observer
Robertson Davies, the great Canadian novelist, once observed: 'There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.' He might have added as a PS: a novelist's troubles do not end with publication. Getting a first novel published - and publicised - is harder than ever before. Once upon a time, a first novel could afford to be a dress rehearsal, a proving ground. That is no longer true. As Juliet Annan, founding editor of the Penguin imprint Fig Tree, says: 'The world of booksellers is such that you have to make an impact from the word go.'
First-time novelists divide into those paid small sums by their publishers (rarely above £12,000 for a two-book deal) and a lucky minority who secure flamboyant advances (Orion paid £800,000 for The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield; John Murray spent around £500,000 on The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox. And celebrities do best of all. Jordan is rumoured to have been offered £1m by Ebury for a clutch of autobiographical novels under her real name 'Katie Price'). What seems to be missing is a middle ground.
One of London's leading literary agents, Pat Kavanagh, points out that high advances can create 'artificial expectations' for writers. Take Gautam Malkani. Last year, his ambitious first novel, Londonstani, about Asian youth in west London, for which he received a £300,000 advance, was hyped to the hilt before publication, then panned. Not a good preparation for writing a second book. And for a distinguished author like Timothy Mo, nominated three times for the Booker, it seems that no longer being able to command the high advances he did earlier in his career has done more than knock his pride. (He hasn't had a novel published since 1999.)
Publishing a first novel is a gamble. Novelists depend on word of mouth, Radio 4, book clubs and prizes - and reviews (always in short supply). The first-time novelist may experience a contradictory mixture of over- and under-exposure. In the past, publishers could fudge sales figures. Now, thanks to the Nielsen Bookscan, there is nowhere to hide. It is possible to look up sales data on any novelist faster than you can say Zadie Smith. And if a book flops commercially, or, to use publishing parlance, 'doesn't work', a postmortem can be briskly conducted. Equally, if it does 'break out' (desperado publishing slang for success), the scale of its popularity can be precisely assessed.
Before I became a journalist, I worked as a reader for Jonathan Cape and Chatto & Windus. I learnt that if it is true that everyone has a novel in them, most people would be best advised to keep it there. But the job made me realise just how hard it is to write a novel at all. It gave me a respect for narrative - still so often and puzzlingly undervalued as a gift. I learnt that being able to write well is not at all the same thing as having anything to say.
One day, I came upon a first novel. I found it in the slush pile, but there was nothing slushy about it. It was a fairy tale for adults which Cape went on to publish: A Mirror for Princes by Tom de Haan. This was a pseudonym because de Haan, who worked in the City, did not want anyone to know he was a writer. Everyone at Cape was surprised by his quaint, refreshing lack of ego. (Did he see novel writing as a vice?) Tom Maschler, then the editorial director, pointed out that his insistence on a pseudonym might make it tricky to publicise his book. But de Haan would not budge and Maschler tactfully gave in.
Today, de Haan would not have got his own way (and perhaps his books might have sold better). Certainly, the idea of a novel quietly selling itself now, with no sense of the writer behind it, is far-fetched. Kate Saunders, one of the judges of this year's Orange Prize for fiction (the longlist, just announced, has half-a-dozen first novels on it), says: 'It is harder for first novelists to get noticed now. They will find, increasingly, that they are judged alongside their work - and are less likely to be taken on if they are not photogenic or newsworthy.'
Amid the pile of first novels in front of me, a handful of author photos proves her point: Ivo Stourton looks as if he has stepped out of Brideshead Revisited, snapped outside a sunny villa. His publisher makes much of his youth and Cambridge education. And an A4-sized photograph of a smiling Priya Basil slips invitingly out of the review copy of her novel as if to win favour.
That is not to imply that this is a talent contest - only that everything counts. Pat Kavanagh, talking to me about Zadie Smith's White Teeth, acknowledges that Smith's looks are an extra bonus. There seems no such thing as a soft sell any more, let alone a chance for writerly obscurity. And, regrettably, by the same token, Kavanagh observes, a novel by someone of 60 (she has a brilliant one up her sleeve) may prove dicey to sell. Faber boldly published a debut novel by 71-year-old retired civil servant Charles Chadwick not long ago. But in terms of sales, It's All Right Now wasn't quite all right enough.
Publishing is dominated by positioning: 'chick lit', 'mum lit' (is there a 'twit lit' yet?). And herd instinct often operates, a tendency to play safe by imitating known successes. There is no shortage of Salman Rushdie imitations out there. But no one can out-Rushdie Rushdie. And there is something unseemly about a system that routinely compares unknown first novelists with bestselling authors. It is piggyback publicity ('the new JK Rowling' syndrome).
Kate Saunders, while reading for the Orange Prize, felt that 'publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.' Perhaps what these writers need is practice. Regrettably, there is no longer much opportunity (with the honourable exception of editor Louise Chunn's initiative in Good Housekeeping) for novices to publish stories in magazines. Publishing your first novel is as daunting as cold calling. 'It is much harder,' Pat Kavanagh says, 'to get first novels across to a general reader when there is no obvious promotional handle'.
The standard ploy of slapping approving quotes all over the dustjacket before the book has been reviewed ought to be more cautiously treated. (Someone should let the unstintingly generous Margaret Forster and Helen Dunmore take a break before they gush themselves into the ground.)
The number of novels that don't get published is 'enormous', says Annan. She reads 10, already filtered through literary agents, in any given week. 'I turn down almost all of them. I've taken on three or four since July last year.' The general quality of novels submitted to publishers has, it is generally agreed, improved, thanks to creative-writing courses. But courses are seen by some in the industry as no more than a cynical way to bring extra revenue to universities. And the problem is that the market is overwhelmed with competent novels.
Annan is looking for novels that are more than competent. They must be 'incredibly distinct, really stand out so that you can position them'. And it is to that word 'position' that we need to be alert. Annan describes many novels she reads as having 'sticky middles' - literary doughnuts. What she is after is something she has just found in a novel called Monster Love by Carol Topolski.
'I started to read it and had an immediate frisson, a feeling of the hairs standing up on the back of my neck'. She probably knows what she is talking about. She published Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a roaring surprise of a bestseller (not least because Lewycka, a lecturer on media and public relations at Sheffield Hallam University, was 58). Lewycka's second, Two Caravans, about emigre workers in England today - Kentish strawberry-pickers, chicken factory workers - is published on Thursday.
How do you follow a brilliant first novel with a second? 'I am staring down the barrel of that particular gun at the moment,' Annan replies. But early reactions suggest that Lewycka and her publisher will do more than survive. Critics Peter Kemp and David Sexton, both adept at putting the boot in where necessary, go so far as to say that Lewycka has trumped her first novel with her second. They describe it as buoyant, witty, complex. So far, there is only one dissenting voice - Sarah Vine on the Times - who says the book is full of 'cheap laughs'.
Every now and again, a novelist makes a career out of just one novel - Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is the shining example - but this is not the norm. And for every person who says first novels are hard, there will be someone to retort that second and third novels are harder still. 'Be as true to yourself as possible,' Annan advises second timers. 'Take time if you need it. Don't think too much.'
Arundhati Roy did just that. She took a long time. Mark Haddon prefers not to think of A Spot of Bother as a second novel (its sales are not comparable with his first). He stresses the importance for him of having more than one iron in the fire: 'The Curious Incident might have been inhibiting if I was purely a novelist but A Spot of Bother didn't feel like a follow-up. I wrote my poetry collection, then a film for the BBC [Coming Down the Mountain]. Bother was just one of the subsequent things I happened to write. That is the advantage of being a jack of all trades with a high boredom threshold.'
Pat Kavanagh was reminded the other day by her husband, Julian Barnes, that when his first novel, Metroland, was accepted in 1980, he was told it was the worst possible time to be published. Publishers are like farmers. Complaint is second nature to them.
I have also spent the past few days talking to novelists who are not complaining about anything. They have gone through the eye of a needle to get published. And together, in their various ways, they prove that talent will out. They may feel vulnerable, not sure of what comes next. But they know there is everything to write for.
The Night Climbers
Doubleday £10.99, June 2007
Ivo Stourton, son of the BBC correspondent Edward Stourton, looks like a golden boy and his first novel is an amazingly accomplished debut for a 24-year-old. The writing is elegant, the story decadent. His influences - Evelyn Waugh and Donna Tartt - are unmistakable. It is about a group of Cambridge undergraduates who go in for illegal night climbing, then commit a more serious crime.
Stourton's publisher lets us know he 'read English at Cambridge' and coyly adds that he has 'attempted night climbing himself'. The truth, Stourton tells me, is that one drunken night, he ended up clinging to a chimney pot 20 feet above a friend's window. He is 'massively frightened of heights,' he adds.
He may have to get used to them - metaphorically speaking. He is industrious, ambitious, charming and does not seem at all pleased with himself. Nor is he taking any chances. He is training to be a solicitor at the same time as writing his second novel (like Priya Basil, with whom he shares a publisher, he won a two-book deal).
His surprise discovery, he tells me, working on The Night Climbers was 'how much stamina you need and how slowly a text accumulates. As my grandfather put it: how do you eat elephant one bite at a time?'
Ishq and Mushq
Doubleday £12.99, March 2007
Priya Basil won a two-book deal with a six-figure advance for Ishq and Mushq ('Love and Smell'), a tragicomic saga about voluptuous Sarna and her husband Karam. Their marriage, in spite of Sarna's virtuoso cooking, is never uncomplicatedly palatable.
And the plot really thickens when the most secret ingredient in Sarna's life, a daughter she abandoned at birth, catches up with her. 'The advance was a validation of what I wanted to do - a security, a platform,' Basil says. But she admits, if sales were to disappoint, she might feel 'pressure'.
Born in 1977, she grew up in Kenya. After reading English at Bristol, she worked - unhappily - as an advertising accounts executive. Her boyfriend, a German journalist, encouraged her to write and offered to support her. She'd never tried a novel before. Early attempts at writing included 'dabbling at poetry' and a university pantomime Snow White and the 10 Misogynists.
Ishq and Mushq was written in Berlin, where she now lives. The 'dislocation' was essential. In London, she seldom writes a line. She found her publisher through personal connection (someone in Transworld's publicity department sent it on its way to Jane Lawson at Doubleday). The lesson learnt from writing her first novel? 'The most important thing is that every day, you must sit down and do it.' She is hard at work on her second.
Faber £12.99, June 2007
Owen Sheers's Resistance impressively rewrites history: it is 1944 and Britain is occupied. It has an established voice, as if Sheers had been writing novels for a lifetime. It is set in the Welsh border valley of Olchon where a community of women achieves a fragile equilibrium with the a German patrol.
Sheers was born in Fiji in 1974 (his parents worked for the Overseas Development Agency) and grew up in Abergavenny, where he went to the local comprehensive and to New College, Oxford. His first ambition was to play rugby for Wales, but he ended up writing poetry instead (not, he says with a laugh, as 'uncommon' a swerve as you might suppose). He has won many laurels for his poetry and is also the author of The Dust Diaries, a biographical hybrid of a book about a distant family relative, a maverick missionary sent to Rhodesia.
It was the fictional element in The Dust Diaries that kindled his desire to write a first novel. He is fascinated by narrative drive, the story as an engine. For him, fiction has been a permission: 'Suddenly, I could do anything. It was exciting - daunting - then exciting again.'
According to Ruth
Harvill Secker £12.99, March 2007
'I am one of those millions of people who have always wanted to write. I remember making a cloth-covered book for my parents when I was nine with two stories in it,' says Jane Feaver. The novel According to Ruth is, in a sense, another story for her parents (her mother, poet Vicki Feaver; her father, art critic William Feaver).
Loosely based on her childhood, it is beautifully written with an unshowy intensity. It is a partly autobiographical account of the break-up of a marriage and it was the invented parts of her story that Feaver found most liberating in the telling. She overturns the cliche: write about what you know. 'I had to begin with what I knew in order to make the leap into what I couldn't know.' Writing fiction is 'terrifying,' she says. It needs courage because 'you are making something out of nothing'.
Feaver was born in Durham in 1964. She read English at university, worked at the Pitt Rivers Museum and at the poetry department at Faber. In 2001, she moved to Devon to help novelist Michael Morpurgo and his wife run Farms For City Children. She needed to get away to write, to be 'completely on my own'. Not that she is. She lives with her 10-year-old daughter.
She is currently doing a creative writing MA at Exeter. It is not, I guess, easy being a single mother and a novelist even if, as is the case, the house you live in is called Paradise.
How Publishing Works
·Around 70,000 titles are published a year in Britain, of which 6,000 are novels
·Any large UK publisher will receive 2,000 unsolicited novel manuscripts in a year
·The average sale of a hardback book by a first-time writer is 400 copies
·Many publishers use this rule of thumb to work out advances: they pay 50 per cent of the royalty earnings expected from the first print run
·According to the latest edition of Private Eye, first novel The Thirteenth Tale by ex-teacher Diane Setterfield (author's advance £800,000) has sold 13,487 copies to date. Only 516,129 to go and the book's paid for itself...