Any­one for sec­onds?

So of­ten, a sec­ond work flops, but, as Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham il­lus­trates, if a writer or artist can get past the of­ten dev­as­tat­ing crit­i­cism, it can be the start of great­ness

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Is there any way to avoid the dreaded sopho­more slump in your sec­ond novel, won­ders Ysenda Max­tone-gra­ham

‘Real nov­el­ists can pro­duce some­thing even bet­ter than they did the first time

IT is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged that we all have a novel in­side us. Most of us have just enough child­hood trauma and ro­man­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, and just enough imag­i­na­tion and abil­ity, that we could string to­gether a few thou­sand sen­tences and pos­si­bly pull off some­thing that would pass for a novel, were we to go on a cre­ative-writ­ing course and be forced to bash it out on our lap­top.

What is far from cer­tain is how many of us would have a sec­ond novel in­side us. That’s where the real test comes. Most of us would get nowhere with book num­ber two—we would have said it all in the first one. Real nov­el­ists are the peo­ple who can pro­duce some­thing even bet­ter than they did the first time.

Take the au­thor of the first seven words of this ar­ti­cle. Pride and Prej­u­dice was Jane Austen’s sec­ond pub­lished novel and most would agree that it’s far su­pe­rior to Sense and Sen­si­bil­ity. ‘P& P’ is one of the 140 sec­ond nov­els short­listed for the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture’s (RSL) Na­tion’s Favourite Sec­ond Novel Award, the win­ner of which will be an­nounced on April 5. If you sup­port Pride and Prej­u­dice, now is the time to make your voice heard—when I spoke to the RSL a week or so ago, it was ‘do­ing well but cer­tainly not romp­ing to vic­tory’ in the pub­lic vote.

It’s up against fierce com­pe­ti­tion from some sec­ond nov­els I con­fess I’ve never heard of—chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yel­low Sun, James Bald­win’s Gio­vanni’s Room and Tan Twan Eng’s The Gar­den of Even­ing Mists—as well as The Fel­low­ship of the Ring (J. R. R. Tolkien) and The Tenant of Wild­fell Hall (Anne Brontë) which I have ac­tu­ally read.

I don’t think there’s too much shame in not hav­ing heard of half the books on the list. Part of the point of the award, which was dreamed up by RSL direc­tor Tim Robert­son, is to draw our at­ten­tion to the wealth and diver­sity of good sec­ond-novel writ­ing in English. ‘Think of it as a read­ing list,’ the RSL says.

The point is also to make us think about the cre­at­ing of sec­ond works in gen­eral. It has cer­tainly got me think­ing. There was a re­cent item in Pri­vate Eye about a literary agent who’s all over her nov­el­ists when they write their de­but and then loses in­ter­est when they pro­duce num­ber two.

That French word ‘de­but’ is too ex­otic-sound­ing for any­one’s good; we’re liv­ing in the age of the cult of the de­but. It cer­tainly hap­pens with preg­nancy—a lot of pam­per­ing first time around, a much lower level of in­ter­est for the sec­ond. ‘No casseroles ar­rive at the door,’ as the nov­el­ist Hazel Gaynor wrote, com­par­ing sec­ond preg­nan­cies to writ­ing sec­ond nov­els.

At least peo­ple are usu­ally lovely about baby num­ber two when he or she does come out, which is far from the case with sec­ond books. In last month’s Times Literary Sup­ple­ment, there was a sober­ing re­minder of how bru­tal crit­ics can be about sec­ond works. When Colin Wil­son’s sec­ond book, Re­li­gion and the Rebel, was

pub­lished, the ar­ti­cle re­ported: ‘The bub­ble burst. Its re­cep­tion was so damn­ing that it led to a swing­ing re-eval­u­a­tion of Wil­son’s first book, The

Out­sider, which was found on a sec­ond look to have been fatu­ous all along.’

We live in a cruel world in which crit­ics love to take au­thors down a peg or two, es­pe­cially if that writer has had huge suc­cess with their first book. It hap­pened a bit last sum­mer with Jessie Bur­ton’s sec­ond novel,

The Muse, which re­ceived less-thanglow­ing reviews af­ter her huge suc­cess with The Minia­tur­ist.

It hap­pens with pop al­bums. ‘Dis­as­trous Sec­ond Al­bum’ is an of­fi­cial syn­drome. Amer­i­can singer-song­writer Ter­ence Trent D’arby’s first al­bum sold a mil­lion copies in three days; of his sec­ond, it was said: ‘Twelve songs of re­lent­less, pre­ten­tious pos­tur­ing led to any good­will Darby had gar­nered dis­ap­pear­ing faster than a cold pint of beer on a sum­mer’s day.’

As the critic Jasper Rees puts it: ‘A pop act bursts on the scene with a sparkling set of songs about grow­ing up in some deadly pro­vin­cial back­wa­ter. While tour­ing the al­bum, which sails into the top 10, they write another set of songs, mostly in ho­tel rooms far from the deadly back­wa­ter, and the al­bum flops.’

Too much suc­cess the first time can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive—the com­par­a­tively scathing re­cep­tion of a sec­ond pro­duc­tion can kill off a ca­reer. First­time ex­u­ber­ance can be hard to sus­tain in clas­si­cal mu­sic, too—some crit­ics be­lieve Men­delssohn never lived up to the ge­nius of Octet, writ­ten he was 16, and A Mid­sum­mer Night’s

Dream, com­posed when he was 17. Much bet­ter, if you have to ex­pe­ri­ence bad reviews, is to get them over with the first time round. Amanda Craig, whose su­perb sev­enth novel,

The Lie of the Land, is to be pub­lished in June, re­called: ‘My sec­ond novel was an or­deal by fire to write be­cause it was like get­ting back onto a horse af­ter be­ing thrown.’

She wove in the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing ‘bul­lied and shamed by dolts’, say­ing: ‘It was when I first un­der­stood that I was a satirist and that my job was, among other things, to af­flict the com­fort­able as much as to com­fort the af­flicted.’ She has never looked back.

It’s not easy to please your pub­lic with a sec­ond work. Ei­ther you’re ac­cused of be­ing too samey—‘the au­thor only knows how to write one book’—or you’re ac­cused of be­ing too dif­fer­ent: ‘This isn’t the sort of book I was ex­pect­ing from this au­thor.’ It can bring on ‘the sopho­more slump’—the de­cline in bril­liance that sec­ond things seem to pro­duce, sec­ond years at univer­sity and sec­ond sea­sons of tele­vi­sion se­ries be­ing two ex­am­ples (the cur­rent third se­ries of ITV'S Broad­church is agreed to be much bet­ter than the slump­ing sec­ond).

If you’re a true artist, how­ever, you don’t get de­stroyed by these or­deals; you’re strength­ened and im­proved by them. The 140 nov­els on the RSL’S short­list are heart­en­ing trib­utes to the per­se­ver­ing more-than-one-hit­won­ders of this world.

‘If you have to ex­pe­ri­ence bad reviews, get them over with the first time round’

Jane Austen’s sec­ond novel, Pride and Prej­u­dice, is con­sid­ered to be bet­ter than her first

Jessie Bur­ton’s sopho­more ef­fort, The Muse, re­ceived less-than-glow­ing reviews

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