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
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