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Posted September 23, 2013 by in Book Debate
 
 

Where to Start With a New Author?


Picking up a book by an author you’ve never encountered before can be a bit daunting. As a fresh reader you face, all over again, the challenges of adjusting to a new voice, style, and subject matter (or at least, variations on themes, since there is hardly anything new under the literary sun in the twenty-first century). Perhaps you’ve heard people praise particular authors for a long time and have wanted to give their writing a try, but simply never known quite where to start.

Joyce Carol Oates in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons.

Joyce Carol Oates in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maybe for you that oft-recommended-but-never-attempted author is Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt or Philip Roth; for me, two that keep coming back to mind, bringing with them a twinge of guilt each time, are Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.

Oates published her first novel at age 26 and has written around 50 of them since; she’s also a prolific short story writer and essayist, such that her total output numbers some 70-plus volumes (I found a full list here). Yet the only piece I’ve ever read by her is a 1966 short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which was assigned reading for my freshman seminar at college. Where in the world should I start with her novels?!

Likewise, Updike is a huge figure in twentieth-century American literature – with, again, about 70 books to his credit, including not just novels but also short stories, poetry, autobiography, and literary criticism – but I’ve barely read a word he wrote.

John Updike in 2008 (Photo credit: Dennis Kan, National Endowment for the Humanities [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

John Updike in 2008 (Photo credit: Dennis Kan, National Endowment for the Humanities [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

 

Rather than shrugging your shoulders in disillusioned frustration and deciding not to try that intimidating author after all, try to put a reasoned plan in place. As I see it, there are five strategies you might take; I’ll list them below, with their merits and disadvantages, but it’s up to you to decide which one to adopt:

 

First Things First

You could, of course, simply start with your chosen author’s first book. In the case of a debut novelist, this has been decided for you; along with the rest of the public, you’ll be there right at the start of what might turn out to be a long and illustrious career. But if it’s an established author in question, you could start anywhere: with their most famous or prize-winning book, with the latest one issued, or, indeed, with the first.

What might be some of the benefits to starting with an author’s first published material? For one thing, you’ll get an untarnished look at the author’s initial interests and preoccupations. And, if you keep reading, you’ll also get to see how his or her style developed.

purepleasurePaging through literary critic John Carey’s Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the Twentieth Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, I was surprised to see that a high proportion of his recommended titles happened to be fiction debuts. He restricted himself to 50 books, for the most part evenly distributed across the decades, and only allowed himself one choice per author. Usually he eschewed an author’s most popular, most acclaimed, or even most representative title, tending instead to plump for a hidden gem. More often than not, his favorite novel would be that author’s first, as was the case with Evelyn Waugh and V.S. Naipaul. Just because he designated these among the “most enjoyable” books of the century does not mean they are all comic or reassuring, though; he also refers to them as the books he would most like to have the time to reread.

firstnovelI recently finished reading a bizarre metafictional puzzle of a book, Nicholas Royle’s First Novel (though, confusingly, it’s actually the author’s seventh). The novel is narrated by Paul Kinder, a creative writing professor obsessed with novelists’ debuts: they form the core of his book collection, and he devotes a whole university course to them. When a student asks him why he so focuses on authors’ first novels, he replies, “I suppose I think first novels are important because it’s the first thing the author says about the world. People say they are autobiographical, and many are, but they’re not all…Sometimes they’re the best thing an author will ever write.”

ediblewomanNevertheless, I would issue the caution that a first book is not necessarily characteristic of a writer’s entire oeuvre. If you started with Atwood’s The Edible Woman, for instance, you might assume she was a straightforward – if playful – feminist, but see little sign of her future dabbling in science fiction and dystopia. An encounter with Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun, a mediocre family drama, might lead you to abandon the rest of her work unread – and that would be truly tragic, for you would miss out on a whole swathe of richly complex, intelligent literary fiction.

So, there are significant drawbacks to starting with the debut: a first novel is not always representative of where an author’s work will go in the future,  it might be confined by its autobiographical influence, and the style may often strike you as unpolished compared to more considered, later works. Perhaps this is why two of my friends agreed with the statement “I’m a big fan of sophomore efforts myself” – they feel an author’s second book ends up being the more mature work of art. Still, one of my college professors insists it’s always worth starting with the first book: “closest to the authorial bone, methinks.”

 

Start from the Top

Alternatively, you could start with an author’s most high-profile book – the one that won a major prize, or was on the bestseller list for weeks, or became a ubiquitous book club selection. At the very least, you’ll be relieved to finally know what everybody else is talking about.

possessionTo continue a trend, I was introduced to Atwood through The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize in 2000. I adored it and have been an Atwood fan ever since, though I’m still catching up on some of her early back catalogue. Likewise, my first Byatt novel was her 1990 tour de force, Possession, which also won that year’s Booker Prize. There’s no denying that when you read the prize-winner or the reader favorite, you’re encountering an author at the top of their game (though does this mean you’ll then be disappointed by every other novel you try by that author?). A quick poll of some friends made this the overwhelmingly popular selection.

If, however, you’re like me and resent bestseller lists telling you what you should be reading, you might want to steer clear of these big names until the furor dies down and you can discover them for yourself another time. Or you may feel you have not yet ‘earned’ the experience, in some strange way; as one friend put it, “I tend not to start with the magnum opus…maybe I feel to understand a significant work one needs to have engaged with the writer’s other work first.”

 

It All Starts Now

Not her best, but still a good introduction.

Not her best, but still a good introduction.

Or you could pick up an author’s latest book in your local library or bookstore, throw yourself in with no preparation, and just see how you fare – if you’re meant to appreciate this author’s style and content, you’ll find something to love in this particular volume, whether it’s a shining example or a somewhat lackluster throwaway. This was the second most popular strategy among my friends, one of whom says, “I usually go with the latest one. Not sure why but I would probably guess to experience their most evolved style – telling me if I should trudge through earlier work.”

This is what I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest, The Beginner’s Goodbye, last year; I had long meant to try a Tyler novel, having heard high praise for The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons among others, but had simply never picked one up. Beginner’s Goodbye has a bit of a thin story and is ever so slightly sentimental, but still I could tell that I liked Tyler’s folksy style and appreciated her wry observations on the vicissitudes of life and relationships in suburban Baltimore. She’s good at capturing the emotional undercurrents of everyday life, and here gives a thoroughly convincing glimpse into a hapless male’s psyche.

 

The Odd One Out

masondixonSometimes you may, in a spirit of perversity, wish to read an author’s most unconventional work – the one that stands out as different from the rest of the oeuvre. For instance, Alice Munro is known as a master of the short story; Jonathan Franzen crowns her “the best fiction writer now working in North America” and believes she “achieves, in each of her stories, a gestalt-like completeness in the representation of a life.” So, naturally, I picked up the only one of her many books that is generally considered a novel rather than a short story collection, Lives of Girls and Women. I like short stories, but find them much more challenging than novels; I prefer to get used to one set of characters and then become engrossed in the long, gradual outworking of one central plot. Yet by choosing to read Munro’s novel, that odd man out, I may have missed just what’s so special about her writing.

When I think about trying Thomas Pynchon, I don’t have in mind his famous technological satires, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), but Mason & Dixon (1997), a sprawling work of postmodern historical fiction set in eighteenth-century America. It sounds much more to my tastes than some of his earlier work, but will I really have experienced Pynchon if I cherry-pick the one work I think will suit me?

 

Let Serendipity Rule

happenstanceA friend and former colleague once gave me a pair of Carol Shields’s novels: Happenstance and her Pulitzer-winner, The Stone Diaries. I knew nothing about Shields at that point and so, by the purest happenstance, started with the former. It’s not one of her better novels, though it does have the interesting gimmick of being arranged in two halves, so that you flip the book upside down after reading the wife’s account of events and then read her husband’s story. Still, it was enough to get me hooked, and since then I’ve read and enjoyed many more of the late Canadian-American writer’s books.

In the end, I think it might be best to just grab whichever of an author’s books first comes your way, and take it from there. As one of my friends says, “I read whatever I can get my hands on!” A personal recommendation could have you starting with an author’s work seemingly at random. One friend wanders secondhand bookshops for just that reason, in the hope that “providence leads me to a suitable work.”

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Addyman Books, Hay-on-Wye

If the literary love match is meant to be, the circumstances of your first encounter won’t matter much, after all – but it’s still fun to ponder the question of where to begin.

What’s your strategy when approaching a new author? One of the five tactics described, or something altogether different ?

Tell us in the comments area below.


Rebecca Foster

 
American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.