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Thursday, June 21, 2012

First Novels: Are They Forgivable?

While listening to SF Squeecast's discussion of Kameron Hurley's novel, God's War, I was struck by the suggestion that the novel's perceived faults were forgivable because it is a first novel. Not having read God's War, I cannot speak to the accuracy of the suggested faults, and therefore cannot directly discuss Hurley's novel. However, the question raised by the hosts compelled me to consider my own position on first novels. Are mistakes in first novels forgivable? If so, when do we start to fault an author for not being up to par?

There are no quick and easy answers to this question for me, in part because I don't think a first novel is a relevant starting point for the discussion. What matters, in my mind, is the reader's first experience with an author, which may occur with that author's first novel, or may occur at any other point in the author's career. From my own experience, once I've read a bad book by an author, it casts the rest of their work in a different light. If I happened to have started with better work, then I can probably forgive that author for a crummier novel, regardless of when it arrives
in their career. But if I started with a crappy novel, it becomes very difficult to convince me to try something else, perhaps because my experience has already been tainted by a negative. There is always the chance that I'll try something else by that author, but perhaps only with a lot of prodding. After all, there are so many good books already out there -- waiting to be read. 

For proper first novels, the process is largely the same for me. If your first novel is crap, then it's not likely I'll return to your work. But so far in this post, I've taken as a given that the negative experience is the result of a truly awful novel. Can I forgive minor mistakes if the overall product is good? I don't know. Maybe? That might depend on the author. Myke Cole's first novel, Shadow Ops: Control Point, is far from a perfect novel, but you'll be hard pressed to convince me to ignore anything else he writes (unless he turns into some kind of foam-at-the-mouth crazy person who thinks we should cut off the left foot of every first born son or whatever).* How much do I care about the flaws in his work? Where is the line between "reasonable flaw" and "complete disaster"? I'm not sure I can define the line at this moment; I'm still stewing over the idea.

In other words: it really depends on the situation. Are first novels forgivable? Maybe. But that probably depends on the answer to this question: What makes the novel needing of forgiveness? If the writing is atrocious, then forgiveness may not be forthcoming. Minor plot holes? Who knows...

What do you all think about this? 


*Control Point is a pretty good book. Lots of action. A nice take on superhero abilities, and so on. Plus, Myke is a wonderful human being, as I discovered when Jen and I interviewed him here and brought him on for a discussion episode here.

Note: I'm using "forgive" rather liberally here for lack of a better word. There are very few instances when a bad book causes offense. So take my use of the word lightly.

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  1. Yes.


    Because writing is one of those crafts and arts that practice really does pay dividends. I tolerate flaws and problems in first novels that more established writers should know better and do better with. I am much more forgiving of first novels, because its a down payment, an investment, a bet that better stuff from the writer is coming.

    There are LIMITS to this "grading on a curve" for first novels, but yes, I do grade them on a curve.

    Now, a novelist who, half a dozen novels in her career, is still making amateurish mistakes, they get no truck with me.

  2. I suppose my devil's advocate question is this: Is it not expected that you would have worked out the kinks and flaws before publication? Isn't it basically saying "this is an excuse to be second-best" if we say that first novels are allowed to be more flawed than second or third or fourth novels?

  3. I think you're right about the need for context. I read China Mieville's first novel, "Perdido Street Station," before any of his other books, and so I liked it. If I had read it after reading "Iron Council," though, "Perdido" would have looked abysmal. Writers just get better with time (and maybe more focussed attention from editors). For example, I read Joe Abercrombie's "Best Served Cold," and then tried to read "The Blade Itself," and I basically vomited. It wasn't like he had sinned, but it didn't change the fact that I knew he--or, his later self--could do so much better.

  4. I expect many things to be worked out before publication. The basics of writing should be there, and there should be a minimum level of competency even in a first novel.

    I totally agree with that. But the craft of writing is something that seriously is liable to the 10,000 hour rule.

    Even Brandon Sanderson, who wrote a sheaf of "trunk novels" has gotten better since his ostensible first book, Mistborn.

  5. Perdido was the first CM novel I read, too - IIRC. I have to note, though, that I had personal reasons, at the time, for reading the book - so probably would have read it if it was complete crap. (which I didn't think it was)

    I'm intrigued by Ben's comment - not least because I think if I had read IC first, I might not have ever picked up another Mieville, and that would have been a serious loss for me.

    The whole "first novel" curve idea is a good one, but I don't know how far it can be taken across the board. If I think it's brilliant (whoever it is) and you (generally speaking) think it's crap - and the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I'm talking myself into a circle.

    IS there any excuse to be "second-best"? or produce something "second-rate"? Those are kind of screaming questions to me, but they also feel a bit personal.

    I might think someone's first is genius, and their third is terrible. If so, have I set up a hurdle for them that they can't now get across?

    Not sure how much sense this makes, but thanks for making me think!

  6. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be in here, but I saw your question and found it enjoyable.

    "Is the first novel forgivable?" sounds like a question to ask if the author really matters to the reader. In my experience, the author won't matter to the reader unless his/her story makes an impression. It is with this impression we use to formulate the answer.

    So the question we should ask before that is, "Is the author's first story any good?"

    If so, then yes, the first novel is forgivable for whatever kinks or bogs it had.
    If not, then no, the reader won't want to make the same mistake twice.
    If meh, then the answer will be guaged accordingly as the reader sees fit. If it's taking too long to come up with an opinion, then chances are, things aren't going to work out. Why settle for less when the reader had more?

    Interesting blog, sir. Keep up the good work.