Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The greatest debuts

In English-language prose fiction, that is. Here without much further ado or explanation is the list of the twenty-five greatest literary debuts, which I posted to Twitter earlier today. John Wilson of Books and Culture asked me to put the list in one place, and so.

As Darin Strauss recognized, the list is something of a jeu, recklessly tossing together great books that happened to be first books along with books that defined (and, in some cases, foreshortened) a literary career. (A couple of changes have been made to the original list, removing Charles Portis’s True Grit—in actuality, his second novel—and Joyce’s Dubliners and including Invisible Man, which I unaccountably overlooked the first time around.) At all events, the titles on this list are characterized as much by splash as by merit.

  1. Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)
  2. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
  3. Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)
  4. Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (1961)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)
  7. Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836–37)
  8. J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  9. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind (1936)
10. Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
11. Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
12. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)
13. Ken Kesey, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
14. Thomas Pynchon, V. (1963)
15. Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
16. John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra (1934)
17. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)
18. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
19. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
20. Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)
21. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
22. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
23. Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)
24. Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988)
25. (tie) Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)
       (tie) Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1982)

Update: Honorable mention (that is, suggestions from readers)—Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847); Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1920); James Jones, From Here to Eternity (1951); Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road (1961); George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970); Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987); Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000); Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (2000); ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003); Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (2011).

Update, II: Patrick Kurp’s additions (in his order): Stevie Smith, Novel on Yellow Paper; Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy; Philip Larkin, Jill; Herman Melville, Typee; Anthony Powell, Afternoon Men; Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall; Tobias Smollet, The Adventures of Roderick Random; Ivy Compton-Burnett, Pastors and Masters; and Henry Green, Blindness.


Unknown said...

David, I am so glad you have included Flannery O'Connor's debut novel. And I am more glad to read another of your informative and thought-provoking postings at ACB.

I hope you do not mind that I have somewhat borrowed your blog title, and I have revised it for my own blog: a commonplace from eastrod. As you would expect, I focus for the most part on Flannery O'Connor, but I allow time and space for other matters as well. Do stop by if you can. And do forgive me for being a bit of a blog-title-plagiarist.

Rand Careaga said...

I've long thought that Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse was damned impressive for a first novel. Also, A Fan's Notes, although that didn't presage a literary career of any consequence. Bruce Duffy debut, The World As I Found It, was dazzling, but for some reason I did not thereafter follow his career.

Unknown said...

Nordhoff and Hall's first joint novel was Mutiny on the Bounty.

I could make a case for "Gitanjali (Song offerings); a collection of prose translations made by the author from the original Bengali" by Rabindranath Tagore, for it was the author's first book published in the West, and he won the Nobel Prize because of it.

Anonymous said...

I must be missing something because I don't understand why Wuthering Heights is not listed.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I suppose Scott's Waverley belongs on the list for the similar reasons to Pamela, although it is odd to think of it as a debut for this veteran, popular writer. But it was his debut prose fiction and it certainly made a splash. The novel has never quite dried itself out.

Was Zuleika Dobson Beerbohm's first book that was not essays? I think it was. So that is not a bad candidate, although I doubt it should knock anyone out of the top 25.

D. G. Myers said...

@Amateur Reader (Tom)

I did try to restrict myself to a writer’s literary debut. That’s why James Dickey’s Deliverance, for example, is not listed, or Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution.

The only (partial) exception above is William Golding, who had published one small obscure collection of poems before making a splash with Lord of the Flies.

Unknown said...

David Lamson was on San Quentin's death row when chapters of his book "We Who Are About to Die," appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. That was in 1935. Lamson's third and fourth trials ended in mistrials, and on April 3, 1936 California dropped charges against him, and he was free man. Lamson worked at RKO briefly, published a novel, and then wrote stories for The Saturday Evening Post until the midfifties. Lamson wrote himself off death row and into The Saturday Evening Post.

Unknown said...

Robert Graves' I, Claudius and Flann O'Brien's At-Swim-Two-Birds were the first novels of these authors, and made your March 6, 2009 list of the Greatest Novels Ever.

D. G. Myers said...

@Michael Connors—

Robert Graves’s first novel was something called My Head! My Head!, published in 1925. By the time he had already published several volumes of poetry.

B. Glen Rotchin said...

All American and British for shame. What about Canadian fiction like Alice Munro's "Dance of the Happy Shades," W.P Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," Rohinton Mistry's "Such a Long Journey," or Rawi Hage's "De Niro's Game."

Unknown said...

The most recent printing of My Head My Head is 61 pages (See the 2006 Carcanet edition King Jesus ; and, My head! My head! by Robert Graves; edited by Robert A. Davis) which is rather short for a novel, and it reads more like a chapter from The White Goddess rather than a novel.

Jeff Mauvais said...

Three debut novels that grew out of their authors' experiences in World War II were critical and popular successes at the time of publication: Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead", James Jones's "From Here to Eternity" and John Horne Burns's "The Gallery". None are widely read now, another symptom of our national amnesia regarding the human costs of war.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

A tip of the hat to you appears at my blog. And best wishes are included here as well.

Unknown said...

David, here is the link -

bibliobill said...

Why did you eliminate James Joyce's Dubliners? Because he had already published two small books of poetry? But you made an exception for Golding -- who is far less important that Joyce. Dubliners or Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (his first novel) must be on the list!