It’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I enjoyed thinking about this week’s topic, Top Ten Literary Debuts. I actually made a list of about 25, so culling it down to 10 was hard. Special mentions should obviously go to classics such as The Pickwick Papers, Wuthering Heights, The Invisible Man and Sense and Sensibility but in the end I went with some of my favourites!
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 1992, The Secret History is a murder mystery about a group of classic students at a privileged New England college who attempt to evoke a new way of thinking and living outside the boundaries of their lives. From the opening page, Tartt lets us know that they have taken their experiment too far and have murdered one of their group, making this striking novel a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit. The Secret History was a literary phenomenon and has since become a literary classic. Has she been able to follow it’s success? That is another argument, but there is no mistaking that The Secret History is a remarkable achievement. Smart, readable, gripping and one of my favourite books of all time.
2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970 while teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons as a single parent. The story is about a year in the life of a young black girl named Pecola Breedlove, who dreams of being a beautiful, blond, blue-eyed child was conceived during a writing workshop and propelled Morrison to literary fame. With it’s themes of racism, abuse and familial love, it is a complex and striking first novel packing as much power as Morrison’s Pulitzer prize winning Beloved.
3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It takes courage to call your debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but courage is not something Dave Eggers is in short supply of. When he was in his early twenties, his mother and father died within months of each other, leaving him as sole guardian of his 8 year old brother Christopher. This part autobiographical and part fictional novel charts their journey, both geographical and psychological to move on from their parents death. At times it may be arch and self-conscious (particularly as it charts Eggers attempts to star on MTVs The Real World) but it is an emotional tale of how we deal with loss and navigate our lives toward adulthood. Eggers has gone on to found McSweeney’s journal and publisher and his most recent novel was The Circle.
4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
American writer and poet Sylvia Plath’s debut novel The Bell Jar was also the only novel she wrote. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it charts it’s protagonists descent into clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a mere month after its first UK publication and under the wishes of both Ted Hughes and Plath’s family, was not published in the US until 1971. To read The Bell Jar is now almost a rite of passage and it remains a searingly honest and beautifully written book.
5. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Before his untimely death, Scottish writer Iain Banks was as well know for his science fiction novels as his literary fiction. However he wrote his debut novel The Wasp Factory in an attempt to be more mainstream as his science fiction novels had not been accepted for publication. His story of Frank, a teenager with anger issues and violent tendencies living on a remote Scottish island became an instant classic and allowed Banks to write full time and excel in both genres. Banks often said that he envisaged The Wasp Factory as a SF novel, with the island standing in for a planet and Frank as the alien. It is certainly an unforgettable and remarkable debut.
6. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In 1964, Harper Lee talking of To Kill A Mockingbird said that ‘I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place’. But sell it did. Lee’s debut novel about a little girl called Scout and her father Atticus Finch, has sold over 40 million copies, been turned into a classic movie and regularly tops the list of the worlds best loved books. Regardless of your thoughts on this year’s follow up Go Set a Watchman, there is no denying the power and strength of what was, for a long time, Harper Lee’s only book.
7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In 1816, following the loss of a baby, Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein at the behest of Lord Byron who suggested all in his company should write a ghost story. Aged only 19 at the time, Shelley’s debut novel has become a gothic classic and is often cited as the beginnings of the science fiction genre. Early reviews may have been mixed, but the classic tale of the doctor who creates life is an archetypal story that has captured readers imaginations for years. Without Frankenstein, could there have been Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde? Who knows, but Frankenstein has entered the public consciousness to become one of our most recognisable monsters.
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
The story of the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may go some way to explaining the astonishing success of Steig Larsson’s trilogy. A journalist and editor, Larsson died at the age of 50 and left three (now four?) unpublished thrillers now titled the Millennium series, featuring journalist Mikeal Blomqvist and expert hacker Lisbeth Salander. Scandinavian crime was just beginning to take off in the UK when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and Larsson became the poster boy for that particular genre. The book may not be the greatest thriller ever written, but there is no doubt that it’s popularity is in most part due to the fascinating character of Lisbeth Salander – the damaged, tough and smart protagonist. Two movie adaptations and over 30 million copies later and the fourth in the series has just been published.
9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers was only 23 when the publication of her debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made her an overnight literary sensation. It is a hauntingly beautiful tale of the deaf-mute John Singer and the social misfits that inhabit the town in which he lives. Often cited alongside Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as one of the main authors of the literature of the American South, McCullers debut is a novel of psychological depth and social insight and remains a masterpiece to this day, giving voice to the lonely, the forgotten and the unloved.
10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man began life as Stephen Hero in 1903, with a planned 65 chapters. Joyce reworked and condensed his novel, introducing his now famous use of free indirect speech but still struggled to find a publisher. At the behest of WB Yeats, he sent the manuscript to Ezra Pound who initially serialised it in The Egoist literary journal before it was finally published in New York in 1916. The publication of his novel earned Joyce a place in the canon of great writers and contains all the techniques he developed in his later works Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses
So, aside from the classics I mentioned at the start, have I missed out anything really obvious? What would be your favourite debut novel?