This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 15 June 2017.
As a member of the National Book Critics Circle, I had both the privilege and pleasure of reading all six of the finalists for the 2016 John Leonard Award, given for an author’s first book.
Of the six, I felt that five were exceptional, while the sixth was merely well done. When I mentioned my reading assignment to a friend — a successful author — he made a face at the idea of having to read a bunch of debut authors.
His reaction made me laugh. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read are debuts. To Kill a Mockingbird, anyone? (We will leave a discussion of the travesty of Go Set a Watchman for another time.)
One book that is as close to a “perfect” novel as I’ve experienced won the first Leonard prize, in 2013: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (reviewed for the Independent by Rimas Blekaitis). Marra’s triple-threat command of plot, character, and language is breathtaking.
The writing strength of debut authors is one of the primary discoveries I’ve made since starting to read as a reviewer. These days, if I’m looking for topnotch literature and the choice is between a veteran and a newcomer, I’ll take my chances on the newbie.
As I noted in a column for Late Last Night Books on a similar subject (“When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”): “Chalk it up to the new realities of publishing, perhaps, but it used to be that debut novelists typically ‘showed promise,’ and it took a few books for them to really find their voice. I’ve been amazed at how many new novelists now show up as fully accomplished authors, confident and in command.”
In contrast, I’m finding more seasoned authors whose latest works lack focus and coherence, and instead become, frankly, self-indulgent. What’s going on? Is it that publishers believe people will simply buy based on a name, and the content no longer matters? Do the authors think they’re too good to be edited?
If so, they’re both wrong.
Consider, for example, Emily Jeanne Miller’s review of Donna Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch: “I’ve wondered if these rapturous reviewers actually read the book’s second half…The problem is [Tartt] (or her editor) didn’t know when to say when; instead, the details and descriptions, often of places, people, or events that have no bearing on the plot, abound, weighing the story down and ultimately becoming irritating. I found myself flipping through the pages, skimming over conversations and scenes to see if anything would actually happen, which often it did not.”
David O. Stewart’s hilariously frustrated review of James Lee Burke’s House of the Rising Sun details a litany of authorial self-indulgence and editorial failings — though it’s hard to imagine that Burke would suffer anyone to edit him.
And it was obvious to me as I wrote my own recent review of David J. Garrow’s Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama that the author had run out of time, word count, or both when he decided to compress nine years of campaign and presidency into a 50-page epilogue. “The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.”
As anyone associated with the publishing business knows, editing is increasingly the victim of shrinking margins and brutal competition. When anyone can publish anything at any time at little cost and thereby join in the elbow-throwing scrum for readership, editing gets left on the sidelines. Stories are rampant of how few editors remain on staff at the big publishing houses.
So why does it seem that debut books get the lion’s share of the editing? Possibly because the first book has to be strong in order to make the author’s name. Plus, rather often, the person who does the primary editing of a debut is the agent.
That’s certainly earning your 15 percent.
All of this is a bad strategy. Publishers may be saving money in the short run, and they may con readers into shelling out 25 or 30 bucks for that first poorly edited mishmash by an acclaimed author, but chances are those readers won’t make that mistake again. Life’s too short to read bad books.
As a committed reader, I want publishers big and small to embrace the mantra that good editing makes good books. In fact, I suggest a book that’s set to come out this October be required reading for any outfit calling itself a publisher. The book is What Editors Do (University of Chicago Press), and it’s edited by the inestimable Peter Ginna. (When you’re selected to edit a book about editing, you are officially the Jedi Master of your craft.)
I will totally own my word-nerd status by declaring I can’t wait to get a copy of this book. They had me at the first two sentences of the pre-pub synopsis: “Editing is an invisible art where the very best work goes undetected. Editors strive to create books that are enlightening, seamless, and pleasurable to read, all while giving credit to the author.”
Plus, there’s that acknowledgement of “the economic realities of publishing. What Editors Do shows why, in the face of a rapidly changing publishing landscape, editors are more important than ever.”
Can I have an “Amen!”?
By the way, if you don’t know, Yaa Gyasi won this year’s Leonard prize for her novel Homegoing (read Tara Campbell’s review here). Gyasi is a supremely talented young writer, and her debut is stunning in its scope and complexity. She deserves every bit of acclaim she’s received. Offhand, I don’t know who her editor is, but I’m sure hoping they stick around for her next book.