February 4, 2011 10:02 pm

Day of the debutant

illustration of a man catching books

The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, RRP£12.99, 352 pages (March)

The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, Faber, RRP£12.99, 336 pages

Ours Are the Streets, by Sunjeev Sahota, Picador, RRP£12.99, 256 pages

Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 288 pages (March)

The Echo Chamber, by Luke Williams, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£18.99, 384 pages (May)

The Guardian Angel’s Journal, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Piatkus, RRP£6.99, 384 pages (April)

Pub Walks in Underhill Country, by Nat Segnit, Penguin Fig Tree, RRP£12.99, 272 pages (February)

When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman, Headline, RRP£12.99, 336 pages (March)

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Who would be a novelist today? In an age when technology allows everyone in the publishing industry instant access to sales figures, there is nowhere to hide. The data provided by Nielsen BookScan does not lie. Bookshops will not stock writers they know they can’t easily shift. Editors find it harder to justify pet projects to the accountants. As Geoff Dyer recently observed in The Scotsman, these days a writer’s backlist is as much a “ball and chain” as a list of achievement, offering visible evidence of (commercial) failure.

For most literary authors, the not-so-brave new world of publishing by numbers is terrible news. But there is one type of writer exempt from its strictures: the first novelist. Unsullied by inconvenient sales figures, the debutant exists uniquely in a state of prelapsarian grace, a blank canvas on which publishers can dream.

 

“It’s counterintuitive,” says Francis Bickmore, Dyer’s editor at Canongate Books, “but with a first novel there is nothing to dissuade a publisher from their optimism – and if publishers weren’t optimistic at heart, then we’d all be doing something more lucrative.” No wonder that, as the agent and soon-to-be first-time novelist David Miller at Rogers, Coleridge and White, says: “The market for debuts is always strong.”

Even recession has failed to dent the perennial desire for the new. While the book industry as a whole has been slow to regain confidence since 2007’s high-water mark for deals, 2010 saw several six-figure advances for debut works of fiction. The existence of bookstore promotions for first novels – notably, the Waterstone’s 11 and the Amazon Rising Stars – and the prevalence of dedicated prizes, such as the Costa First Novel Award, Orange New Writers and the Betty Trask, also offer an incentive that does not exist for second or third novels (by contrast, the Encore Award for second novels is far less well-known).

“Publishers are taking gambles again,” says John Freeman, editor of the new-writing magazine Granta, “although the number of books they take gambles on has gone down.” And gamble is the right word. The average debut sells fewer than 1,000 copies, and tales are legion of first novels that have earned hefty advances only to disappear without trace – so much so that canny publishers now play down the size of deals in order to lessen expectations.

 

The small avalanche of first novels due to be published in 2011 proves that editors remain enthusiasts at heart. But what does it tell us about the preoccupations of a new generation of writers and about the health of grassroots writing? If, indeed, it makes sense to think about the current crop of debut authors as a “generation” at all. We are talking about a collection of disparate individuals, working largely in isolation, often on different continents – a bit like the proverbial monkeys banging out Shakespeare, perhaps, except with word processors instead of typewriters.

Nor are publishing houses a uniform mass. They range from unashamedly commercial to unapologetically highbrow; and from the slickly corporate to the one-man-band variety. For this reason, too, all generalisations about “the debut” should be treated with caution: it’s a multi-headed, shape-shifting beast, and thankfully so.

Yet, despite these caveats, it’s still possible to identify patterns or trends. It is clear, for example, that the market for debuts is increasingly an international one, with new talent from the US predominating. One London editor estimates that she receives five American manuscripts for every British one, and that the US submissions are generally far superior.

 

Relative population size apart, it’s not hard to imagine why this might be. What the US provides, in a way that Britain doesn’t, are effective opportunities for young writers to develop their craft and to market themselves. The explosion of graduate writing programmes – which dwarfs that in the UK – has created an ocean of competent line-and-length word merchants from which a small pool of genuinely inspired writers can emerge. Would these debutants succeed without that support structure? Probably. But not so quickly, and looking rather less polished.

At the same time, a vibrant array of American magazines, – from The Iowa Review to Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s – offers outlets for short fiction, while New York acts as a magnet for ambitious young writers in a way that London can’t pretend to. The existence of this literary “scene” may not be to everyone’s taste, creating at worst a toxic cocktail of careerism and conformism: for a satirical take on the bitchy world of literary club evenings and salons, New York-style, read Adam Langer’s 2010 novel The Thieves of Manhattan. But, like it or not, this set-up creates a buzz around young talent and a “platform” from which publishing houses can promote debuts.

 

It is difficult to imagine an unpublished British writer receiving the same exposure as 25-year-old Téa Obreht. The youngest name on the New Yorker’s Top 20 under 40 list, Obreht is a graduate of the Cornell University writing programme whose work has appeared in The Atlantic magazine. Her first book, The Tiger’s Wife, which is published in Britain in March by Weidenfeld, is the myth-infused tale of a young doctor in a war-ravaged Balkan country trying to find the truth about her grandfather’s death. Obreht’s novel is that rarity: a debut that arrives fully formed, super-smart but wearing its learning lightly.

Above all, The Tiger’s Wife bristles with confidence, a trait it shares with another impressive American debut, The History of History, published by Faber. Ida Hattemer-Higgins’ novel starts with an American tour guide in Berlin, who wakes in a forest one day with no memory of how she got there; it then uses the metaphor of amnesia to explore a painful national and family history. The History of History is disquieting and playful to the point of pretentiousness, and is equally likely to infuriate or enchant. But what it undeniably has is a distinctive voice. The book swaggers.

In Britain, such boldness seems a rarity. More than a decade has passed since the appearance of Zadie Smith’s Anglo-Jamaican family saga White Teeth, in 2000, a book that felt as if it defined a moment in British life: new millennium, new Labour, so-called “post-racial”. Despite numerous imitators, no UK debut since has so self-assuredly laid claim to the zeitgeist.

 

That’s not to say that young British writers aren’t trying to tackle big “issues”; it’s just that the canvas they use tends to be smaller. Published by Faber this month, Ours Are the Streets is a case in point. Sunjeev Sahota’s gripping, if uneven, debut is the story of a young British-Muslim from Sheffield who becomes a suicide bomber after his father’s death.

Inspired by the 7/7 bombers who attacked London in 2005, and written in the form of a confessional letter, the novel also foreshadows the case of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, the Luton man who blew himself up in Stockholm in December. Sahota’s treatment of his unlikely jihadi, Imtiaz, is convincing and sympathetic. The result is an intense psychological miniature. For all its geopolitical concerns, Sahota’s debut remains an old-fashioned coming-of-age story, or Bildungsroman – which is traditionally what so many first novels, from Henry James’s Roderick Hudson to Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers, have been.

A comparable scale, if not tone, can be found in Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English. One of the most fought-over British first novels in 2010, it was sold after a 12-publisher auction. Like Ours Are the Streets, the book appears to have been inspired by a high-profile news story, in this case the stabbing of 10-year-old Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor in south London in 2000.

 

Kelman’s story sees the gang wars at a London comprehensive through the eyes of Harrison Opuku, an 11-year-old-boy who has just moved from Ghana. Told with humour, despite the gritty subject matter and setting, in essence it’s the tale of an innocent abroad, as the naive Harrison turns detective to find out who killed one of his schoolmates.

Pigeon English charms its way into some hard places, which feels, at the risk of a huge generalisation, a very British approach to a first novel. The winner of the 2009 Costa First Novel Award, Beauty, by Raphael Selbourne, did something similar, taking the story of a 19-year-old Bangladeshi woman in Wolverhampton fleeing an arranged marriage, and turning it into a deft comedy of manners.

Intriguingly, neither Selbourne nor Kelman come from the ethnic groups about which they’ve chosen to write. Nor does Shelley Harris, whose debut, Jubilee, has just been sold to Weidenfeld & Nicholson and is due to be published in 2012. A tale “of race, identity, community and childhood”, it centres on a young Asian boy at the time of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. Make of these acts of cultural ventriloquism what you will. Cheeky attempts to muscle in on someone else’s patch? Or signs that young, white, British authors increasingly feel they cannot write about Britain without addressing its multiplicity of cultures?

 

In the US – where a generation of young writers of African and South-Asian heritage is coming of age – engagement with ethnicity seems a given. Writing in 2007 about the task of choosing that year’s Granta Best Young American Novelists, the magazine’s then-editor, Ian Jack, observed: “American writing is no longer so smugly self-contained ... All of [the judges] agreed on one thing: ethnicity, migration and ‘abroad’ had replaced class as a source of social tension [on the page].”

To call 2011’s crop of British first novels “smugly self-contained” would be harsh. But it’s possible to detect a strain of studied quirkiness. Luke Williams’ self-consciously literary tale of family and empire, The Echo Chamber, features a two-month overdue baby with preternatural hearing. (Chapter Six boasts the arch Tristram Shandy-ish heading: “I Gestate, Listen and – Finally – I Am Born.”)

Williams is not alone in his whimsy. The protagonist of Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s The Guardian Angel’s Journal is a 40-year-old Belfast woman who dies only to return as her own protective spirit. Written in the form of a Wainwright-style walking guide, Nat Segnit’s Pub Walks in Underhill Country depicts a lovelorn, heavy-drinking rambler losing touch with reality, while one of the big-money acquisitions at last year’s London Book Fair, Sarah Winman’s breezy When God Was a Rabbit heaves with eccentrics, as it traces the lives of a sister and brother from 1970s childhood in the Cornish countryside to New York around the time of 9/11.

 

What should we make of this outbreak of wilful idiosyncrasy? It represents a way of looking at the world that is not very cosmopolitan. Often it’s not metropolitan (many of the best debuts of recent years have come from what used to be patronisingly called “the provinces”). But in its humour, sentimentality, suspicion of all things “cool”, and attention to the nuances of place, language and class, it also represents the authentic expression of a distinctively British aesthetic.

Perhaps, in an age of increasingly globalised, homogenised culture, there is more desire than ever for that kind of writing. It certainly helps explain the enormous popularity of other debuts from the quirky school, such as Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2006) Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2007) and Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995).

Which, if any, of 2011’s first novels will similarly catch the public imagination? The breakout book, ubiquitous on the Tube and beach, is notoriously hard to predict. The good news for aspiring British authors, though, is that the hunger for new voices is genuine and enduring – and that there is a premium paid for homegrown talent, just as in football the best English Premier League players tend to be valued more highly than equally able foreign imports.

“Publishers and agents won’t recognise my genius”, may be the classic complaint of the unpublished writer (and, yes, it does help if you happen to be a journalist, academic or actor). But the truth is that the frustration cuts both ways. There has seldom been a better time to sell a debut. Just don’t think too hard about what follows.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival and writes about debut fiction for the FT

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