This week, in lieu of a BEST OF 2011 series, we’re running five stories focused on Stuff We Liked in 2011.
There’s a different expectation entirely when reading a book that you know is someone’s first. That is, there is at once a tabula rasa feel to it — you have no expectation of a voice you’ve never heard, after all — and a bald excitement — you could be discovering the Next Big Thing! — and a sort of apprehension — is there a reason this person is (x) years old and never published before? When the cacophony of these competing expectations settles down to a dull roar in the back of your mind, you actually get around to reading the thing. Thereafter, there’s not much that differs in the experience until you get to the end, whereupon you not only get to say what you thought of the book, but what you thought of this author, having just read their entire bibliography to date.
2011 was a strong time for debut novelists; it seems publishing houses were willing to take big risks on promoting the noobs this year. Here are some notable debut novelists we turned our heads for.
Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Because who didn’t turn their head, right? Harbach was making waves with this book before anyone but the lucky few had cracked its spine open. It not only made our reviewer very happy, but seemed to strike a chord with everyone as a success story of J.K. Rowling proportions: headlines screamed “Unemployed Harvard Man Auctions Baseball Novel for $650,000” and got us excited about the printed word at a time where every other news story demands that we pity it, lost as it is to just about every other distraction and alternative. Harbach not only injected the literary community with a jolt of energy, he did so with a unique and lovely voice that now has, in itself, a lot to live up to.
Erin Mogenstern’s The Night Circus. With a movie already in the works by the studio that brought us Twilight, Morgenstern’s is a big-budget, high-profile debut that makes the most sense out of all three of DBC’s list selections, from a sales perspective: this book makes a good gift for any age, follows on the heels of the latest paranormal trends in trade literature, and has enough historical context to get bookclubbers foaming at the mouth. Couple it with an enigmatic cover and the very fact that, given all these other factors, Morgenstern IS a debut novelist, and you’ve given us something to talk about. This book is like The Help, in that it’s easy to imagine its continued and ballooning success over the next three years or so.
Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!. This is the author I’m most excited to see more work from. It almost feels like this short, electric novel was both dropped from the sky and pulled like a plug from a stopped-up drain: as a debut, it was both unapologetically immediate, and a sign of other good things to come. This writer, if I had to guess, will quickly become author to a rapid-fire line of other stories that, like Treasure Island!!!, will easily be spotted as Levine’s own handiwork. Now that we’ve had a taste of her voice, we’re only hungrier for it.
And there were others, of course: Téa Obreht and Teju Cole and Ben Lerner. Maybe we’ll get to read and review those folks in 2012. Let’s hope so.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the enduring relevance of David Foster Wallace.