Discussion | Should we be kinder to debut novels?

I’ve read a few debut books this year so far and I started wondering about debut authors and how harshly we should be judging them.

I read and reviewed Ignite the Stars this year and I didn’t enjoy it very much. This is Maura Milan’s debut novel and whilst it had all of the ideas for a good story, I felt like it needed some work. This is her only book out so far, and it got me thinking about authors I love and whether I enjoyed their debut books.

V.E. Schwab is a well-established author and the first book I read of hers was A Darker Shade of Magic, the first in an already popular series and one she wrote later on in her career. Her debut novel, The Near Witch, doesn’t compare. If I’d read The Near Witch first I don’t think I would have fallen in love with her in the way that I have. Some of my opinion is based on the plot of each book but some of it is due to the writing. Although you can see the raw talent in her debut, her later books show how she has improved.

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One of my favourite authors is Chris Wooding. I stumbled across Poison and it blew me away. I’ve read lots of his work and, I’ll probably eventually read everything he has written. When I read his debut novel, Catchman, however, it fell short of my expectations. It had the kind of twist that Wooding, in his later writing, has perfected but the execution of it here was poor. If I had read Catchman first, I wouldn’t have thought of Wooding as the brilliant writer that I do now.

This has all brought me to the question: should we should be kinder to debut novels?

Writers should be continually improving at their craft with experience. Maybe it takes writing a few books to get into the swing of things, to trust your audience enough to not over explain, to learn where the plot might drag or just generally take on feedback. Established authors have already had that time to learn. So how can I judge a debut book against another author’s writing who has had time to hone their craft, make mistakes or publish okay books or bad books before publishing great ones?

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On the other hand some debuts are fantastic.

I have recently read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman and The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. Whilst the former didn’t blow me away, it is objectively good and a well-deserved bestseller. For the latter, I was really impressed with the story, the writing, the imagination. These are both debut novels. Having looked up these authors I discovered that both Kuang and Honeyman went on notable writing workshops before being publishing. So, does that mean that they worked, not necessarily harder but in a more formal way to improve their writing? Is that why their debuts are better? Should we judge these debut books to a higher standard? (Also, side question: am I just a book snob?)

But perhaps, this is something that is exceptional.

I know I judge books quite harshly but I know it is tough getting published and maybe I just need to take into account that as a debut author, they may not have the same understanding of the industry as another author. They may not have had the opportunity to do a prestigious writing course. They may, simply, not be naturally as brilliant. An author’s debut book isn’t guaranteed to be their best work or a bestseller. A debut book means that someone recognises a writer’s potential and thinks that it is worth publishing and sharing it with the world.

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I don’t really have a satisfying conclusion to this topic. As a reader, I’d like to judge all books by my personal bar, but this topic has got me thinking about when that’s a valid bar to use.

I would love to hear your thoughts! Do you think there is a lot of pressure on authors to write an excellent debut? Do you take into account whether you are reading a book by a debut author?

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5 thoughts on “Discussion | Should we be kinder to debut novels?

  1. Oh Arub, I LOVE this and I definitely have thoughts on it. Personally I don’t really take into account whether or not the book I’m reviewing is a debut because I feel like that’s such a broad variable. Like, say there’s Author A who’s never attended any writing classes and has only written on and off over the years, and the first book they write is the one that gets published. And there’s Author B who *has* attended writing classes and wrote five whole books before getting their sixth published. And then maybe there’s Author C who wrote and polished their book for 10+ years (like Pat Rothfuss!) before having it published. They’re all debuts, but of different categories. And I don’t know how I can take all of that into account when writing a review without going crazy. It’s hard enough for me to keep track of all the story stuff. 😀

    And I wonder the same about self-published authors too. Because on one hand, it kind of seems unfair for you to judge them by the same standards as traditionally-published books. But on the other hand, it ALSO seems unfair for you to lower the bar for them, because that’s like saying that all SP books are of lower quality than traditional books.

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    1. That is such a fair point! I suppose it would be impossible (and a little ridiculous) to research each author and judge the book based on the author’s experience/background than the book itself.

      I do feel a little guiltier putting down debut books because often these authors don’t have that experience, but maybe it’s a matter of judging each book individually but writers on their entire works.

      I’ve only read one self-published book and that was non-fiction, so not sure how I’d judge that. Though, I work in publishing so I’m definitely biased towards the industry. 😉

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  2. I agree with Kathy.

    You never know how much experience a “debut” author has. I read whatever grabs my attention. If one book from an author doesn’t appeal to me, I stop reading it but keep an open mind about them in the future in the vast majority of cases.

    Writing styles evolve. People change. I think there’s something to be said for giving them another chance if you didn’t like their first attempt.

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  3. OMG someone else in this community has read Poison. LOVE that book.

    I tend to be kinder to debuts and give them a little leeway because I’ve definitely seen writers get stronger the more books they have behind them. That said, I’m in the middle of an interesting experiment right now where I’m rereading a debut I LOVED after being less than ecstatic about the authors second and third books, and I’m feeling a bit less forgiving of some plot holes than in my first read. Some things are newbie mistakes and some things are just that author’s style. 🤷‍♀️

    Great post, Arub! Fabulous insight, as always. 💜

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  4. This is an excellent discussion post, Arub. I personally think that it shouldn’t be a factor in how you review a book. Where I do let it factor in is when it either shows potential but isn’t as impressive as I would have liked it to be or when it’s incredible. In those cases, I allow myself to say: “It is a debut novel but it has potential, so I’ll give the author another chance before moving on” or “If it’s sooooo good for a debut novel, then imagine what they can do with more experience!”. These would be concluding remarks, instead of calculating the fact that they are a debut author or not right at from the beginning. That way I’d review a book for what it is instead of gauging each other/book based on how much work was put into it/how much experience the author has hahah

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