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Whatever next?

Alex Clark

Filed under: Fiction

As the RSL takes on the administration of the Encore Award for best second novel, arts journalist Alex Clark, chair of this year’s judges, reflects on the joys and pitfalls of the fictional follow-up

Numbers always demand a little context, and ordinals particularly: it might take some time for your first child to become an only; a third glass of wine teeters on the edge of becoming a bacchanalia until the second bottle (and perhaps third, fourth or fifth) is well and truly open. And so it is with a second novel, yet to reveal whether it is to be a full stop or merely the end of a paragraph in a writer’s career.

But many factors determine that context, and not all of them have to do with the writer him or herself. In recent years, we’ve become aware of the increasing challenges that face those working across the creative arts, including the ‘content providers’ on whom we depend to bring us the books in the first place. Declining advances, a radically altered marketplace in which the shiniest covers shout their way loudly to the shopfront or home page, a burgeoning prize culture, vanishing review space, editors under pressure: the threats are clear and present. The image of a novelist labouring under the weight of expectation prompted by a plaudit-laden debut begins to seem fanciful, even luxurious – or at least the province of very few. There is perhaps more of a sense of mounting another assault on the city walls rather than returning glorious from the battle-field.

Except, of course, it all looks very different from the writing desk, where there are as many approaches to the next tranche of work as there are novelists. But whether the words feel like they’re being painstakingly chiselled from stone or whether they flow like water, they must take precedence over impatient agents, the demands and distractions of social media and the leaky roof. The first rule of writing a second novel: write it.

Easier said than done. New work doesn’t always come from obvious places. Edmund Gordon’s fascinating biography of Angela Carter draws our attention to the rush of novels that tumbled out at the beginning of her career – the product, in her words, of ‘neurotic compulsion’. And yet that doesn’t mean their genesis was straightforward. The Magic Toyshop, her second novel, first glimmered into Carter’s imagination courtesy of an ambiguous line in Andre Breton’s First Surrealist Manifesto: ‘The marvellous alone is beautiful.’ Carter toyed with its possible emphases and meanings – is only the marvellous beautiful? Is alone, in this construction, a noun? – until it began to yield associations, atmosphere, thoughts, and to lead Carter to create her claustrophobic, disturbing Home Counties fairy tale. And an interesting footnote: Gordon points out that Breton’s phrase is only ambiguous when read in translation; in French its meaning is clear. In other words, you fashion your inspiration as much as find it, and bend it to your own purposes.

It doesn’t always work out quite that way: another recent biography, Brendan King’s life of Beryl Bainbridge, notes that her second novel, Another Part of the Wood, saw ‘initial enthusiasm’ wane once the writer was faced with ‘the less joyous task of actually writing it’. That’s likely to be a familiar feeling. In Bainbridge’s case, it’s also noticeable that the novel is not among her best known and that, when it was revised and reissued in 1979, it was not a great success, Bainbridge’s work on editing out some of what might be seen as youthfully excessive prose in fact leading to a certain flattening of tone, a loss of ‘vital spark’. And yet, after her second novel came a run of wonderful books in the shape of Harriet Said…, The Dressmaker (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and The Bottle Factory Outing.

Some novelists seem to hit a remarkable seam on their second outings. Nearly a decade after his first novel, The Broom of the System, David Foster Wallace gave the world Infinite Jest, his immense, dystopian take on American society via the world of a tennis academy and a rehab centre – and a novel that makes especially painful reading in today’s dizzying times. Three years after his 1963 debut novel, The Collector, John Fowles swapped a tiny setting – the cellar of the house in which a butterfly fetishist imprisons a young woman – for that of a fictional Greek island; but although The Magus also operates in clear geographical boundaries, its reach to embrace the mythological, the psychological, the occult, is staggering.

The Magus also offers us a different problem. It was in fact almost Fowles’s first novel, written in draft before, but completed and published after, The Collector; he also revised it a decade after publication. Clearly it exerted a particular kind of hold over him. And literature is studded with such little diversions. If, for example, we were to take Graham Greene at his word, and not count in the early work that he subsequently disowned, his second novel would be Stamboul Train. Similarly, Vile Bodies is Evelyn Waugh’s second novel because he destroyed a first. How, too, does one treat groups of works – for example, Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, which were followed by The Cossacks, or novellas, such as Dostoevsky’s The Double?

But these are, in a sense, bibliographic games of little real importance. Suffice to say that, among the second novels that have earned their place in history, we may count The Mill on the Floss, The Master and Margarita, Fahrenheit 451 and Midnight’s Children. More? Well, how about O Pioneers!, On the Road and Pride and Prejudice.

As amply demonstrated, all writers are different, and all writing lives must develop in their own ways. Marilynne Robinson, a novelist of such powers that somehow reading her work does seem like a sort of practice rather than an activity, so much does one have to allow it to settle and work on the mind, wrote her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980. Her second, Gilead, appeared 24 years later; in between, she had taught and written essays and academic works of great distinction. Lucky enough to interview her for the Observer – around the time of her remarkable conversation with her most famous fan, Barack Obama – I asked her about that gap, mindful that I was not the first. She was, as she is, exceptionally patient, and humorous.

‘Well, you know,’ she replied, ‘I became a strange novelist, if not simply a strange person outright. I tend to do what I want to do. For a long time I didn’t want to write fiction. Then suddenly a fictional world was in my imagination, so I wrote it. It’s ridiculous to say I’m passive in relation to these things, because obviously I do exactly what I want to do… I’m a sort of hedonist in the sense that I want to enjoy my life, and sometimes that means writing fiction and sometimes it means writing non-fiction.’

If that’s hedonism, then it looks exceptionally good to me.

In spring 2017, the RSL held an online ballot to find the Nation’s Favourite Second Novel. Find out which novel won here.