Craig Silvey’s second novel, Jasper Jones, is actually his third. He had been working for several years on his second, unnamed, manuscript before he found it getting out of control. ‘I kept expanding it and it turned into this amorphous blob and I just got lost inside it.’
The idea for Jasper Jones came tapping at Silvey’s window late one night and—though he tried to ignore it to keep working on his still unfinished second manuscript—he reluctantly let the idea in. ‘Once I started Jasper Jones I felt so incredibly guilty about shelving the second book that I was working on both, so I was just working crazy hours.’
Silvey lets a book or an idea direct him. ‘I start a book with a lot of faith in a very small idea and then trust that instinctively I know where it’s going or that it’ll sort itself out.’[i] His approach paid off with his third book, Jasper Jones, which earned him the 2010 NSW Premier’s Prize for Fiction, a short-listing for the Miles Franklin Award and probably his nomination for Cleo’s Bachelor of the Year.
Silvey’s hesitation over his second publication was relatively brief, with only five years between books. Many novelists take longer or disappear completely. The creative block between first and second novel has plagued writers such as Harper Lee and Booker winner Arundhati Roy.
The condition has afflicted so many writers that it has its own initialism: second novel syndrome (or SNS). Diagnosing SNS in 2006, critic, novelist and literary surgeon Malcolm Knox treated several patients including Zadie Smith and DBC Pierre, who have both brought out disappointing second books since Knox’s article.[ii] According to Knox, the condition can afflict some novelists to such an extent that it can be terminal, as in the case of Pulitzer Prize winner John Kennedy Toole who ‘died before A Confederacy of Dunces was published—a deft way of evading questions about how he was going to follow it up’.
Like a virus, SNS has a strain that has adapted to the Australian literary environment. The Australian/Vogel award for an unpublished manuscript by an author under thirty-five has launched several careers, such as those of Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. But some authors have found the early success the Vogel brings damaging to their next book. Darren Williams won the Vogel in 1994 for his novel Swimming in Silk, but his second book, Angel Rock, did not appear until eight years later. At the Sydney Writers Festival in 2002, Williams saw his Vogel as a bittersweet prize: ‘The Vogel begins careers. That’s why it’s important. It doesn’t make it easier to write the second novel.’[iii]
Today Williams lives in Brisbane, dividing his time between parenting, part-time library work and writing his third novel. Much like Silvey, Williams’ second novel had ‘a lot of false starts and deadends … all sorts of ideas that came and went’. After the publication of Swimming with Silk, Williams moved to London and wrote more than 200,000 words towards a novel that failed to enthuse publishers or agents. The problem as Williams saw it was that despite winning one of the Australia’s most prestigious prizes for a young novelist, he had limited skills with the longer form. ‘I didn’t know that much about the form or structure of a novel,’ he admits. His first novel had been rich in imagery and poetics, but plot was not a strong feature. ‘A literary novel has no rules, but that’s not necessarily the best thing for a young writer.’
A widely held truism in publishing is that you get your first novel for free—there are no expectations about a first book because a debut author seemingly comes out of nowhere with the benefit of novelty for readers and reviewers. For Williams there was no pressure with his first book or entering the Vogel. ‘If you get nowhere with that [first book] you haven’t humiliated yourself publicly. You can put it in the drawer and get on with your life.’ But the second novel comes laden with expectations. ‘Instead of you being at home writing there’s this whole publishing industry and you have to start thinking about who’s buying this book you’re writing. It’s hard not to think of that once you’ve been exposed to that business side of it.’ Williams found himself second-guessing what his audience wanted and this worked against his own style. While his publishers were respectfully hands-off, he felt pressure to write a book for his perceived audience.
The second novel brought about his transition from amateur to professional. While Williams wrote his first book with the support of friends and family, what led to publication of his second was useful editorial input from his agent and the publisher at HarperCollins who championed and published his book. ‘He advocated for my book and that’s what you need: someone in the publishing industry who believes in your book.’ It was Williams’ agent who suggested he read crime fiction to cure the ailing structure of his second novel. With the increased expectations of the second manuscript came more assistance.
Yet the publishing industry offered only limited support and Williams had to redraft his second book with little editorial input. The ‘role that the publisher used to have has shifted outside to … writers centres and private editors. I think it’s a financial thing.’ While he’s positive about publishers, believing that they are ‘in it for the long term’ with a ‘genuine love of literature’, he thinks they are in essence profit- driven—‘they’re not a charity for poor old writers’. For Williams critical success was problematic, since—as is the case for many Vogel winners—it was not matched by strong sales. ‘If a first novel comes out and it doesn’t make a huge splash, when the second novel comes out [publishers] will probably spend less promoting it,’ Williams observes.[iv]
As publisher of the Vogel winners, Allen & Unwin’s Annette Barlow has seen her fair share of SNS. She’s witnessed difficulties that dog second-time novelists as they lose their initial creative spark: ‘Once a first novel has been lauded in some way … that free spirit departs and a certain level of expectation can stymie the ease of writing.’ While Barlow acknowledges that early success can weigh heavily on some writers, she believes the Vogel represents an important step in writers taking themselves seriously. ‘Many of the winners/shortlistees have told me that it’s the first time they feel able to call themselves writers.’[v]
The problem of authorial identity is one shared by Chris Womersley, who is unsure what to call himself despite winning the 2008 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction for his debut, The Low Road. ‘I still baulk at calling myself a novelist even though I probably could. Having a book out and getting some sort of accolade means that when it came to doing the second one I thought, I know I can do it.’ At the time of interview, Womersley was completing editing for his second novel, Bereft (due for release in September 2010), but far from being afflicted with SNS he seemed optimistic.[vi]
Womersley realised the importance of starting a second book before expectations and confusions about pleasing an audience could crowd in on him. His approach is pragmatic, aiming for action over neurosis. ‘I don’t subscribe wholly to the mystical ideas of artistic creation—the whole dreaming process. Ultimately you write a book because you sit down on your arse and you start typing.’ But he can see how SNS might strike some writers. ‘It’s the classic second album syndrome, because when you’re twenty-two you can put out a great pop album based on twenty years of absorbing influences.’ Fictionalised autobiography has proven a great source for first novels, leading to the other great truism that everyone has at least one book in them. But perhaps not two.
The Low Road was a grungy tale of a small-time criminal escaping his past—as far from autobiographical as journalist and father Womersley could hope for. By the time the book was published he found ‘I was heartily sick of the characters who aren’t all that pleasant to be around’ and despite full-time work as a journalist and new responsibilities of fatherhood, was keen to start on his next book. ‘You don’t want to do the same album or the same book again, but you want to use what you’ve learnt in writing the first novel.’ Womersley’s prescription for SNS seems simple enough: momentum. Even before the reviews for his first novel were out he had ideas for short stories and the kernel of another novel.
Womersley took three years to write and publish Bereft, which seems but a blink in comparison to the twelve years between Eric Dando’s debut Snail and its follow-up Oink, Oink, Oink. In 1996 Snail was praised for its stylised lack of punctuation and anti- plot, but Dando took a while to answer it with a book as impressively original. He was forced to reinvent his style for a follow-up as fresh as his first.
As well as facing increasing expectations, writers must develop their technique following a first novel. While a first-time novelist could fluke a structure that works, the odds get longer second time around. As Womersley says, ‘There are a lot of very good writers who can squeeze out 10,000 words but pulling that out to 50,000 to 70,000 words is a whole other thing altogether. We can’t all run a marathon.’
The Low Road is ‘a very male book’, according to Womersley, and was labelled a thriller or crime novel. Certainly the awarding of the Ned Kelly points to its success as a genre book. Bereft ‘ended up being a slightly warmer tale’ with a female protagonist and set not in the gritty present but just after the First World War. The challenge for Womersley with this book will be to take his existing audience with him to a different genre and period. While he’s aware of that (‘You make a stamp with your first novel by which all your other books are measured,’ he says), he thought it was more important to extend his creative range than to serve an audience. The expectations surrounding Womersley’s second book are not as great as those placed on a former Vogel winner. He wrote Bereft with the confidence of moderate success. ‘Coming to the second one I knew at least that I could write a book and it’s just a matter of sitting down, finding the time and having a good idea.’
As fiction acquisition editor at Scribe, Aviva Tuffield has worked closely with Womersley on both his titles. Tuffield believes there is definitely ‘pressure to repeat a … success both from the publisher’s and from the writer’s point of view’. As a smaller independent press, Scribe, says Tuffield, aims to work with authors in the long term: ‘My enthusiasm for their debut novel (or their first book with Scribe, at least) is also an investment in the books to come and their career as a whole.’[vii]
But it’s not all expectations. When writing a second novel, an author is forced to confront just how unprofitable writing can be. Williams highlighted the need for another source of income and Tuffield concurs. ‘An author’s motivation drops off with the realisation that the market for fiction is quite small, not just here, but also overseas. Few Australian writers can make a living from only writing novels.’ Womersley is realistic about this. ‘I take it on the chin that I’ll live a life of near poverty.’ However, as with Williams and Silvey, Womersley did take a more professional approach to writing his second book, including employing an agent. He admits to having limited negotiating skills but says his agent also gave him a detailed report on his manuscript that led to a stronger redraft. Having an agent allowed Womersley to separate the creative and the commercial aspects of writing. ‘It does put a bit of distance between you and the publisher … I don’t want to be dealing with my editor about money.’
Tuffield is certainly keen to see her authors develop. She was instrumental in the founding of the CAL/Scribe Prize, nicknamed ‘the old Vogel’ because it is awarded to a manuscript by a writer over thirty-five. ‘Good writing takes time and often requires life experience, so older writers have that going for them.’ The first winner of the prize was 72-year-old Mavis Morton for her forthcoming A Darker Music. According to Tuffield, older writers are better prepared for publication: they ‘are often very dedicated and determined to make the most of this opportunity to be published because they’ve waited for it a long time and they’ve given up things to find the time to write’.
While SNS wasn’t a problem for Womersley, he agrees that poor pay and lack of status make things tough. ‘You do need to be fairly committed, especially in Australia … you still feel like a bit of a pariah as an artist or a writer.’ It’s a concern shared by three-time novelist, critic and creative-writing teacher James Bradley. ‘It’s quite difficult working as a novelist in Australia to feel [that] what you do matters,’ Bradley says.
Despite a reasonable amount of success, including shortlistings for the Commonwealth Writers and Miles Franklin prizes, Bradley has doubted his career choice. ‘You do get to this point where it doesn’t make sense on a cost-benefit level.’ Bradley’s first novel, Wrack, sold well enough to allow him to keep writing and his third novel, The Resurrectionist, appealed to an international audience as it was based on Edinburgh’s infamous Hare murders. ‘If you have a degree of success overseas it becomes quite difficult to know who your audience is.’
Over the course of his career he’s observed what he calls the ‘fetishisation of the new’—debut novelists can be bright young things or rising stars but writers attempting a second novel don’t have such epithets. ‘You’re probably selling all right but you don’t have that buzz around you and publishers like that buzz.’ While literary culture celebrates novelty and newness, the ability to continue a career as a novelist requires developing technique. It also comes with greater pressure to perform. Bradley sounds nostalgic when he says of a first novel: ‘There’s a freedom that you have because no-one’s watching. You don’t have an audience in a sense and there’s no expectations.’
As a writing teacher, Bradley has known cases similar to Williams’. ‘If the first book is successful you start imagining that there’s this audience that you have to satisfy with your second one, which is also deadly … because as soon as you try to write for an audience you’ll be getting it wrong.’ Bradley also witnessed the professionalism a second novel marks: ‘that transition from “I just wrote a book in my room” to actually writing something that will appeal to different audiences’. Bradley, a regular contributor to the Australian’s literary section, sees problems for novelists who make a living as professional writers. ‘Something happens to writers who write a lot of nonfiction because the critical brain starts to get in the way of the fiction brain … particularly if you’re writing for papers when you get into a habit of writing to order.’
Everyone interviewed for this essay acknowledged the difficulties of making a living as a novelist, which often involves doing other paid work. Arundhati Roy has written several books of nonfiction since her first novel, though in 2007 she said she was working on a second novel. In Australia, Chloe Hooper has moved to nonfiction with the success of The Tall Man and not yet returned to fiction, despite the attention her novel A Child’s Book of True Crime received. The threat to the Great Australian Novel comes not just from the discouragement of poor financial prospects but also from the lure of other forms of writing.
Like Williams, Bradley has seen changes in Australian publishing that have made it harder for novelists to build careers. Authors change publishers from book to book more frequently. It has meant that publishers focus on the book not the author, with only a short-term interest in careers. ‘That sense of your ongoing relationship and career where you work with one group of people is no longer the case.’
In terms of a novelist’s career a second novel isn’t that significant. If Christos Tsiolkas had faltered at The Jesus Man then he would not have progressed to The Slap, which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2009. If Andrew McGahan were assessed only on his first two books—the Vogel-winning Praise and 1988—he may have been dismissed as a grunge novelist and we would have missed out on his multi-award winning The White Earth. Bradley mentions a conversation he had with David Malouf about how fortunate Malouf was to be able to write his first few novels ‘without anyone noticing’. A less successful second novel could be a hiccup in a career or it could be an end to it—depending on the patience of readers and publishers.
Bradley observes a real apathy and impatience with the Australian novel. ‘Until about ten years ago there was actually an interest in Australian culture. I think that element of Australian culture that is about “everything we do is crap” has always been there but it’s back in a really powerful way.’ Bradley reckons that Australian fiction is ‘healthier than it was five or six years ago, but absolutely nobody cares’. A declining readership for Australian novels puts pressure on publishers to keep delivering the next bright young thing rather than developing careers.
Perhaps that lack of concern about Australian fiction is both the most dangerous symptom of SNS but also the means by which it can be defeated. For a writer, developing a sense of their writing as perceived by others is, as Bradley would have it, ‘deadly’.[viii]
Steve Toltz, author of the widely successful A Fraction of the Whole, is busy working on his next book. But he did respond to my question ‘What could stop you from writing a follow-up book?’ His email reply was simple: ‘Sudden blindness. Death.’[ix] As with Womersley’s momentum cure, Toltz is keeping his head down, ignoring distractions. In response to the same question, Womersley briefly considered how feedback might have quashed his forthcoming book. ‘If The Low Road had been utterly lambasted and ignored I might have [thrown it away] … No, actually I wouldn’t because I’m a stubborn son of a bitch and I would just write another book anyway.’
Successful novelists manage to ignore the external static of audiences, publishers and critics. They write for themselves. If there is a clear symptom of second novel syndrome it seems to be when the writer’s voice is drowned out by the external buzz. The only remedy is silence. Enough silence to hear that tiny whisper of an idea, like the one that came to Silvey one night: ‘Keep going.’
[i] Craig Silvey, interviewed by George Dunford, ‘More than Rhubarb’, Big Issue, no. 328 (2009).
[ii] Malcolm Knox, ‘Lost for words’, Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 2006.
[iii] Panel on ‘The role of prizes in success’, <http://www.festivalnews.uts.edu.au/archive/2003/archives/2002/panel/prizes.html>.
[iv] Darren Williams, interviewed by George Dunford, 26 April 2010.
[v] Annette Barlow, emails to George Dunford, 24 March 2010.
[vi] Chris Womersley, interviewed by George Dunford, 21 December 2009.
[vii] Aviva Tuffield, email to George Dunford, 22 March 2010.
[viii] James Bradley, interviewed by George Dunford, 25 April 2010.
[ix] Steve Toltz, email to George Dunford, 18 January 2010.