Recently, I watched a movie about an Irish writer returning to his homeland. It was a lovely film – quiet and brooding as any film about an Irish writer should be. His first book was mega-successful and now he faced the daunting prospect of writing a second novel. As he confessed to his older brother (a priest, no less), “I just don’t know if I have it in me to write another one”, I felt a pang of empathy.
Not that I’ve had anywhere close to mega-success with my first book, but there’s a certain expectation, mostly self-imposed, that I won’t be able to do it again. When I think of the years put into such a project, the work, the doubt, the angst trying to fill a page with anything worth reading, my reaction is just to avoid the whole thing.
There’s a small measure of comfort in knowing I’m not alone. One of my favourite authors, Ann Pachett, a prolific writer with eight novels and five non-fictions to her credit, said her second novel didn’t live up to the passionately personal promise of her debut. She calls it her "neglected child . . . it's as if it smells or it's sticky or something".
Harper Lee, who died in 2016, took 55 years to publish a second book after her classic of 1960, “To Kill A Mockingbird”. (Lee actually wrote “Go Set a Watchman” before her famous “first” book, but held onto it for decades.) Viet Thanh Nguyen, an American novelist, says the high expectations and busy schedule following the success of his Pulitzer prize-winning debut, “The Sympathizer”, in 2015 meant that his second book, published earlier this year, was more challenging than the first.
I can’t begin to imagine what painters, musicians or other creative people go through, but for novelists, the angst of tackling the infamous “difficult second novel” is as real as anything.
The symptoms are as follows: your novel feels dull, lifeless and flat; you second guess yourself constantly, every step along the way; you’d rather be doing anything, from scrubbing toilets to rotating the cat, than writing. As a consequence, you’re remarkably easy to distract. Things that would otherwise be no problem at all become insurmountable challenges. Minor colds flatten you and you can’t concentrate to write. The fact that you haven’t vacuumed in a whole 24 hours distresses you; your dog’s appointment at the groomer’s means you can’t possibly write that day.
Eschew the pernicious myth that some writers only have one novel in them. This is a favorite thing for people to tell you when you’re down in second novel curse dumps. It’s also bullshit.
But, as with most bullshit there is SOMETHING in it. The something is that at that point in your development there might be only one book you’re competent to finish. However, I don’t know any writer who has only one novel or only a limited set of stories in him. After all, we are storytellers. We have a multitude of stories inside us. It’s the getting them out that’s the problem, not a lack of ideas.
Fact or Fiction?
But why do authors, in particular, supposedly struggle so much with follow-ups? Perhaps it is because novelists feel that they should stay faithful to what readers liked about their first book, all the while still writing something that is, well, novel. But data from Goodreads, a book-review website, appear to challenge this accepted wisdom. The average rating for a first book from the top 1,000 authors by reviews on the website is 3.87 out of five. The second book, however, performs a smudge better at 3.90 out of 5. Could the notion of the difficult second book be more fiction than reality?
In the final scene of the movie about the Irish writer, he’s at his typewriter madly pouring out his story. Movies always end this way. Perhaps because, ironically, the only cure is to write. To stop dithering and get to work already. Wish me luck.
In the meantime, happy reading!