10 Authors' Masterpieces That Were Also Their First Novel

Culture April 13, 2017 By Vincent

Creating a masterpiece of literature is nigh on impossible and takes years of mastering the craft, finely honing each of your published pieces and taking an original and expressive view of the world around you. Some people never achieve it, and many world renowned authors usually peak mid-career.

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However, there are some who nail it the first time and either never quite recreate the success or never have to. Here we look at some debut novels that were their authors' masterpieces.


1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

On the complete opposite end of epic fantasy is this defining work of literary realism that tells of adultery and isolation in rural France and is considered Flaubert's masterpiece. Its influence on literature is almost so familiar that it has become to be considered the norm as the way the language is spun and the story spills forth makes it almost perfect prose.  A reaction to the romantic novels of the age, it showed a more realistic and level-headed approach to the world that had not been seen before.

First published in 1856, the story is of a woman who is struggling not to be kowtowed by society's expectations, and her view of an ideal life is not the one presented to her elsewhere. Although it may not seem like it now, simply by giving 19th-century woman thoughts and feelings, this novel challenged the very role of women in society. 

Frustrated by her powerless position as a married woman, the protagonist questions and struggles against everything that the world has to offer her which is, incidentally, not a lot.


2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt still has many more writing years ahead of her, but so perfectly balanced and rounded is The Secret History that it was difficult to see anything bettering it (although we look forward to Donna's attempts to topple it and desperately hope she proves us wrong).

The Secret History tells the story of a tightly knit group of six classics students at a small, elite Vermont college where a murder occurs and throw this group into flux. Exploring how this affects the group and its individuals, it is an inverted detective that is not so much a whodunnit but a why it was done.


3. Native Son by Richard Wright

Richard Wright's second book was his first full-length novel that tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, an African-American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago's South Side in the 1930s. While not apologizing for Bigger's crimes, Wright portrays a systemic inevitability behind them. Bigger's lawyer makes the case that there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be.

So important in the shaping of the modern American psyche, James Baldwin writes “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull."


4. Speedboat by Renata Adler

More noted for her journalism and literary criticism, Speedboat was one of only two novels that Adler wrote, but it won the 1976 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and went on to become something of a cult classic. Following a journalist through 1970s America, it tells of regular working people through her dispatches.

 Ambivalent, curious and wry, it disregards the rules of the conventional novel and yet remains a fantastically entertaining and eye-opening read.


5. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McMullers 

A controversial choice since many cite her 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding as her masterpiece, and others prefer Reflections in a Golden Eye (and personally I'd opt for The Balad of The Sad Cafe)  but without the phenomenon of this sensation of Southern Gothic literature, none of the others would have been possible.

It is about a deaf man named John Singer who does not speak, and the people he encounters in a 1930s mill town in the US state of Georgia and, like most of her work, gives voice to the mistreated and rejected of society.


6. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

A tale of Okonkwo, a leader in a fictional Nigerian village, it plays out into a tragic telling of how British colonialism irreversibly affected the cultures of the world and tore apart lives and communities. The quintessential post-colonial novel, it strikes out at the once colonial leaders and, despite presenting an imperfect culture to start with, it shows how it didn't necessarily make things better.

A timely warning on the influences we inflict on the world and a challenge to the keep-what-you kill mentality often found in former colonial powers.


7. Catch - 22 by Joesph Heller

One of the funniest, most poignant novels ever written, it's title has now become a ubiquitous phrase for a situation that you can never possibly get the desired result from and all of this from an anti-war piece. Apparently, Heller wasn’t even trying to write a novel at the beginning—he thought of a few lines spontaneously, wrote about a third of it. Following the story of a pilot who does everything in his way to avoid seeing combat action and get discharged, it is a comic caper of epic proportions.

He made a name for himself as a writer and lecturer afterwards and even wrote a much-maligned sequel but could never quite match the success of his debut.


8. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Not the first novel written by Charlotte Bronte but the first published ( The Professor, did not secure a publisher until later after the success of Jane Eyre), but this important erotic thriller shook up Victorian society and  contains elements of social criticism, with a strong sense of Christian morality at its core, but is nonetheless a novel many consider ahead of its time given the individualistic character of Jane and the novel's exploration of classism, sexuality, religion, and proto-feminism.

Following the emotions and experiences of its eponymous heroine, it was one of the first books of its kind to do so and affected how we view modern literature profoundly.


9. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

An allegory for the rise of the Nazis in Germany, the film follows the narrator, a young boy who bangs his tin drum whenever something goes wrong, failing that he decides to stop growing up when he becomes tired of the hypocrisy of adults. A harsh dig at the nature of denial in politics and blaming others when things go wrong it takes aim at Germany's past, present and future and shakes people from their slumber, asking them to learn from the mistakes of others.

Not Grass's only great novel, Salman Rushdie claims that he is deserving of his many accolades regardless of whether he'd ever written The Tin Drum or not but it is the novel by which he is best known, and it is his debut.


10. Bastard Out of Carolin by Dorothy Allison

The novel examines the expectations of gender and mother–child relationships and explores the roles of these characters in the future. A semi-autobiographical novel, conditions of class, race, sexuality and gender play out in the American South where the main conflict comes between the narrator and her mother's husband.

Published in 1992, its influence is far reaching with one critic calling it a “world-altering masterpiece".


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