The Art of Being First
The decline of the novel as American culture’s depth-measuring gauge might be dated to the rise of big-bank premieres. Until very recently, first novels were a publisher’s gamble. For every debut like The Naked and the Dead, which sold 60,000 copies its first year in print, or From Here to Eternity, which sold 240,000, there were the first novels, even of later celebrated and best-selling novelists, that were forgotten almost as soon as they were published: Gore Vidal’s Williwaw, Mario Puzo’s The Dark Arena, John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair, E.L. Doctorow’sWelcome to Hard Times, John Irving’s Setting Free the Bears. Publishers were willing to put down good money on the chance that today’s unsure literary talent might someday prove a critical and bookstore winner.
Everything changed two decades ago when 25-year-old Michael Chabon was paid an advance of $155,000 with a guaranteed paperback income of at least another $100,000 for The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a novel submitted for a masters degree in creative writing. The figure was 20 or 30 times higher than the advance for a typical first novel in the postwar era. Suddenly young writers, recommended by their professors or their published friends, were a bankable commodity. Young readers, it was hoped, might even be enticed back to the novel by the celebrity of young novelists. Some first novels were news, and not just on the book pages (which were disappearing at any rate).
About the Author
D.G. Myers, literary historian at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, writes the monthly fiction chronicle and is the author of our Literary Commentary blog.