Although it sometimes feels that novelists and their novels emerge fully formed, the reality, as the old saying goes, is that “Before Hemingway was a published writer he was an unpublished writer.” You are free to supplant Hemingway’s name with one of your choice, but that’s the version I heard. The point is that long before authors sell their first book they were tapping or scribbling away with no guarantee of anything other than ink-stained fingers and a parade of rejection letters. And while many “first novels” are just that—a writer’s first attempt at a novel, perhaps re-written a time or 25—it is likely many of them are actually second or third novels.
So what happens to those “real” first novels? Do they go away? Probably sometimes, yes, they are consigned to the dustbins of non-history, and the newly-published novelist, fresh off the thrill of a six-figure book contract, gives it a quiet funeral and begins their career as a published writer. But oh, that first novel. How they loved it so! The place it holds in a writer’s heart remains precious—it was their True First Novel, after all. It’s easy to follow their thought process. Now I have a publisher and an agent, can I give it a go? No? They want one more successful novel? OK. I’ve waited this long, I can write something else, no problem—just as it’s easier to get a job when you have a job it’s easier to write a book when you’ve already published one. But I’m not giving up on my “real” first novel. Some day, when I’m really established, that’s when I’ll get it published—and what’s more, I can truly say whatever I like and for as long as I like.
To that end, for example, it’s no coincidence the books in the Harry Potter series got longer with each release, eventually cresting after The Order of the Phoenix. It is not necessarily that J.K. Rowling needed all 766 pages of that tome to advance the story, but when your previous four books funded her publishers Bloomsbury and Scholastic for decades, it’s safe to say you’ve earned some leeway in the publication process—and a few hundred extra pages, apparently. (To be fair to Rowling, the wondrous thing about The Order of the Phoenix is how, even upon re-reading it, you don’t want it to end.)
Another way of saying it is that writers, after they’ve gained some publishing capital (to say nothing of financial stability), want to work on their bucket list of ideas. A historical novel, a wartime novel, a mystery. An autobiographical story cloaked as fiction (if it hasn’t already been published, usually as a first or second novel). Without having any specific facts to marshal, I would argue that a majority of writers also want to write a novel about writers and writing. Of course anyone who has pursued a degree in writing or even taken a seminar on it is encouraged to write a novel about anything other than writing. And whether Bloomsbury or other publishing houses acknowledge it or not, established writers have a distinct advantage in the marketplace. It’s not that they can simply write whatever they feel like, submit it, and have it produced without so much as a casual glance from an editor.
Sometimes, though, after you read a book by an established writer, it can seem that way, which is precisely how I felt about Lily King’s newest novel, Writers & Lovers. For all its humour, insights into grief, and general readability, it reads like a young writer’s book, not someone who has written four other novels, including the critically-acclaimed Euphoria (which I have not read). More specifically, it reads like an unpublished first novel that eventually gets published after the writer has hit it big with something else. Sometimes this will happen not with a novel but with a collection of short stories. A novelist will produce two successful novels and in between the second and the third book the publishers will rely on the writer’s brand to sell some copies, putting out a collection of stories maybe written in college or just afterwards, with just enough of the writer’s style to make it recognisable. Except sometimes there’s a reason those stories were unpublished, as often they simply aren’t very good. The same happens in the music industry, when after an artist or band has two great albums a third comes out bearing little resemblance to the first two. Often this is the dreaded Third Album Syndrome, when a band will try something new just because, a riff on the post-modernist weird for the sake of being weird—in this case, different for the sake of being different. But it too may be based on something the group did before they had made it, and though it works every now and again, more likely than not after you hear it all you can say is, “Well, no wonder that wasn’t their first album.”
Writers & Lovers reads, in other words, like a book from a writer who has some newly-acquired clout, and when asked by an agent or a publisher “What else you got?” came up with a story they’ve been sitting on since long before they were published—a story about the death of a parent and the relentless work grief requires, for example. Or about a writer six years into writing her first novel while drowning in debt. Or about a heartbroken everywoman waitress juggling two different men, one a widower (and a writer), the other a high school teacher (and a writer), and dealing with the masculine culture of the restaurant industry. Or about an underinsured woman navigating the late 1990s in Bill Clinton’s America. Or about the daughter of a man fired from his high school teaching job because he was spying on girls thru his office—but he survived, it was the mother who dies, of course.
Or, if you’re Lily King, you combine all of that, sprinkle a little fairy dust, and produce a book that, despite all those pixies flying around—or perhaps because of them—contains surprisingly thin dramatic tension. It’s not that we know exactly what’s going to happen, at least not above and beyond what we usually can figure out. Rather, it’s as if King, flush from the success of Euphoria and lost in a lugubrious literary post-partem depression and needing a smile or ten, wrote the kind of story she would want to read. A story where the girl gets the boy, the job, the book contract, and the negative test result on a lump near her chest. Whew. Pass the tissue and send me the latest from Elena Ferrante.
There are other problems. At the beginning of the novel Casey, the main character, is grieving the loss of her mother and the (emotional) loss of her lover, a poet named Luke. We are made to believe the two hold somewhat equal roles in Casey’s heartbreak, but after a few discussions and scenes, Luke disappears from the narrative. He is not missed, nor is the love story. With the possible exception of the postal worker who helps Casey mail her manuscript—upon learning Casey had taken six years to write her novel, the cashier says, “Let’s hope your next six years are a little more exciting, sweetie pie.”—the minor characters add nothing to the story, even as they all speak like characters from All About Eve or an Oscar Wilde story. Funny, sharp, witty, all-knowing. Fake, in other words. In this story they are also grating, and absent any depth, end up as unwelcome distractions. The restaurant where Casey works, Iris, is particularly replete with stock characters. The gay comrade trying to sleep with everyone and serving as Casey’s de facto female BFF. The angry sexist line cook (he’s eventually promoted to head chef, precipitating Casey losing her job), still bitter that Casey didn’t sleep with him. The tone-deaf managers. The rich socialite clients. It’s as if King applied the mantra “Make your heavies as heavy as possible,” morphed it into “Make everyone as unrealistic as possible,” and went about creating her bit players. The book also had multiple endings, another indication of a writer so in thrall with their story they didn’t want it to end, literally did not know how to make it end—and also the signature of a young, inexperienced writer.
And that is in addition to Casey and her phalanx of problems. Over-stressed, over-worked, over-indebted, under-loved, and unwriting, Casey occasionally turns to what she calls “clenching,” when she will “clench my fists or press my knees together or squeeze my stomach muscles all at once.” Done once or twice this resonates, but it too gets old. Often Casey will “have to get out of this body right now” (or some version). We’ve all felt that, and while it gives readers one of the novel’s few universal ideas—grief is another—it’s too melodramatic. Finally, we have the art and writing angles. Of interest to aspiring writers and artists, perhaps, but for the rest of us, it’s simply esoteric.
On the other hand, in addition to her insights on grief, King’s treatment of the everyday difficulty of being a woman in a man’s world, and the way these difficulties present themselves simply everywhere, is very well done. Here are just a few examples.
I think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them.
At a book signing in a bookstore, when comparing the cover jacket pictures of novelists with Silas, the man who eventually becomes her boyfriend, Casey points out how different it is for men and women, using the man who almost becomes her boyfriend, the author Oscar Kolton, as her reference.
I flip to the back flap to see what Oscar Kolton looks like. [The picture] was taken from the side, one of his shoulders in the foreground, elbow to knee, bicep flexed. He’s bearing down on the lens with a menacing look.
Now the woman author.
“Whereas with women”—I take a book off the shelf by a writer I admire—“they have to be pleasing.” The photo backs up my argument perfectly. She has a big apologetic smile on her face. “Please like me. Even though I’m an award-winning novelist, I really am a nice, unthreatening person.”
Casey realises “nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny.” This might say more about her taste in men than anything, but she nails it later.
I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.
There is some righteous anger that, while illuminating, falls a little flat.
I hate male cowardice and the way they always have each other’s backs. They have no control. They justify everything their dicks make them do. And they get away with it. Nearly every time.
Maybe it’s because of the #metoo movement, but that edgy commentary about toxic masculinity feels contrived, not ancillary to the story but outside of it, similar to Hugo’s descriptions of the sewers of Paris in Les Misérables. There is power in King’s empathy with Casey, but the goal is for everything to push the narrative forward, and in this case it doesn’t. It would seem King has a problem with Faulkner’s maxim to kill all your darlings.
After spending the first 275 pages or so of the book wondering what the fuss was about, I turned it over and re-read the back cover, and whoa! There it was. I realised my reaction to it was largely based on an NPR quote not about Writers & Lovers but about King’s previous novel, Euphoria, which NPR described as “Atmospheric and sensual… an intellectually stimulating tour de force.” Ah! It seems I purchased the wrong book.
The truth, of course, is that I had expected Writers & Lovers to be like Euphoria—an intellectually stimulating tour de force. Once established expectations are nearly impossible to dismiss out of hand, but seeing the book on its own terms, rather than thru the harsh lens of my expectations of it, changed my perception almost immediately. The humour (there really are many laugh-out-loud moments, the majority of them provided by Casey or her thoughts), the lovely hair-brush style of the prose, the bearing-witness feel of Casey’s grief, the atmosphere of the story told from the beginning of summer to the start of fall: suddenly it worked. All the flaws remained, as did the sense that this was a first novel that had been buried for years. As a novel of ideas—or even as a novel of one idea—it was a failure. This book was not “an intellectually stimulating tour de force.”
As a novel to accompany you on a pleasant summer evening underneath a shady tree with a glass of bordeaux? It’s a success. Whether or not that was King’s intent—to write a pleasing but shallow book—or whether or not this novel had been buried in some old word processor since 1997 (the time period when the book was set), we’ll likely never know.