From The Bone People to Shuggie Bain, several debut novels have won the Booker Prize, and four more are longlisted this year. As Max Liu writes here, the prize has championed fresh talent from the outset
There are few experiences more exciting for readers than discovering a great first novel – and a new favourite novelist – and Booker Prize judges have been attuned to this from the start. The prize’s commitment to championing debut fiction dates back to its inaugural shortlist, when Barry England’s first novel Figures in a Landscape was among the six nominees in 1969. The first debut novel to win was The Bone People by New Zealander Keri Hulme in 1985 and there have been five more since then, as the Booker has continued to help new writers reach readers who may otherwise have missed their work.
Four of the 13 novels up for the prize in 2023 are debuts, one more than in 2022. Reading the works of Jonathan Escoffery, Siân Hughes, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow and Chetna Maroo, it’s immediately clear to readers that they are encountering a fresh, assured and distinctive voice that is going to show them something they have not seen before.
The six debuts that have won the Booker Prize in its history boast this quality in abundance, from Hulme’s The Bone People to the most recent, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain (2020). In between, there was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997), which immerses the reader in its ‘long and humid’ days from the first sentence, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little (2003), every page of which pops with its narrator’s uninhibited idiolect, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), a tale of two Indias featuring another fascinating narrator, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), which teems with the voices of the living, the dead and those who occupy the in-between world of the title.
This charge of recognition – that you are in the presence of new writing that is vital and true – was what I felt when reading Maroo’s Western Lane recently, which tells the story of an Anglo-Indian girl who becomes obsessed with playing squash after the death of her mother. Hughes’ Pearl is also concerned with the loss of a mother – in an interview with the Booker website she describes writing the book as a lifelong obsession, having first dreamt up the book’s characters as a teenager. Lloyd-Barlow’s All the Little Bird-Hearts, meanwhile, is about a single mother who needs to protect her daughter from a woman who craved a child of her own. All three novels use one first-person narrator to reveal corners of experience that we didn’t know existed until we saw them conveyed in these subtle, poetic voices.
The American writer Jonathan Escoffery does something different, bringing us news from a specific world but via multiple protagonists in If I Survive You, which concerns a family of Jamaican immigrants and their children in Florida. Their stories overlap, characters reappear and the same events are seen from different perspectives, creating an enthralling narrative arc that delivers a powerful cumulative effect. Escoffery says his connected stories resemble ‘the episodic nature of human experience’.
This is not the first time a Booker nominee has used connected stories in their debut work. In Donal Ryan’s 2013 longlisted debut The Spinning Heart, each chapter was narrated by different characters who were living through the aftermath of Ireland’s economic crash.
Many Booker Prize nominees of the past decade have shown the ways that fiction writers increasingly blur formal boundaries and this has been particularly noticeable among the first novels. In 2018, the poet Robin Robertson made the shortlist with his debut novel in verse, The Long Take, the same year as Sabrina author Nick Drnaso became the first graphic novelist to appear on the longlist. In 2021, Patricia Lockwood, who was already known for her acclaimed memoir Priestdaddy, was shortlisted for her first novel No One Is Talking About This, which presented the reader with an experience that, at first glance, was akin to scrolling through social media.
The Booker Prize has shown that it is open to the novel form’s new possibilities and inclusiveness and debuts are at the vanguard. So, do they have a better chance of being nominated today than in previous eras, when the prize had more of a reputation for recognising established writers? The numbers suggest so. Two of the last six winners have been first-time novelists. There were a record eight longlisted debuts in 2021, with four going on to the shortlist, although in 2022, there were only three – Maddie Mortimer, Selby Wynn Schwartz and Leila Motley – none of whom made the final six.
There are years when there is an abundance of debut novelists on the longlist – cue fans of established writers complaining on social media that their efforts are being overlooked due to publishing fads or an ‘agenda’ among the Booker judges. Some may argue that the relative prominence of debuts in recent years reflects society’s obsession with youthfulness, but it is a mistake to think that first-time novelists are always young. Going back through the writers who won with their first novels this century, Stuart was 44, Pierre, 42, and Saunders, 59.
It must be surreal, being nominated for – or winning – the world’s premier prize for English-language fiction with a novel that you laboured on in obscurity and could not be sure would even be published
As a fiction reviewer who is constantly sifting through proofs that arrive with breathless press releases, I want to be surprised when I’m reading, so there is nothing more welcome than a brilliant debut. I am impatient to tell other readers about a first novel that I have enjoyed, but the opportunities for doing so in established print media are limited. Unless a debut arrives with considerable pre-publication hype, like Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, or is written by a celebrity, it can be difficult to place a review in the national press. If a first novel makes the Booker Prize longlist, it may be reviewed months after it was published, as newspaper editors scramble to cover works that they previously overlooked in case one of them goes on to win.
A Booker nomination can give a debut a second life and the effect can be career-changing for the writer. Stephen Kelman, who made the shortlist in 2011 with Pigeon English, told me that the sales and success of his first novel exceeded his ‘wildest dreams’. Fiona Mozley, whose debut novel Elmet was nominated in 2017, described to me the moment she found out: ‘I couldn’t believe it. I was so overwhelmed I didn’t even think that I might make the shortlist.’ The American Diane Cook said she was ‘astonished’ when her dystopian debut The New Wilderness appeared on the 2020 shortlist.
It must be surreal, being nominated for – or winning – the world’s premier prize for English-language fiction with a novel that you laboured on in obscurity and could not be sure would even be published. But can it be detrimental to a writer’s development? Many writers would regard this as a nice problem to have, but it should be noted that Keri Hulme did not publish another novel after The Bone People, while fans of The God of Small Things had to wait 20 years before Arundhati Roy produced her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which was longlisted in 2017.
Others have looked comfortable building on the momentum of their acclaimed debuts. Kelman and Mozley’s second novels were well-received within four years of their shortlistings. The Nigerian author NoViolet Bulawayo was shortlisted for her debut, We Need New Names, in 2013 and again last year for her second novel, Glory. Critics responded positively to Douglas Stuart’s Young Mungo less than two years after his Booker win and, in the half-a-decade following his triumph, George Saunders published a magnificent book about writing and a collection of stories, Liberation Day, that shows that he remains one of the most innovative literary artists working in English.
This year, Guy Gunaratne and Sophie Mackintosh – longlisted in 2018 for their debuts In Our Mad and Furious City and The Water Cure respectively – and Brandon Taylor, who was shortlisted three years ago for Real Life, published novels that more than deliver on their earlier promise. As for Barry England, Figures in a Landscape turned out to be his only novel, but it was adapted into a film in 1970.
It will be fascinating to see whether Jonathan Escoffery, Siân Hughes, Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow or Chetna Maroo make the shortlist of six when it is announced on 21 September. Whatever happens, though, their books have already travelled further than they probably dared to dream, giving pleasure to readers all over the world and providing inspiration to aspiring novelists everywhere.