Monday, August 31, 2009

Fall Preview: A Season of Potential SNS victims

In yesterday's St. Louis Dispatch, the editor of their book section Jane Henderson listed a nice little fall books round-up for September and October. There are, of course, the commercial staples of any round-up of this kind, the ever-popular Stephen King and John Grisham, with a smattering of more literary fiction like Michael Chabon and John Irving. NY Magazine also published their fall preview (Sept.-Nov.), with a lot of books by authors I've persoanlly never heard of with minimal exceptions. The two lists only overlap once with their selection of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Logically, one would assume that's the book I'm about to discuss here, but since I've never read Margaret Atwood and don't really have anything to say about that, it's not. That NY Mag info was just for food for thought.

Instead, I'd like to discuss the notorious curse of the sophomore publication, AKA "Second Novel Syndrome" or SNS, when bestselling debut authors crack under the pressure of Book 2. Two of the titles on Henderson's list are second attempts by uber-bestselling authors: Audrey Niffenegger and Jeanette Walls. Niffenegger became a household name after the screaming success of her novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, which is currently still raking in the dough after the box office release of its film adaptation.

(For more on the film, my dear friend LG over at Pop-Thoughts posted a nice review of TTW. Read it HERE!)

Walls topped the lists with her The Glass Castle, a memoir about her difficult childhood with an extreme artist mother and alcoholic father. And now, both women's second books are about to pub, Her Fearful Symmetry and Half Broke Horses, respectively.

I never used to be wary of sophomore attempts. But after the crash and burns of so many authors--like Zadie Smith's flop The Autograph Man after White Teeth or Mark Haddon's A Spot of Bother following The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime --and after the public acknowledging these lackluster second novels in an actual syndrome, despite the fact that this has been happening since very early on--think about the Classics, my friends--I still can't help but be a little skeptical.

I read TTW fairly recently and absolutely adored it. It was one of the most beautiful books I'd read in a very long time. It was unique, creative, and somehow tremendously realistic in all its unreality. It is a true love story. And it's going to be a very tough act to follow. I am, of course, intrigued by Niffenegger's next novel, to see if she can hold her head afloat and beat the SNS. I hope she can because she is a talented and lovely writer who I'd love to see more from. According to Nan Graham, editor-in-chief of Scribner who snagged the US rights to Her Fearful Symmetry, is optimistic. She says that Niffenegger "has defied custom and written a spectacular second novel, which is one of the hardest things to do in the universe" (Times Online). My hopes are already higher than I'd like them to be for this one.

The Glass Castle is, unfortunately, still sitting on my to-be-read pile (which grows more looming by the day), but I have heard nothing but positives about this powerful memoir from friends, acquaintences, and reviewers alike. It received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and got a front page review in The New York Times Book Review. There's no question that this memoir touched the hearts of millions. But can Walls do it again with a book that's being described as a "true life novel" about her grandmother's days on the frontier? To me, this one has SNS written all over it. Moving from memoir to novel is particularly difficult, partially because the essence of the memoir isn't always in the writing itself but the circumstance and partially because the author is writing from experience as opposed to creating a new and unique vision on paper. It's a big leap to take.

I guess, we'll just have to wait and see...Fall isn't so far away after all.

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