Second Time Around

Have you heard of sophomore slump? A phenomenon that plagues authors, musicians, and artists of any stripe when their second thing is judged a disappointment by critics and/or fans.  Maybe because you’re going up against inflated expectations, created by the glory with which you first burst upon the scene. Because as hard as it is to live up to your heroes, it can be just as difficult to live up to yourself.

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

Throes of Creation by Leonid Pasternak

The other theory is that your first thing—book, play, album—is amazing because it’s been stored up in you for so long. You’ve spent years thinking it over, dreaming of it, honing your skills to bring it into the world. Your second thing may not have germinated in you as long, or your authentic inspiration may be altered by feedback to the first thing or by your own anxiety over meeting the world’s expectations. On the other hand, don’t you learn a lot in the process of creating the first thing? Authors get better with every book, if they’re doing their job right and if their agent and editor are doing their jobs right.

Whatever the causes and pros/cons of the sophomore slump syndrome, authors need all the support they can get for their second title. The first book might make a name for you but the second book is where you start to make a career. And one online publication is turning its eye to this overlooked corner: along with the Whiting Foundation, Slate is founding a prize especially for second novels.

Now, the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List might not be as prestigious an award as a MacArthur Genius Grant or a Pulitzer Prize (yet) – as Slate itself acknowledged. “It’s akin to being retweeted by your literary idol, or finding out that the classmate you have a crush on thinks you’re cute. A mash note from the cosmos!” But as an avid backlist treasure hunter, I love that they’re looking at the last few years of published books, not just moving into the future with this honor. As Slate’s culture editor Dan Kois put it, ”Books don’t have an expiration date like a carton of milk; we believe that it’s worth going back to the shelves to discover what we’ve missed.”

What do you think? Do authors get better with each book? Any favorite sophomore novels you recommend?

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