Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Future results

Lately I've been fixated on second books. Not my own second book (as if!), and not the specific second books of specific people, but rather the idea of the second book: that thing one writes totally on one's own, more or less because one can or wishes to--without the guidance of a dissertation director or committee, and not because one needs it for a job or for tenure. And in thinking about the shape of my field and the players in it, I often wonder: whose second book will be better than his first? And whose won't?

I don't wonder this very deeply about specific people, because the point of the question is that you can't know. When you're a grad student, a junior faculty member, or probably even a mid-career faculty member, there's no way to predict the course that someone else's intellectual development will take over time. Some people are very quick out of the gate, and though a few continue at that speed, many don't. Others start slowly and unpromisingly but then catch fire. (And I imagine that still other people are quick starters who stall out for a while and then speed up again.) Some people's brilliant first books might owe too much to their advisors, or simply the fear and inspiration of the job market. Other people's lackluster first books might be the result of already having moved on to the next book, and just pushing this one out for tenure.

So you know, though I'm as quick to judge as anybody--as prone to say "that article sucked! God, he's a moron!" or "this is the new star of our profession! I shall admire and worship her forever!"--I sometimes mutter "second book" to myself, as a reminder that people are surprising, and that, as the investment-market warning goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results.


Bardiac said...

I think a lot of second books are WAY better than first books. It's like people dig in better or something.

Flavia said...


Second books should be better--that's everyone's goal, I assume, and such a progression fits everything we assume to be true about ours and others' development. But I can think of people in the generation above me (people who had very good or even great first books) for whom it isn't true.

My point is that, just the grad students who enter or start off most impressively don't always maintain that trajectory over the rest of the years of their program (or don't go on to get the best jobs among their cohort), so there are surprises, sometimes quite a few of them, later down the line as well.

ntbw said...

I don't know if my second book is better than my first book; I think it probably is, but I'll have to let others judge. I can say that writing the second book was much more fun and much easier, because it started out as a book. Wrestling a dissertation into a book is significantly harder than just writing a book, to my mind.

Writing my third book was the most fun of all so far, because I felt I didn't have anything to prove--I had established my credibility, and I could take some risks. Now, that book is only very recently out, and I haven't seen any reviews yet, so we'll see what happens. But the experience of writing it was wonderful.

Flavia said...

ntbw: from my limited, junior perspective, just having a third book seems to imply intellectual progress, success, etc. (That's the follow-up or corollary to "whose second book will be better": who will even write a third book--anytime during the active years of their career?)

But thanks for the report from the trenches! I'd take "more fun" any day.

James said...

I suppose you're primarily speaking to academic texts, but I think where fiction is concerned, second books are very much like second records. And who knows, there might be more overlap with academia than I'd expect.

When a band starts out, they work a while on a set of songs as they play gig after gig, recording and submitting demos, hoping for a record deal. If they're lucky, they eventually land some sort of distributor (the traditional record label/record deal, in the post-torrent age, is quickly becoming obsolete), and they secure enough funding to record, produce, and polish, say, fifteen songs that have most likely already been carefully polished over the course of years—the same fifteen songs they've been playing and revising and playing again over those years they've toiled in obscurity, working for the opportunity to put out a proper record.

No matter how excellent an artist's debut LP is, I try to remember that it is, in a way, a semi-soulless byproduct of committee thinking. In that case, however, the committee isn't a real one, but a committee assembled of the various people that the artist(s) have been in the years those songs gestated before their official release—think of the way Vonnegut describes human beings as seen by the Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five. Perhaps that whole point needs explication. In my case, I can look at a story I wrote and published six years ago (one which, for the sake of this argument, I still like), but think, "Damn, I would love to write that same story again, but I would write that same thing completely differently now." The Me I was six years ago is not the Me I am now, however slight the differences, and publication freezes a record/text in time. If I'd been consistently editing that story for six years (and two of the stories I published this year were edited over the course of five years leading up to eventual acceptance), it would be the work of a half-dozen Mes—at least.

Similarly, first novels are queer beasts. Though excellent, some seem slightly too heavy and contrived, as they've perhaps been labored over, contemplated and recontemplated for years before they've even been penned, before they even reach the written first draft stage (i.e.: Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves). Some instead seem frangible or freewheeling for similar reasons—frangible texts may feel that way because an author has had time to construct them with metaphorical tweezers, like building ships in bottles (i.e.: Foer's ); freewheeling texts might seem so lively because an author has had time to write something complete and stodgier, but then clip out all the connective tissue, making the final product seem enigmatic, unpredictable, and sprite-like (i.e.: Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). Regardless, the thing that makes a debut book/record different from those efforts that follow it is time.

[hit the character limit; to be continued]

James said...

It's the second record or second text, the one where the artist (generally) doesn't have the luxury of a years-long window for composition and editing, that tells you what (s)he/they is/are really capable of. Using as examples what I hope are relatively familiar (at least by name or reputation) contemporary texts I mentioned above, Danielewski's second novel, though it was nominated for some awards, was a frightful and disappointing mess; Foer's stellar second novel was equally frangible, and its fragility makes it as equally or more beautiful than his first; Eggers' second book was a heavy-handed attempt at crafting something that felt as bouncy and fun as his first.

And all of this jabbering, oddly, brings me right back around to academics.

The utility of the in-class final exam, I've always thought (though not, until reading this post, in these terms), is similar to the production of a second book/record. If one is given enough time with any question, one could produce an excellently informed, well-crafted response (assuming that one is not an idiot). If instead of a three-hour period in which one has to contemplate and crank out an almost knee-jerk response to some intellectual provocation, one had three weeks/months/years, the final reply would likely be an increasingly insightful/expansive/dense thing, where excellence is directly correlated with time allowed. Mark Danielewski, for example, set to himself the task of satirizing academic criticism in the idiom of a metafictional gothic psychological horror story, and, given years, he pulled off the feat with flying colors.

The in-class final exam is like the production of a second record/novel in that it shows what one is capable of when temporal resources aren't (potentially) unlimited. For his second novel, Danielewski set himself a different task and, well, produced what looked more like a set of notes for an excellent second book than it did a second book in earnest. His second novel might've been a real stunner if he'd actually had time to write it, instead of being forced to release something that more closely recalls an outline as produced by someone pretending to be James Joyce.

As nbtw alluded above, I think third books are the real test. Some artists produce an excellent first work and then follow it up with something equally impressive. Which is wonderful. Others produce in their first effort something intriguing, but somehow lacking, but then chase it with a second effort more refined and representative of themselves (one can't forget that during the production of one's first LP/book, one is often not really writing from the heart, but writing in order to secure a contract/esteem—a goal which most definitely affects the final product). This is even better than wonderful. And in both cases, the second text is a damned good indicator of a decent future third effort.

Then there are those artists who collapse under the pressure of producing something that can rival the generally unexpected success of their first work, and thus churn out something less than exceptional. But if they get a chance at a third effort, because there's nothing to prove (if your first effort was wonderful, and your second sucked, people are probably going to go into your third effort with no expectations—a very freeing thought for an artist), per se, there's a much higher likelihood that something glorious might happen.

Boy, that really escalated from the two- or three-sentence reply I'd planned on leaving.

Flavia said...

James: I think the comparison with record albums is really useful--perhaps more so than a comparison with novels (though first novels do have the potential to have been workshopped within an inch of their lives, in a way broadly similar to the potential that a first academic book may have been shaped too much by the influence of a--vastly more senior and often quite brilliant--scholar or team of scholars).