The second panel I went to on Sunday morning was about a terrible literary affliction, one that strikes many writers. Symptoms include guilt, performance anxiety, depression…
Jeffrey Eugenides moved to the other side of the world to escape the pressure. Donna Tartt reportedly had a nervous breakdown. Harper Lee became a recluse, and never wrote again. I am, of course, talking about Second Novel Syndrome; when, as the success of the writer’s first novel escalates, the pressure to produce a fantastic second novel gets so extreme the writer becomes unable to function.
According to Ali Smith, the main problem is that the attention makes the writer more visible to themself – their writing style gets analysed, the critics weigh in – and self-consciousness isn’t exactly a good thing for writing. Part of writing is subtracting yourself from the process, and letting it happen naturally without being overly conscious of how.
The three panellists were Stefan Laszczuk (I Dream of Magda), William Kostakis (Loathing Lola), and Virginia Duigan (Days Like These, The Biographer), who had each either written or were in the process of writing their second novels. Laszczuk, whose second novel had just been released, thought it was harder to write the first book than the second. In fact, he worked so hard on the first one that he decided just to have fun on the second, and admitted he didn’t take it as seriously as he probably should have. His publishers weren’t interested, so he went off and wrote a third one, and finished up by saying the lesson he learned was that you have to take your second novel just as seriously as the first, and work just as hard on it.
According to Kostakis, who is currently writing not one but two books to follow-up on his first novel, the danger in self-awareness is that you wind up re-packaging the first novel, re-using what worked the first time until it’s just not funny anymore. He found constructive criticism more useful than praise, as it challenged him and gave him something to work on, and a complacent writer usually just betrays their readership. And when the panel discussed sequels, Kostakis mentioned how important it was to write novels that stand on their own; a novel and its sequel should be two complete wholes that add to but don’t rely on each other, or on the expectation of a third book.
Before this panel began, I overheard an extremely interesting conversation. It began with the usual, ‘Hi, I was at your table at dinner last night. You might not remember; I think you’d had a few drinks.’ But the interesting part came after a few moments of polite conversation, when the man said to the woman ‘Buy a copy of the AWM and do a bit of research. Have a look around. Have you seen that book? It’s bloody good.’ I was on the verge of turning around and introducing myself when the conversation veered abruptly into a discussion of erotic literature, and I thought it might get a bit too awkward to admit I’d been listening.