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The 30 Best Debut Novels

The 30 Best Debut Novels

The 30 Best Debut Novels
05 October 2014

There's a nobility in lying sometimes, especially when it comes to your best mate's first, self-published novel. Just say it's great, guys, and move on. It's too late.

Some pals of aspiring novelists have been able to be somewhat more honest, though. Like the chums of Chuck Palahniuk and the buddies of Brett Easton Ellis. They're just two of 30 authors who feature in our list of the all time best debut novels...

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1. The Hobbit - J.R.R Tolkien (1937)

"In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit." The words that kickstarted one of the biggest fantasy book and, in turn, movie franchises of all time. Despite the book's popularity, paper rationing brought on by wartime conditions and not ending until 1949 meant that the book was often unavailable during this period. Subsequent editions in English were published in 1951, 1966, 1978 and 1995, however, and it's been translated into over forty languages. Tolkein even designed the original book's dust cover (pictured). Props.

2. The Pickwick Papers - Charles Dickens (1836)

Dickens announced his outrageous talent with this genuinely funny, not just laughing because we're supposed to, set of comic episodes that befall ‘gentleman of leisure’ Samuel Pickwick, Esq. The book became the first real publishing phenomenon, with bootleg copies, theatrical performances, joke books, and other merchandise surrounding it.


Charlotte's first manuscript, The Professor, did not secure a publisher, although she was heartened by an encouraging response from Smith, Elder & Co., who expressed an interest in any longer works she might wish to send. Charlotte responded by finishing and sending a second manuscript in August 1847. Six weeks later Jane Eyre: An Autobiography was published and it revolutionised the art of fiction. Since then Brontë has been called the 'first historian of the private consciousness'. Exploring themes of classism, sexuality, religion, and proto-feminism, there's a lot going on in Jane Eyre, but never at the expense of enjoyment.

4. A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Conan Doyle introduced us to Holmes and Watson in November 1887, but the story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Only 11 complete copies are known to exist, in fact. Despite the slow uptake it was a classic mystery tale which went on to spawn 56 short stories featuring Holmes, and three more full-length novels in the original canon.

5. The Time Machine - H.G. Wells (1895)

You've got to doff your cap to a man who is generally credited with the popularisation of the concept of time travel. The Time Machine was an instant success and Wells went on to produce a series of science fiction novels which pioneered our ideas of the future. None would top his debut success, however.

6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce (1916)

In 1998, the Modern Library named A Portrait third on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (Joyce topped the very same list with Ulysses while The Great Gatsby came second). In 1917 H. G. Wells wrote that "one believes in [Joyce's fictional alter ego] Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction." With W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound also championing the work, it clearly carries serious literary clout.

7. Other Voices, Other Rooms - Truman Capote (1948)

Both Capote's first published novel and semi-autobiographical it's a powerhouse of a piece due to its erotically charged photograph of the author, risque content, and the fact that it debuted at number 9 on the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for nine weeks. Brilliant.

8. Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

We the love story behind the conception of Palahniuk's ground-breaking debut novel. When he attempted to publish Invisible Monsters, publishers rejected it for its disturbing content. So he wrote Fight Club in an attempt to disturb the publisher even more for rejecting him. Publisher loved it, career exploded.

9. Less Than Zero - Brett Easton Ellis (1985)

In the words of the author himself Less Than Zero "[isn't a] perfect book by any means... [But] it was pretty good writing for someone who was 19." Nineteen! We can't argue with that. Plus the novel was almost universally praised by critics and sold well, shifting 50,000 copies in its first year.

10. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - L. Frank Baum (1900)

L Frank Baum failed as an actor, failed as a salesman, failed as a chicken breeder then started writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Smart move. Full distribution of Oz occurred in September 1900 and by October, the first edition of 10,000 had already sold out and the second edition of 15,000 copies was nearly depleted. By 1938, over one million copies of the book had been printed. Less than two decades later, in 1956, the sales of his novel grew to 3 million copies in print. Nice work if you can write it.

11. Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)

In 1816, Shelley spent a summer with Lord Byron. Sitting around a log fire Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story". Unable to sleep, Shelley got to it: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," she recalled. "I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world." She began writing what she assumed would be a short story, but became her first novel, Frankenstein regarded as one of the first genuine science fiction novels it still speaks to – and spooks - readers nearly 200 years on.

12. Carrie - Stephen King (1974)

Stephen King's books have sold more than 350 million copies. He has published fifty-five novels and has written nearly two hundred short stories and it all started - at least in getting published terms - with Carrie. It was written in two weeks on a portable typewriter (the same one on which he wrote Misery) that belonged to his wife. It began as a short story, but King tossed the first three pages of his work in the garbage. His wife fished the pages out and encouraged him to finish it. King eventually quit his teaching job after receiving the publishing payment for Carrie but the hardback sold a mere 13,000 copies. The paperback, released a year later? Sold over 1 million in its first year.

13. Trainspotting - Irvine Welsh (1993)

Rumour has it Welsh wrote Trainspotting in the breaks while writing his thesis at Heriot-Watt University's Library. The book prompted The Sunday Times to call Welsh "the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades" and he continues to be just that.

14. Catch-22 - Joseph Heller (1961)

In 1953 Heller thought of the first line, "It was love at first sight." and within a week, he had finished the first chapter, and sent it to his agent. He did no more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. When it was one-third finished his agent sent it to publishers who purchased it and gave him $750, promising him another $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by almost five years but, after eight years of thought, delivered the most significant work of postwar protest literature in the history of mankind and changed the English lexicon forever. Worth the wait.

15. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee (1960)

Imagine having just one book published, it winning the Pulitzer-Prize before being voted "Best Novel of the Century" in 1991 a poll by the Library Journal. You might be tempted to call it a day there. With the exception of a few short essays, Harper did just that. And fair play to her.

16. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE - J. D. Salinger (1951)

J. D. Salinger's coming-of-age tale captured the very essence of disenchanted youth. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year with total sales of more than 65 million books. It was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923, and it was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Need we say more?

17. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO - Boris Pasternak (1957)

Due to its independent minded stance on the October Revolution, Doctor Zhivago was refused publication in the Soviet Union so Pasternak sent several copies of the manuscript in Russian to friends in the West. In 1957, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published an Italian translation. So great was the demand for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to license translation rights into 18 different languages. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature the following year, an event which humiliated the Communist Party.

18. Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)

In 1811, the Military Library publishing house in London accepted the manuscript for publication, in three volumes. Austen paid for the book to be published and paid the publisher a commission on sales. The cost of publication was more than a third of Austen's annual household income! She made a profit of £140 (almost £8,000 in 2014 money) on the first edition, which sold all 750 printed copies by July 1813.

19. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson (2005)

When published posthumously Brooding Scandi-noir genius Larsson’s psychological thriller caused a global sensation. Shortly before his death in 2004, he submitted the third volume in his "Millennium trilogy" to his publisher, but not a single book had been printed. Today more than 63 million copies of the trilogy have been sold with Dragon Tattoo being our pick of the bunch.

20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - Ken Kesey (1962)

Kesey's devastating debut novel was born of his experiences working on CIA-funded drug trials. While a student at Stanford, he volunteered as a medical guinea pig in the secret service's study into the effects of psychoactive drugs. This experience altered Kesey, personally and professionally and, while working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local veterans hospital, he began to have hallucinations about an Indian sweeping the floors. When chatting with them Kesey did not believe that the patients at the hospital were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to behave. All this prompted him to write the spectacular One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest which was an instant hit and spawned the Oscar-winning film.

21. The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath (1963)

It's hard to judge the brilliance of Sylvia Plath's shocking, realistic, and deeply emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanity without factoring in her tragic suicide just one month after it was published, in the UK. Perhaps we shouldn't have to. A truly haunting classic.

22. Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison (1952)

Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, Ellison's audacious and brutal Invisible Man changed the shape of American literature by tackling bigotry, head on. Bottom line? If you're human, and chances are you are, you need to read this at some stage in your life.

23. Adam Bede - George Eliot

Immediately recognised as a significant literary work Charles Dickens, no less, lavished it with praise: "The whole country life that the story is set in, is so real, and so droll and genuine, and yet so selected and polished by art, that I cannot praise it enough." No point in us trying, then.

24. The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison (1970)

Written while Toni Morrison was teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons on her own, it's about a year in the life of a young black girl who develops an inferiority complex due to her eye color and skin appearance. "I imagine if our greatest American novelist William Faulkner were alive today," reviewed The Washington Post "He would herald Toni Morrison's emergence as a kindred spirit... Discovering a writer like Toni Morrison is the rarest of pleasures."

The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)

A 1997 poll of over 25,000 readers listed The Wasp Factory as one of the top 100 books of the 20th century, while The Times called Banks "The most imaginative novelist of his generation" and the FT described the novel as "A gothic horror story of quite exceptional quality... Quite impossible to put down." This book will live with you long after you're done, but it's wide berth territory for animal lovers.

26. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

In the preface to his debut and only novel Wilde writes: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Odd then that the book boasts very obvious echoes of Wilde's own life. Perhaps that's why there was no second novel. Still, the one he did write remains enduringly popular and William Butler described it as "a wonderful book."

27. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini (2003)

Hosseini almost never finished the novel. He started by writing a short story in 1999 then, in his words: "The short story sat around for two years. Then I went back to it in March 2001. My wife had dug it up. I found her reading it, and she was kind of crying, and she said, "This is really a nice short story. She gave it to my father-in-law, and he loved it. He said, "I wish it had been longer." So then I said maybe there's something in the story that's really touching people. Maybe I should think about going back to it and see if there's a book in it."

There was. The novel sold more than 4 million copies in three years.

28. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Dafoe (1719)

The book was published on 25 April 1719. Before the end of the year, this first volume had run through four editions.

By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese) than Robinson Crusoe, with more than 700 alternative versions. Well played, Daniel. Well played.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Mark Haddon (2003)

It won a raft of awards including, rather delightfully, the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize after it was published simultaneously in separate editions for adults and children. However, it was perhaps what it didn't win that caused the biggest stir. The Curious Incident was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and "many observers were surprised that it did not advance to the shortlist." said John Carey, chairman of the Booker panel of judges. "We have several clashes of opinion among the judges but I found Haddon's book about a boy with Asperger's syndrome breathtaking."


In 1990 Rowling wanted to move with her boyfriend to a flat in Manchester and in her words, "One weekend after flat hunting, I took the train back to London on my own and the idea for Harry Potter fell into my head... A scrawny, little, black-haired, bespectacled boy became more and more of a wizard to me... I began to write Philosopher's Stone that very evening. Although, the first couple of pages look nothing like the finished product." Then Rowling's mother died and, to cope with her pain, Rowling transferred her own anguish to the orphan Harry. Rowling spent six years working on the novel after which critics compared her to Jane Austen, Roald Dahl and even to the Ancient Greek story-teller Homer.