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Great expectations can be the death of a book

It has been a long wait. Twenty years after writing The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy has released her second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Having adored Roy’s first book, with its poetic language, evocation of childhood and poignant story, I immediately bought her long-awaited second novel. That was two weeks ago.

Somehow, I find that I am loath to read it, worried that it will be disappointing. Such is the standard of the debut novel that it would be difficult for this book to meet my expectations.

It is a concern that is common to readers who have adored a book by a certain author, but who have been disappointed by that writer’s subsequent works.

For many, this was the case for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, published as a sequel to her Pulitzer Prize-winning and much-loved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Published in 2015, Go Set a Watchman was widely panned by critics, and gave rise to claims of racism. Many fans of Lee were disappointed by the book, which is believed to be an earlier incarnation of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Donna Tartt is another author whose subsequent books have been released to stratospheric expectations, following the success of her debut. A decade after The Secret History received rave reviews, the response to her second book The Little Friend, was mixed, while her third, The Goldfinch, another 11 years in the making, also attracted both praise and disappointment.

While The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize and was highly-regarded in many quarters, Vanity Fair reported that it also attracted:

“…some of the severest pans in memory from the country’s most important critics and sparked a full-on debate in which the naysayers believe that nothing less is at stake than the future of reading itself.”

Its reported criticisms ranged from language that belonged in a children’s book to claims that it dealt in clichés. At least book buyers seemed to be less concerned about its shortcomings, with it holding a place in The New York Times bestseller list for seven months.

It is no wonder successful debut writers are terrified about the prospect of writing their second book – the UK’s Telegraph newspaper dubbed the condition ‘second novel syndrome’.

Apparently, it is a problem that has been exacerbated by the very excitement that surrounded their first novel. In presenting the Encore Award for a second novel, Stephen Fry explained the difficulty for the second-time novelist:

“The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course.

“The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”

This isn’t very comforting to either the expectant reader or the writer who is struggling with their second book.

However, rather than it being the problem of the writer, who either lacks inspiration or the equivalent life experience that informed their first novel, I wonder whether the problem might lie in the expectations of the reader. As William Shakespeare said,

“Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

Having loved a writer’s first book, we start their second with preconceptions about what we are going to get. It does not always turn out to be what we expected.

I remember being sorely disappointed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, although it is widely considered to be one of the world’s classic novels. However, reading it after having adored One Hundred Years of Solitude, I had been expecting the same type of book as the one I had previously loved so much. My expectation about the kind of story it would be proved to be a barrier to my enjoyment. I am sure I would have liked it far more if I hadn’t previously read and loved One Hundred Years of Solitude.

In this way, readers can be guilty of tarnishing a great book by their desire to relive the experience of reading a much-loved book, and are disappointed that this can’t happen.

There is a similar phenomenon in the music world, where a second album is often greeted with far less excitement and fanfare than the first. We buy the album in the hope that the band or artist has remained the same as when they produced their original, and are disappointed that they might have evolved or developed their musical style.

So, as readers, it might be that we need to rid ourselves of the expectations we might have of writers. It would be a boring world if writers only ever produced novels that were similar to those they first wrote, however wonderful they might have been. It is a different kind of pleasure to see a writer grow and change, honing their craft by experimenting and taking risks.

With that in mind, I will begin The Ministry of Utmost Happiness without expectations, for if I want to experience The God of Small Things, there is nothing stopping me from reading that book again. In the meantime, it will be wonderful to see what Roy’s writing has become, 20 years later.



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