The Week In Books: A short story from debut to doom

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The Independent Culture

A novelist I know predicts that, in the future, all novels will be first novels. He has a case. In the age of digital data, any writer's track-record at the tills can hang around their shoulders like an albatross (or an accountant). When marketing rules, and the chains and supermarkets slice off their pound of flesh, past numbers alone will often deter publishers from further investment in a loss-making property – however talented the victim. The days when benevolent ladies and gents in senior editorial roles would sign up an eager but untested stripling in the belief that their fourth book would start to make a serious impression have vanished as completely as the Havana or cognac after the four-hour lunch.

Debutants, in contrast, can come fresh to market dressed in juicy hype. Perhaps they're famous, or infamous, already; they could be young, sexy or strange (or all of the above); maybe they worked as an elephant wrangler in a circus, a stripper in Sydney, or a hedge-fund dealer on Wall Street (or all of the above). And, so frequently, they scribbled their masterpiece on discarded till receipts in Starbucks and now it has sold for a million pounds (real-world translation: £50,000 tops, but not for much longer).

This week, the Man Booker judges have bent to the prevailing winds. Five out of the 13 titles chosen for this year's long-list are first novels, by Aravind Adiga, Gaynor Arnold, Mohammed Hanif, Tom Rob Smith and Steve Toltz. I wish them all blessings and readers in abundance. At the same time, this feels like another – if inadvertent – blow to to the quaint notion of a sustained career in fiction.

Over-hyped newcomers can crash and burn, at huge personal cost. On the other side of fame's mirror, long-haul novelists may quietly slip down the divisions from major houses to smaller independent firms – not necessarily a tragedy, since the indies may treat them better and sell them more smartly than the giants, but still a financial hit in almost every case. Rather than brassy fanfares for so many new arrivals, authors need stronger mid-career support. With her previous novel, the brilliant Michelle de Kretser (rightly long-listed on Tuesday) took the cherishable Encore Award for a second book. This is one of the few tangible benefits available for authors at that always-perilous stage.

Actual or potential novelists should catch a new film from François Ozon, released later this month. A first English-language outing for the French director, Angel adapts the 1957 novel by Elizabeth Taylor: the story of a delusion-prone Edwardian author of slushy romantic bestsellers in the Marie Corelli mould. As life and literature move on, she loses her readers, her celebrity and, finally, her mind. Playing the next big thing in books, c.1905, Romola Garai is a monstrous marvel of puppyish conceit. I have met a few like her. "Fashion changes, and time can be cruel," says her publisher, over the lonely gravestone that was meant to be a plaque in Westminster Abbey. In or out of prize luck, every debut novelist must remember that.

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