Second chances. A second wind. Seconds on dessert. All good things. So why do second novels have a bad rap? Even the most brilliant among them seem to be ceremoniously picked apart by critics and readers (“Why isn’t it more like the first book?”), ignored completely (“We already ran a profile!”), or praised but not actually purchased. But in today’s publishing environment—in which often terrific books, absent a news peg, fall off the map far sooner than they should—second novels need all the help they can get.
Sure, we find debuts delightful, and we support mature midcareer writers. But when the (second) novelist Porochista Khakpour took to Twitter this summer to bemoan second novel syndrome, we were inspired:
This fall, Slate and the Whiting Foundation are joining forces to battle second novel syndrome with We Second That, the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List.
Is this an award? No, not really. It’s akin to being retweeted by your literary idol, or finding out that the classmate you have a crush on thinks you’re cute. A mash note from the cosmos! Books don’t have an expiration date like a carton of milk; we believe that it’s worth going back to the shelves to discover what we’ve missed. And in December, we’ll celebrate five terrific second novels whose first trips through the literary-pressdustrial complex may not have been all the authors hoped for.
How will it work? We’re pulling together a list of the very best under-recognized second novels of the past five years—ones that might not have found the readers they still deserve now. (If you’ve got a suggestion, email email@example.com.) The list will be voted on by previous winners of the Whiting Awards. And then our five judges—novelists Yiyun Li and Colson Whitehead, independent bookseller Sarah McNally, NewYorker.com literary editor Sasha Weiss, and me, your Slate culture editor—will wrangle a final five of follow-up fiction, to be announced on Nov. 19.
For an entire week in December, the Slate Book Review will roll out essays from our five judges, making the case for readers to revisit, reconsider, and read these second novels. And a celebration on Dec. 10 at David Weeks Studio in New York will prove that second novels are something to shout about. After all, Their Eyes Were Watching God? Ulysses? Giovanni’s Room? O Pioneers!? The Firm? Second novels all.