The Second Book Syndrome

September 30, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

We have all seen it before: author writes breakout bestseller and then proceeds to dwindle back into anonymity after his/her second book fails to capture the public imagination in the way the first did. I think this is often considered a modern phenomenon, as authors are under more pressure to perform the second time around (or there may be no third time) and as publishers become more concerned with making a profit after big advances. Just to think of a two examples, the hype surrounding Dan Brown’s latest Langdon nonsense (admittedly, not simply his second book, but still) and the articles about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love follow-up troubles are enough to show that the second book syndrome (if you will) is definitely a problem still plaguing the writers among us.

blackarrow But what about authors of “classics” whose current and long-lasting success in relation to one of their books has caused us modern readers to forget all the duds that came before and after that one classic? I’m thinking Rob Roy (Sir Walter Scott’s follow-up to Waverly) or The Black Arrow (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “other book” after Treasure Island) or even all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s post-Holmes “historical novels” (Micah Clarke, Rodney Stone, and Sir Nigel to name a few fairly forgotten ones).

Thinking about this and also perusing used book shops and fairs resulted in me purchasing The Black Arrow by the aforementioned Stevenson and giving it a go despite my misgivings about Rob Roy.

While I have not finished the book yet and Stevenson seems entirely too prone to the frustrating habit of writing out accents (also like Rob Roy, but in this case substituting almost every instance of “the” or “you” with “ye” and “thou”), I must say I am thus far pleased with Stevenson’s sophomore outing for a few reasons. Firstly, there is Stevenson’s own self-deprecating introduction wherein he frets about people not liking Arrow as much as they loved Treasure Island. His awareness of the second book syndrome at first worried me, since that would suggest pressure on Arrow and perhaps produce a lesser novel, but then I decided I liked that he acknowledged where his readers were coming from rather than ignoring the elephant in the room (Treasure Island). He recognized that it was an iconic work and hoped that, all the same, people would still read and appreciate Arrow apart from Treasure Island.

Secondly, there is the wonderful historic coincidence that Stevenson based his characters and story on the Paston Letters! Having read Helen Castor’s book about the Pastons, I was thrilled to discover a fictionalized account of that story. I’m also extremely happy that an author such as Stevenson discovered them and realized the narrative potential of the family.

Those two aspects of the book aside, so far I am enjoying the rather ambling, boy-adventure story that Stevenson so clearly excels at writing (as he would later once again prove with Kidnapped). The Black Arrow may not be his classic work, but I think it is still very good and I look forward to what will undoubtedly be a climatic conclusion. At this moment in my readings, Stevenson is definitely winning over Dan Brown, Doyle, and Scott, but I’ll keep you posted!


Entry filed under: Classics, Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Musings and Essays. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. silverseason  |  January 2, 2010 at 1:45 am

    Then there are the “one book” authors who are anything but that. Some female examples:
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
    Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford

    Except it’s not true. All of them wrote other books before and after the one we all remember. Some of the other books are very good indeed, but tend only to be known to specialists.

  • 2. Your Weekly Clip Show! « Literary Transgressions  |  January 13, 2010 at 12:07 am

    […] remember the Second Book Syndrome? Well Eat, Pray, Love’s Elizabeth Gilbert is finally back with her second book, rather […]


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