Like all creative pursuits, writing is a fickle, subjective art. Some authors start off their careers with whimpers, others with bangs — and their fortunes shift in any direction imaginable as time progresses. The following writers managed to either capture the attentions of audiences and critics alike with their first novels, or slowly gained admiration later. Subsequent novels (if any) all met with vastly different reactions, of course, but none of that tarnishes the glow of these established classics and soon-to-be classics.
- Title: The Tale of Genji (Eleventh Century)
Author : Murasaki Shikibu
Debates continue to rage over whether or not Lady Murasaki’s deeply psychological inquiry into an emperor’s son forced to live as a pauper should be considered the first novel. Regardless, it remains one of the most influential literary works ever penned and an absolutely essential lynchpin of the canon.
- Title: Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Author : Jane Austen
Modern adaptations of Jane Austen sadly tone down her biting Regency satires in favor of the romantic elements, but Sense and Sensibility remains a classic commentary on the gender and class
- Title: Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818)
Author : Mary Shelley
Horror novelists owe a debt of gratitude to Frankenstein scribe Mary Shelley, whose deeply psychological inquiry into human existence through the eyes of a monster revolutionized the genre — and literature, and pop culture — forever.
issues of an earlier time. Many of her statements eerily ring true even today.
- Title: The Pickwick Papers (1837)
Author : Charles Dickens
Originally serialized in monthly installations from April of 1836 through November of 1837, Charles Dickens quickly compiled his first novel into one volume. Told vignette-style, the stories revolve around Samuel Pickwick and his humorous misadventures with the law, spurned lovers and more.
- Title: Jane Eyre (1847)
Author : Charlotte Bronte
Even today readers still love the story of a governess, her spunky charge, the gruff homeowner who runs the show and his crazy first wife locked in the attic.
- Title: Wuthering Heights (1847)
Author : Emily Bronte
Emily Bronte only wrote one novel in her lifetime — the story of a self-destructing couple whose love manifests itself in wanton acts of cruelty.
- Title: Black Beauty (1877)
Author : Anna Sewell
This classic tale for children and adults alike preaches kindness to all living things, including animals placed in their care and providing them with valuable services.
- Title: A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Author : Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have grown to hate his Sherlock Holmes character as the years passed and the fans became more ardent. But his very first novel nevertheless remains a classic mystery tale with an iconic protagonist. Unusually enough, it did not exactly pique the public’s interest until much later.
- Title: The Time Machine (1895)
Author: H.G. Wells
One of H.G. Wells’ most beloved tales involves the wondrous travels of an idealistic young scientist who soon learns the grim reality of humanity’s future.
- Title: Three Lives (1909)
Author : Gertrude Stein
As the title promises, Three Lives chronicles the story of three women with vastly different experiences who still share some commonalities.
- Title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
Author : James Joyce
Young Stephen Dedalus stands in for a young James Joyce, setting the modernist tone of his later works. Wandering the streets of Dublin, the protagonist muses on his differences with the prevailing Irish-Catholic culture.
- Title: This Side of Paradise (1920)
Author : F. Scott Fitzgerald
Angry at his future wife’s first round of rejections, F. Scott Fitzgerald found solace in writing about the romantic and social troubles of Princeton student Amory Blaine.
- Title: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937)
Author : J.R.R. Tolkien
One of the most beloved and influential fantasy writers of all time, J.R.R. Tolkien hoped to write a challenging children’s story with classic themes of heroism and friendship. Allen & Unwin published the book at the behest of one owner’s young son, and the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy grew out of the demand for more.
- Title: The Big Sleep (1939)
Author : Raymond Chandler
Fans of the noir genre certainly know the quintessentially hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe, who made his debut in this classic crime novel.
- Title: Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
Author : Alan Paton
Easily the most well-known South African writer thus far, Alan Paton channeled his righteous anger and frustration at the Dutch’s persecution of the country’s native peoples into one of the most spellbinding works of political literature.
- Title: Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)
Author : Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s very first novel sends youthful protagonist Joel Harrison Knox out into the world to find the father who walked out on him. Along the way, however, he begins to understand himself and his sexual identity.
- Title: The Martian Chronicles (1950)
Author : Ray Bradbury
Loosely-aligned vignettes and short stories compiled from Ray Bradbury’s earlier publications paint a detailed portrait of what life could be like someday on Earth’s closest neighbor.
- Title: The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Author: J.D. Salinger
This controversial classic parodies the self-exile protagonist Holden Caulfield puts himself through in order to feel like a special and unique snowflake in a blizzard full of “phonies.”
- Title: Invisible Man (1952)
Author: Ralph Ellison
Invisible Man was the only one of Ralph Ellison’s novels to be published during his lifetime. Even today, its intensity relating to segregation, exploitation and marginalization of African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement sends chills up and down the spine. Students working on a degree in Social Studies may find this reading applicable to their field of study.
- Title: Player Piano (1952)
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Rightfully beloved writer Kurt Vonnegut launched his illustrious career with this provocative dystopian reflection on the role of technology in society.
- Title: Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953)
Author : James Baldwin
This thought-provoking work explores the interrelationship between religion and race amongst the African-American community in the United States, offering both criticism and praise to the Christian establishment.
- Title: Junky (1953)
Author : William S. Burroughs
William S. Burroughs’ first novel was a collaboration with fellow beat author Jack Kerouac, written in 1945, published in 2008 and titled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. His first solo foray into the medium featured his pseudonym William Lee. Titled Junky – alternately spelled Junkie – it brutally and achingly captures his intense battle against heroin addiction.
- Title: Night (1955)
Author : Elie Wiesel
Part memoir, part novel, this harrowing account of Elie Wiesel and his father’s horrifying experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald faced many challenges in getting such an honest depiction of the terrors published. The first version was released in Argentina under the title Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, with Dawn (1961) and Day (1962) following.
- Title: To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Author: Harper Lee
Harper Lee never wrote another novel after her Southern Gothic bildungsroman set in Alabama that tore apart the injustices unfairly heaped upon African-Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement.
- Title: Catch-22 (1961)
Author: Joseph Heller
One of the most scathing and hilarious satires ever written, Catch-22 asks what bureaucracy and war are good for — ultimately concluding “absolutely nothing.”
- Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
Author : Ken Kesey
Counterculture figurehead Ken Kesey drew from his work in a psychiatric hospital to write this highly provocative novel about chaos and control between mental patients and their caregivers.
- Title: The Bell Jar (1963)
Author : Sylvia Plath
Better known for her poetry rather than her prose, Sylvia Plath still wrote one novel in her lifetime under the penname Victoria Lucas. The Bell Jar pulls directly from her own tragic life and chronicles the rise and fall (and rise?) of a promising young magazine intern.
- Title: V. (1963)
Author: Thomas Pynchon
The enigmatic, exceptional postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon launched his illustrious career with the hallucinogenic journey of ex-Navy sailor Benny Profane as he seeks the titular figure.
- Title: The Bluest Eye (1970)
Author : Toni Morrison
Bravely addressing themes of racism, sexism, incest and other horrific realities faced by African-American communities in Ohio after the Great Depression, The Bluest Eye remains one of the most controversial and essential entries in the literary canon.
- Title: Americana (1971)
Author: Don DeLillo
Corporate satire and commentary have become a staple of Don DeLillo’s impressive oeuvre, and he set the tone for the rest of his career with this crackling, quintessential road novel.
- Title: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)
Author : Hunter S. Thompson
The iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is technically Hunter S. Thompson’s first published work of fiction, but the manuscript for The Rum Diary had been written prior to that in the early 1960s. It just never saw publication until 1998. This gritty, grimy peek into the drug culture of the time ruminates on how Americans managed to lose sight of their collective dreams.
- Title: Carrie (1974)
Author : Stephen King
Teenage cruelty and religious fanaticism get their comeuppance when a telekinetic high school girl gets pushed to her breaking point. Carrie was actually the fourth manuscript Stephen King ever wrote, but the first to be accepted for publication.
- Title: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
Author : Douglas Adams
The gut-busting science-fiction Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begin its life as a radio serial that ultimately became a pop culture phenomenon. A whopping five books follow the initial novel, with the last of the bunch controversially written by Eoin Colfer following Douglas Adams’ death.
- Title: Neuromancer (1984)
Author : William Gibson
The first installment of the Sprawl trilogy — also involving Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) — is considered one of the greatest cyberpunk and science-fiction novels ever published. It popularized the term “cyberspace” and depicted the adventures of hacker Case and Razorgirl Molly through Gibson’s interpretation of what the internet might someday become.
- Title: The Joy Luck Club (1989)
Author : Amy Tan
Multiple narrators weigh in on universal themes of racial identity, gender roles, family — most especially as it pertains to mothers and daughters — the different types of love and much more in Amy Tan’s acclaimed debut novel.
- Title: Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)
Author : Douglas Coupland
Through the struggles of Andy, Dag and Claire, writer Douglas Coupland bottles up the American and Canadian cultural climate as it transitioned from the 1980s to the 1990s and impacted the lives of Baby Boomers’ children.
- Title: The Virgin Suicides (1993)
Author : Jeffrey Eugenides
In this heart wrenching story, five sheltered sisters living in Michigan begin cracking under veritable totalitarian parenting styles while their neighbors provide their own commentaries.
- Title: Fight Club (1996)
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club burst unapologetically onto the literary scene, offering up some brutal deconstructions of masculinity, commercialism, business, materialism and society in general.
- Title: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Author : J.K. Rowling
Renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States, this debut novel launched an entirely unexpected pop culture extravaganza, making J.K. Rowling the only billionaire (as defined by Forbes) author. Six books, a successful movie series, scads of merchandise and millions of fans followed.
- Title: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)
Author: Stephen Chbosky
MTV actually produced something intellectually stimulating for once when it agreed to publish Stephen Chbosky’s contemporary classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This epistolary novel candidly captures a coming-of-age tale both timeless and — in 1999 — timely.
- Title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000)
Author : Dave Eggers
Although a memoir, the magic of Dave Eggers’ first work of long (very long) literature contains many intentional fictitious elements as a means of blending two very different narrative approaches together. What results is a terribly sad, terribly beautiful and terribly funny amalgamation of stories about the author’s struggle to raise his little brother after losing both parents to cancer.
- Title: House of Leaves (2000)
Author : Mark Z. Danielewski
One of the most haunting, twisting literary works of the early 21st Century sends readers on a sprawling journey through a mysterious, ever-changing house and the protagonist’s life of drugs, booze and strippers.
- Title: Persepolis (2000)
Author/Illustrator: Marjane Satrapi
Marjane Satrapi is one of the most respected graphic novelists currently working today, and her memoir of life in Iran following the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of a militant Islamic regime contains equal parts humor and horror.
- Title: Everything is Illuminated (2002)
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
A young man travels to Ukraine in order to meet the woman who saved his grandfather’s life after the Nazi invasion, learning valuable lessons about love, family and friendship along the way.
- Title: White Teeth (2000)
Author: Zadie Smith
The lives of British families from vastly different backgrounds converge in one compelling story of identity and interpersonal relationships.
- Title: The Kite Runner (2003)
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Watch the political climate of Afghanistan dramatically shift through the eyes of the young Amir as he comes of age amongst the turmoil.
- Title: American Born Chinese (2006)
Author/Illustrator: Gene Luen Yang
Suitable for audiences young and old alike, the celebrated debut graphic novel of writer, artist and educator Gene Luen Yang entwines the ancient tale of the Journey to the West with a young man’s quest to resign his minority status with the majority culture.
- Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)
Author: Junot D?\iaz
Dominican history and family chaos come sprinkled liberally with geeky pop-culture references in this startling, haunting Pulitzer winner.
- Title: Crooked Little Vein (2007)
Author : Warren Ellis
The noir and hardboiled genres receive the deliciously loopy Warren Ellis treatment, complete with bizarre acts of obscure fetishism that would make Chuck Palahniuk proud.
- Title: Then We Came to the End (2007)
Author: Joshua Ferris
Multiple narrators weigh in on the rise and fall of an advertising agency as the internet begins permanently changing the way people do business.