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Image: ‘Woman in the Spotlight’, Canva.

I’ve been a debut author twice. I don’t often mention my first. You know the manuscript that’s meant to stay in a drawer forever? After two years collecting rejections, I accepted $1000 from an American small press—and a contract that sets my teeth on edge, looking back. By the time the book came out, complete with flap copy emphasising my youth, I wanted to bury it.

A year later, I was handed a shovel. Some Australian publishers were interested in my short story collection and novel-in-progress. One offered a two-book deal, conditional on releasing the unfinished novel first—they believed in ‘big splash’ debuts. Another was happy to release them in the order of creation. We agreed to pretend my other debut hadn’t happened.

By the time the book came out, complete with flap copy emphasising my youth, I wanted to bury it. A year later, I was handed a shovel.

I was twenty-six when I ‘officially’ debuted. I got things I didn’t get with my first effort: a launch, interviews, invitations. Some things I was unprepared for—like the editor who axed an article on my research into the lovers of infamous bad men when my research failed to involve imaginary affairs with serial killers. Yet most surprises were pleasant. I was totally immersed in my next project, ignorant of awards. When my editor called to congratulate me on a VPLA shortlisting, I waited until hanging up to google the acronym. I was flown to India for a festival, drank bottomless G&Ts in the home of a festival patron.

Completing my next book left me feeling eviscerated, directionless, identity-less. It was my best work. It was three years of my life. Whatever I expected, the reception didn’t live up to my expectations. That’s the thing about expectations.


In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Sally Rooney depicts a young author, Alice, who’s achieved all the milestones of contemporary literary success: a six-figure book deal, prizes, photoshoots, international tours, a film adaptation. She’s also miserable. ‘[W]hatever insignificant talent I might have, people just expect me to sell it,’ she laments. ‘[U]ntil I have a lot of money and no talent left. And then that’s it. I’m finished, and the next flashy twenty-five-year-old with an impending psychological collapse comes along.’

Whatever I expected, the reception didn’t live up to my expectations. That’s the thing about expectations.

Alice bemoans the petty concerns of those she meets in the industry: reviews, advances, who’s publishing whom. Yet her own concerns are symptoms of the same disease. Once published, our creations—and ourselves, by extension—become commodities.

Some authors may be well-prepared for this transition. Those with industry experience, or fulfilling careers outside the industry. Those with robust egos, low anxiety, clear personal-professional boundaries. How many twenty-five-year-olds possess these qualities?


The obsession with youthful literary achievement isn’t new. Before ‘30 under 30’ lists and Rooney comparisons, there was Rimbaud, the original infante terrible; the literary Brat Pack of the 1980s; even JT LeRoy, the transgender teen literary sensation of the early-noughties (later unmasked as the avatar of Laura Albert). Selling a book—selling anything—requires telling a story, and ‘wunderkind’ is a convenient narrative.

In my earliest fantasies about being a writer, I was always a wunderkind. This makes sense: suicide-ideating teenagers aren’t prone to fantasising about life beyond thirty. Plus, writing was all I wanted to do and nobody objected. In his twenties, my dad was a pro musician in Sydney, before moving back west, having four daughters by two women and working for a series of earth-destroying companies. Creativity and youth went hand-in-hand, I assumed.

Selling a book—selling anything—requires telling a story, and ‘wunderkind’ is a convenient narrative.

Reality checked the fantasy. There was my buried debut, so cringe. A WTF-am-I-doing-here inner-scream beneath the thrill of being the youngest shortlistee / panelist / New Delhi cocktail party guest. The feeling of publicly drowning when, as a twenty-six-year-old short story writer, I was expected to speak about domestic violence on a festival panel. The sense of culpability when I wasn’t reinvited to that festival at twenty-eight. The residency in Jakarta, where my imposter syndrome skyrocketed, sharing a living space with a charismatic twenty-nine-year-old who wanted Mt Agung to erupt during his trip to Bali so he could photograph the lava up-close and risk death for his art—never mind the Balinese who’d also die. Telling myself that would never be me when I heard about him suiciding three weeks before his thirtieth birthday. Waking exactly a year later in ICU, wrecked from a period of manic productivity. Releasing the product into a marketplace as crowded as the trams I once rode to work, knowing I probably won’t earn out the advance I fought to increase. I’m perhaps an investment with diminishing returns.


Jamie Marina Lau wasn’t just a young writer when she debuted in 2018—she was very young. A fact that seemed inseparable from the media’s reception of Pink Mountain on Locust Island. ‘My whole fantasy of being a writer shifted,’ she recalls the realisation that her image would be involved in the marketing of her work, after being advised to get headshots upon signing her first book deal. ‘Being marketed as a young author at 19 or 20 made me doubt myself…I was concerned that the only reason my books were getting sold after was because people wanted to see whether I could write or not.’

‘Hyped debut novelists are the writers that most resemble actual celebrities,’ Leslie Jamison stated, in a 2016 New York Times interview, when asked to account for the contemporary fascination with debuts. Echoing Lau’s concerns, Jamison identifies a ‘shadow-fixation’ in the fanfare surrounding new blood: ‘[T]he satisfaction of participating in the backlash against the debut novelist, pushing back against her hype.’ It’s worth noting, at this point, that the hyped debut novelist is usually a her.

But what even is a debut? Was it the manuscript I wish I’d left in a drawer? Or the stories that made me smile when I first held them in book-form and got the most hype? Or the novel that came after, which really did feel like a piece of my soul, and also vaguely like a headstone with my name on it?

But what even is a debut? Was it the manuscript I wish I’d left in a drawer?

‘We believe in big-splash debuts,’ somebody told me when I was twenty-five, my debut still theoretical. Nobody told me what comes after the splash.


I’m inclined to sneer at a peer’s instabragging about their BOOKED OUT events, their unnecessary (and possibly exaggerated) attendee head-counts. Another, rumoured to have follow-unfollowed hundreds in the leadup to publication. Then I remember nights in 2018, mindlessly liking bookstagram posts in front of Netflix. I wasn’t forced to do that. Somehow, it seemed worth doing.

‘Anxiety is one of the few occupational hazards of being a novelist,’ Olivia Sudjic claims in her essay Exposure, recounting the alienation and imposter syndrome that followed the publication of her debut novel. In a 2021 episode of Not Too Busy To Write podcast, Sudjic describes how her relationship with writing changed after the ‘exposure’ of publicity: ‘Instead of being this escape hatch that you go to in life…it then started to feel like, “How can I write something that will be popular and will make some money?”’

Sudjic isn’t the only author to look back on life before publication as a prelapsarian time. ‘I’ll never be that innocent again,’ Helen Garner famously declared, recalling the unselfconscious pleasure of writing Monkey Grip.  However, experiences like Sudjic’s are likely more common now than they once were. ‘This phenomenon seems to have grown as the concept of the midlist author has shrunk,’ Alison Croggon—poet, playwright, critic, editor, essayist, novelist, librettist, and all-round established literary person—says of the rising fetishisaton of debuts. She also blames cultural amnesia: ‘[T]here isn’t much interest in following how artists evolve, mature and change, in looking at bodies of work as opposed to discrete events…That’s the real problem with commodifying art: it’s an object in a production line.’

‘We believe in big-splash debuts,’ they told me when I was twenty-five, my debut still theoretical. Nobody told me what comes after the splash.

Croggon identifies as a writer with a ‘confusing brand’, acknowledging a number of ‘debuts’ across genres: ‘I felt these shifts in forms as organic evolutions of the kind of writer I have always been.’ Yet her most lucrative work—a fantasy series written in the early 2000s—had pragmatic motivations too. ‘I needed to make some money somehow,’ Croggon admits. ‘At that point I was pretty disillusioned with the literary world, it was so full of petty snobberies and pointless rivalries, and also incredibly sexist in ways that just ground me down…’


I recognise this sexism, in the backlash against Sally Rooney, just for being Rooney; in Sudjic’s experience of being seen as ‘interchangeable’ with the narrator of her debut novel; in the editor who told me writing about my research wasn’t newsworthy, she needed my research to imperil my personal life somehow, wanted me to (metaphorically) cuckold my ‘good man’ husband with the ‘bad men’ I’d written about. I also recognise that it’s about more than sex. It’s about identity, and the way it’s leveraged to sell stuff. ‘I remember having the thought that because my book wasn’t a book explicitly about being Asian—media or whoever had to jump to the fact that I was young and use that to make my book stand out,’ Lau says. ‘The way readers could consume my work was veiled by the lens in which I was marketed to them as “the-youngest-whatever” and it takes away from the beautiful universality I think novels have the ability to produce.’

While the shift from emerging to mid-career author has its pitfalls—among them, sales-tracking, the pressure of a known audience, and a potential loss of marketability that comes with no longer being ‘the next big thing’—it may ultimately bring us closer to this ‘beautiful universality’. ‘I was very very straightforward when I talked…about not wanting to focus on age, gender, race when publicising my books,’ says Lau, describing her comfort communicating with her new agent and publisher. Lau notices an improvement in the quality of attention she’s received after establishing these boundaries: ‘It felt like my work was being responded to in the way I hoped it would be—to start conversation about issues I felt were urgent.’

The transition to mid-career may also be a time of discovery. Croggon recalls a sense of liberation, following her early-noughties expedition into genre fiction: ‘I took those books just as seriously as I took my other work and I discovered to my surprise that I love writing stories.’ Communicating with Croggon, it strikes me that having a ‘confusing brand’ isn’t only not a bad thing—it’s a bit of a fuck-you to the concept of branding.


‘It’d be weird if I looked back on a book I wrote at 23 and thought, “whacko, this was my peak”,’ Jennifer Down explains, days after the release of her third book, Bodies of Light. Down was about that age when we met, working at adjacent desks in the same building. Years later, her second book brought me comfort in Jakarta, while I was negatively comparing myself to the promising young writer who wanted to die photographing lava. I wonder, from the depths of the world’s longest lockdown, whether an awareness of the marketplace has complicated her relationship with writing over the years, as it has my own.

The transition to mid-career may also be a time of discovery.

‘I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t write creatively at all, but I can imagine not publishing another book again.’ Down draws a clear line between the copywriting that pays her rent and private creation. ‘Maybe this sounds disingenuous, but the public aspect…outside expectations, the weight of the “audience”, etc.—doesn’t factor in very much; perhaps because publication feels like a very small part of my life. You know—the book comes out, it’s on social media for a few weeks, then it more or less disappears unless it crops up again on a longlist…’

It doesn’t sound disingenuous. It sounds sensible. More sensible than thinking of books as headstones, or items in a production line, or big splashes, or anything other than books.


My dad still makes music, around the job that was never his dream. Always has. As a kid, lifting the lid from the tin of Cavendish & Harvey sour cherry drops, I was perpetually disappointed to find guitar picks inside, no cherry drops. Every few weeks, we talk on the phone about music, writing. How pointless it can feel, amid the drudgery of work, closed borders, the grand theme of going nowhere. Musicians he was young with are dropping like flies. Last year, surgery for Dupuytren’s contracture, a hand deformity mostly affecting white men over 50, which may someday prevent him from playing guitar altogether. If there’s a point, it’s probably an obvious one. It’s the sense of continuity I feel—remembering that long before I was any kind of writer, I was a birthday girl who screamed at her own party guests for paying her too much attention, then hid in her room drawing until it was time for cake. If there’s a point, it’s that it feels essential.