Books: The First Novelists: Skilled, Satirical, Searching

Question: What do a child-guidance counselor, a jazz pianist, a BBC newscaster, a Peruvian living in Paris, a 26-year-old beauty from North Carolina and a 63-year-old real estate millionaire from Manhattan have in common? Answer: All are aspiring authors who have swelled one of the longest and strongest lists of first novels ever published in a single season.

Traditionally, the first novelist bursts upon the literary scene like a day-old volcano—exploding platitudes, scattering an unbreathable ash of adjectives, devouring cash advances like sacrificial maidens. The noisy thing may turn out to be a...

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