Just a few more thoughts on this topic–though I’m still hoping we can get some others to comment or guest-post on the subject.
First of all, regarding Margaret Atwood: you’re right, Handmaid’s Tale was the first Atwood I read, but Alias Grace is her best of the ones I have read (and I haven’t read Blind Assassin). Although, as you point out, hers vary widely in style and genre, so it’s a little hard to compare them.
But let’s talk YA. How about John Green? Looking for Alaska, a debut novel, won the Printz Award in 2006 and An Abundance of Katherines won a Printz Honor in 2007. In my opinion, Katherines is the better book, moving beyond the–let’s face it–typical first-novel autobiographicalism of Alaska and doing something really different and interesting. But Katherines did win an honor, something none of Green’s subsequent books have managed to do. And here again, it’s hard to know how much of that is anticipation and familiarity. John Green has an amazing fan base, both online and in terms of real readers who actually buy his books, and of course, that includes the librarians who are on award committees. But it does make me wonder a little bit if I and other readers are able to read his latest book, The Fault in Our Stars, completely objectively. Would I have a different reaction to it if I had read it without knowing the author? In this case, possibly not–because it sounds like a John Green book. The characters are John Green characters, and the dialogue is John Green dialogue. So if I didn’t know John Green had written it, I might be thinking, “Wow, this author is really ripping off John Green.” But it will be interesting to see where it lands in this year’s Printz deliberations.
Another author I was thinking about is Markus Zusak. I know that his masterpiece is considered to be The Book Thief, but I want to talk about what I think of as his “Australian slacker” books. I happen to love Getting the Girl, a book that has never gotten too much attention. It didn’t even make BBYA for the year it was released. (I am pleased to see, though, that it was re-released last year as part of an omnibus volume with its two prequels, The Underdogs (never before released in the U.S.) and Fighting Ruben Wolfe.) In any case, having read Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl did, in fact, make me appreciate I Am the Messenger even more. And I think I Am the Messenger is a brilliant book. So did the 2006 Printz committee, who gave it an honor. I, however, think it is a better book than the book that won that year, which happens to have been . . . Looking for Alaska.
Now that you have brought this topic up, I will, of course, never be able to read anything again without running it through this analytical lens: where does it fit in an author’s oeuvre, what was I expecting when I picked it up, etc.