How Arundhati Roy avoided the successful young fiction writer’s dreaded curse

Not a one-trick wonder.
Not a one-trick wonder.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For writers, the second novel, like the second album for musicians, can be one of the biggest career challenges to surmount.

But when a first novel has been particularly well received, writing another can be a pitiless process. Second novel syndrome is widely recognized: a cocktail of high pressure, constrained time, and an audience that is likely to be displeased with whatever you do.

Arundhati Roy’s first book, The God of Small Things, crashed into the literary world in 1997, won the Booker Prize, and went on to become the best-selling novel of all time by a non-expatriate Indian.

Most people would follow such success by writing more novels delivered as quickly as possible, to capitalize on the success of the first. Roy stopped publishing fiction for 20 years.

But Roy’s time away from novels contrasts with the pressured paralysis that some writers seem to have felt—like Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who remained almost silent for 55 years after the success of her first book. (According to her agent, “her pen froze,” when he expressed interest in her writing).

Instead of struggling with fiction, Roy used her platform to become an activist. She heavily criticized Western foreign policy over the war in Afghanistan. In India, she has become a fighter for social justice, including painstakingly documenting the battle between Maoist guerillas, corporations, and tribal people for the mineral-rich land in the northeast. She’s a speaker, an essayist, “probably now her country’s most globally famous polemicist” according to commentator Ian Jack.

Now, finally, Roy is publishing a second work of fiction, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, due to come out in 2017. Of course, it will also be pounced on and dissected. But Roy’s switch from highly successful novelist to political commentator debunks a myth about both first and second novels. Neither spring from a well of pure and untapped genius; both are the result of a combination of talent, luck, and life experience. Roy has opted to get more of the latter than most in between her debut and her follow-up in fiction.

Whatever people accuse her of, it won’t be of having only one good idea.