Nearly a million books are published each year in the US by some estimates. Even if we trim that number down to just “literary books” (whatever that term means), there are thousands of books filling the shelves each year. As such, it can be a little silly to sum up an etire year of books in any way. And yet, years do seem to have flavors and different books become part of the conversation each time. So, at the risk of violating my own advice from two sentences ago, I’m going to suggest that 2014 might be the year of the debut.

Phil Klay2014 was the year Phil Klay’s debut collection Redeployment won the National Book Award. It was the year Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing won a half-dozen awards. The year Andy Weir’s The Martian went from self-published debut to SF sensation (and winner of Goodreads choice award in Science Fiction).

Then there are the books that were not technically first books published, but were the first books to break an author out into a large audience. Leslie Jamison had previously published a novel, but her debut essay collection The Empathy Exams became the rare indie press book to make a the New York Times Bestseller list. Roxane Gay published a short story collection in 2011, but her 2014 debut novel (An Untamed State) and debut essay collection (Bad Feminist) saw her rocket to household name status.

Denis Johnson Laughing MonstersThis is not to say that major established writers didn’t release great books. Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters, David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, and Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, among others, all got great reviews. Still, those books didn’t dominate the conversation the way that novels from established writers often do. (Think of how the following books controlled the conversation in 2013: The Goldfinch, The Tenth of December, The Circle, Doctor Sleep, Bleeding Edge, and The Flamethrowers.) This year, new voices were making a disproportionate amount of the racket.

So I’m going to call it: 2014 was the year of debuts. If you don’t believe me, here is a (by no means complete!) list of stellar 2014 debuts for your perusal:

Celese Ng

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng


Scott Cheshire bookHigh as the Horses Bridles by Scott Cheshire


Mira Jacob bookThe Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob


Will ChancellorA Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor


Catherine LaceyNobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (our review)


Diane Cook book cover

Man V. Nature by Diane Cook (read an excerpt)


lmbLove Me Back by Merritt Tierce


A replacement lifeA Replacement Life by Boris Fishman


Saeed Jones bookPrelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones


18518285The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe


Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van by John Darnielle (our interview)


SHFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson


McGlueMcGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh


Marie Bertino2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino


ThrownThrown by Kerry Howley


20763852The Wilds by Julia Elliott


14storiesFourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours by Luke B Goebel (read an excerpt)


Courtney MaumI Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum


atlPreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish


D FoyMade to Break by D. Foy

18404251Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro


osnosAge of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos


18528065Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm


YAPanic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya


22237292The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink


UTSAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay (read our interview)


TEEThe Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison


McBride coffee houseA Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride


The Martian by Andy WeirThe Martian by Andy Weir


Phil KlayRedeployment by Phil Klay (read an excerpt)


16 Responses

  1. Avid indie press supporter

    It’s so sad to me to see a best debut list from Electric Literature without the mention of Eric Shonkwiler’s incredible “Above All Men.” It’s the best book I’ve read in years and years, and not enough readers and list-writers are venturing from the indie mainstream to pick up a truly fantastic ultra-indie smallstream book that fits perfectly in this list, but isn’t getting its due because the press is smaller. We all have our opinions and tastes, I know, but I expect something more from the people who brought us “The Great Indie Press Preview” as a response to The Millions’ having the same ol’ same ol’ “indie” list that everyone else had. Please pick up “Above All Men” and check it out and give it some credit. I am not affiliated with the press, just a reader who was blown away by this stunning debut, as you will also be.

    • Lincoln Michel

      Thanks for the rec! Just to clarify this was not meant as a “best of” list, we’ll be posting some of those soon (including an indie focused one)

      • Avid indie press supporter

        Thanks for the reply. So glad to hear it! These indie lists are the only lists worth paying much attention to these days. 🙂 I hope that you do check out Shonkwiler’s book. Based on the books that you have highlighted in this list, I think that you will really enjoy it. Looking forward to seeing more from you and from Electric Literature, always. I’ve been a long-time reader here. 🙂

  2. Jessica

    I’d add to the list Red Rising and Bird Box, both of which made a splash and totally deserve recognition. Plus one of my favorites of the year, indie The Weirdness, which was a great trip of a debut.

  3. Elizabeth Jackson

    I just want to add some debut novels by women over 50. Three favorites: Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario; Robin Black’s Life Drawing; Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal. Thanks for the list above, which is terrific. (I tried a version of this comment a few days ago, but don’t see it here. Sorry for the repeat if you are still reviewing that one. I figured it got lost)


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