One-Hit Wonders

The Sunday Telegraph had an article about authors who wrote one brilliant novel and never published another. The article is written by Claire Allfree, who is a freelance writer covering arts and entertainment in the UK. I quote from her article below.

“When the New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme died last week at the age of 74, she joined a venerated group of authors not known for winning the Booker Prize – which she did in 1985 with her Maori magic realistic epic The Bone People – but for the production in her lifetime of only one complete novel. Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, J D Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Anna Sewell all wrote a single, game-changing, long-form masterpiece. To that list can be added novelists equally or better known for other art forms – the poets Sylvia Plath and Boris Pasternak; the playwright Oscar Wilde; the short story writers Alice Munro and Edgar Allen Poe, although Bronte was also a n accomplished poet and Salinger a revolutionary short story writer. Nonetheless the image of the artist who produces just one perfect piece of work and then lapses into silence, often out of sight of the public view, is seductive. How admirable to leave just a single artistic legacy, its brilliance undimmed by inferior additional works, untainted by the siren call of game or ego.”

“Seductive, but rarely true. Few writers calmly put down their pen after dashing off a fabulous big hit, with the possible exception of Margaret Mitchell, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Mitchell always insisted she would never write another book, partly out of horror at her new-found celebrity (she expected Gone with the Wind to sell 5000 copies; it sold 50,000 on its first day). But while she refused all interviews, there were rumours she was considering a second, when she was killed in 1949 by a drunk driver at the age of 48.

The writer who comes first to my mind in this category is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. “Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but possibly not for want of trying. ‘Success has had a very bad affect on me,’ she later said. ‘I’ve gotten fat – but extremely uncomplacent. I’m running just as scared as before’. “

Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015, has confirmed to be an early draft of Mockingbird. In my opinion it was not even close to the calibre of Mockingbird.

“No, the messier, more complicated truth would appear to be: once a writer, always a writer. Some radical figures like Hulme, Salinger, Mitchell and Lee do not necessarily believe that everything they write needs to be published, or that writing – that most solitary of forms – should be considered a public spectacle.”

“In fact Hulme, who when told by telephone that she had won the Booker replied, ‘Oh, bloody hell’, rejected the idea that her writing was for the benefit of other people. A pipe-smoking, white-baiting aficionado who lived alone in a small settlement on New Zealand’s south island, in a house she built herself. Hulme embraced a maverick obscurity, yet she continued to write after her win, producing short stories and two further manuscripts that remained unpublished at her death. ‘It might seem that I’m low in the productive stakes. I don’t think it’s about being a celebrity at all. It’s about creating stories and songs that will last. Otherwise, it’s not worthwhile.”

“Meanwhile Salinger, who in 1953 retreated to a house in New Hampshire where he remained virtually unseen until his death in 2010 following the zeitgeist-defining of 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye told the New York Times in a rare 1974 interview that, ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.’ All the same. rumours abound over what manuscripts may be gathering dust: in that same interview he said he continued to write ten hours a day, while his daughter Maureen has spoken of a vault filled with rigorous notes on what was to be published after his death. Nothing has so far materialised, with Salinger’s son and widow, who control his estate, as tightlipped and suspicious of public scrutiny and the publishing machine as Salinger was.”

I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in 1955 when I was in high school in New Hampshire. At the time is was suggested reading for the senior class.

Ms Allfree goes on to say that “Salinger, Mitchell and Lee all attempted to exert absolute control over their writing, pursuing unscrupulous publishers who tried to produce unlicensed editions of their work.”

This kind of conflict ultimately benefits no one.

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