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The Creative Process: What makes a literary one-hit wonder?

There is a lot more to the phenomenon of literary one-hit wonders than you’d think. There are many reasons for a book being designated a “hit” or a “wonder” and even more reasons for an author being identified as having had only one hit book (in particular, a novel). I discovered that Kirsten Bakis’ Lives of the Monster Dogs is not the only one-hit wonder I’ve enjoyed – and that I’m in for a long wait if I want more of the same. Here’s an overview with some of my favourite one-hit wonder novels.

What defines a “hit”?

It can be a book that;

  • has sold very well
  • has remained long on best-seller lists
  • has been considered a “critical success”
  • is still read decades after publication
  • has so much depth and interest that it has been adapted into other media, like stage, film or a comic book
  • is an award-winner
  • is a popular or loved creation (fan favourite)
  • is a cross-generational favourite
  • contains ideas or expressions that have become popular cultural references (become memes)
  • is the only outstanding or memorable work in an author’s œuvre

What do I mean by “books”? If you want to compare apples with apples, consider that the prose form in literature includes semi-fiction, fiction, non-fiction and literary fiction, each with their own forms, genres and sub-genres. The phenomenon of one-hit wonders seems to have been documented mainly in the fiction form, the genre novel in particular, so that is what I looked into.

A high-level taxonomy of Literature forms  – a more detailed taxonomy is here.

Why only one hit?

Some authors are famous for only one book, having written many, which may be other novels, or non-fiction, etc.

  • For one reason or another, the other novels never got as lauded or famous. With many authors, readers only know them for one novel or one series of novels – even if they produced others. Often, this has become an accepted fact, while these authors have actually produced excellent works of literature before or afterwards. Also, a book that is a critical success is not necessarily popular and thought of as a “hit”.
In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust (1908)
  • An example is Marcel Proust (b. 1871, d. 1922) who is often on these one-hit wonder lists for his work In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past). The series of novels was a partial defence of Alfred Dreyfus of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, but also a social critique, because Proust was primarily  an essayist and critic. So, I’m not sure whether that series is Proust’s one-hit wonder. Personally, it’s all a moot point for me.

Others wrote one novel only, which was a hit, and never wrote another novel.

  • These are actually rare. Mostly this happened because they died prematurely, like Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind. (It was published in 1936, and she died in 1949, at age 48, in a car crash.) Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, turned into a recluse after she wrote the book, and withdrew from the public and the publishing industry, becoming virtually dead.

    Film poster of Gone with the Wind (1940), based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell (1936).

Others published one hit in their lifetime, but none of their other books were hits after they died.

  • Their books might all have been excellent, but they simply ran out of time. It has to be remembered that having a hit means a long process of promotion and advocacy, and it rarely happens by itself. Books that become hits because of the slow accretion of fans are even rarer than hen’s teeth.

Why? Genre authors likely sustain a run of good books rather than series of hits.

  • One simply has to look at the steady and profitable output of novels by authors like John le Carré, Agatha Christie or Nora Roberts to understand this.
  • A hit novel is often the result of an author’s daring, high levels of creativity and exceptional technical skill. Readers prefer consistent quality, and a steady and good output. But true originality means risk of failure. It is daring to produce something brilliant and hard to emulate. But it can all fall flat.
  • There are many such books that simply never made it to the hit lists. Let’s call them “underachievers” or books that deserved to do better.

Some writers are born to write just one great book and fail to repeat that coup.

  • This is particularly true of writers of sequels – the first one is a success, the rest, not so much – or perhaps they are just watered down copies of the first one. One has to ask whether the entire Harry Potter series of J.K. Rowling isn’t just the first book, with the success recipe repeated.
  • Another example of this is the three-part Sci-Fi/Fantasy novel, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G.W. Dahlquist (2006). The first book, published as a serial in ten parts, was a great success, and showed the promise of things to come, but the other two books in the series The Dark Volume, 2008, and The Chemickal Marriage, 2012, did not do well at all and faded into obscurity.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G.W. (Gordon) Dahlquist
  • The Latin phrase Homo unius libri (“a man of one book”) means a writer of one book or just one concept or big idea, endlessly repeated in every book. For as long as there have been books, there have been hominum unius libri.

Writing as a career is hard – most writers give up, fail or stop before age 40. 

  • Fame, that is the reward for someone having worked their patootie off to produce a hit novel with their very first book, is a double-edged sword. Profit, celebrity, opportunity and a legacy ensue, but also pressure to perform and produce another wonder. And very public pressure at that. Look at Jenny Lawson and her first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. She, of all people, had a hard time with the fame this book got her. Luckily she had had exposure to wide-spread popularity ahead of time with her successful blog. She knew what she was getting into. (However scary it was.)
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A mostly True Memoir), by Jenny Lawson, Berkley Books, New York, 2012

After all that effort, readers still tend to concentrate on one novel and ignore the rest of an author’s portfolio.

  • Perhaps this sounds whinging, but every novel written, no matter how it is received, is an achievement because it is simply extremely hard work, as I explained in my series about the creative process. It seems to me somewhat harsh of readers to write off the whole portfolio of a writer, if it exists, except for that one book of the writer that they had actually read. (Yes, they do do that.) Just because Charles Dickens is very famous for A Christmas Carol, or perhaps David Copperfield, does not mean he is a one-hit author. His bibliography is as long as my arm and incredibly varied. It’s like saying Shakespeare wrote nothing worthwhile but Romeo and Juliet.

Some authors (have to) die before they can produce another winning streak.

  • This is common-sense, but oddly, dying often has the result of increasing the value of an author’s work, or an artist’s paintings.  Therefore, many publishers publish half-finished, “discovered” manuscripts after the author died, and in some instances, new authors take over the characters and created worlds of the deceased author.

Every author has the potential to become a one-hit wonder.

  • It’s a matter of waiting and seeing whether a first-time hit will be followed by more or not. Sometimes an author does not have an obvious incentive
  • It is a possibility that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), by Dominican American Junot Díaz, might be his last novel. The wildly innovative novel was only his second, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, amongst many other honours. It was a critical and commercial success, but that happened more than ten years ago. Díaz has had to do a lot of explaining of this work in subsequent years. Afterwards Díaz published a children’s book, essays and a successful collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead, 2012). But no more novels. I reckon he probably said what he wanted to say in this one incendiary novel and have more awards to hang on his wall than any author would wish for. Díaz is now more into Dominican and youth activism and advocacy.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (Penguin Random House, 2007, 1st ed.)
  • Also, will George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, be the only one he will write? Will his next one be as good? Does he have to produce another masterpiece? (No, but Mr. Saunders, please do!) He is a professional journalist and columnist, and Kirsten Bakis, author of the sleeper hit Lives of the Monster Dogs, lectures in literature and teaches writing. And Prince Lorenzo Borghese, author of the surprisingly successful Princess of Nowhere, is actually an American businessman and former reality TV star, and probably only wrote the novel to prove a point about his ancestry. So I think they do not actually have an incentive to repeat their first successes.

Questions to identify one-hit wonders

Considering the factors, above, that play a role in whether a book becomes a one-hit wonder, there are a further three questions that determine whether a work is or isn’t in this category:

  • The first question is whether the book was ever filmed. If so, this probably helped make it a hit, even decades after the publication, like Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It could’ve stayed an obscure Victorian Era melodrama, overshadowed by the works of the other Brontë sisters, were it not for the romantic Hollywood film version starring Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven and Geraldine Fitzgerald. That was one of sixteen film versions of the book.
  • The second question is: Did they write other novels? They may have done but people cannot remember what those are, putting these authors wrongly in the one-hit wonder category. If they never wrote another novel, then it is indeed a case of a ONE-hit wonder.
  • Included in the fiction category is children’s literature that have become cross-generational hits, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Illustration by John Tenniel of “Alice” from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, by Lewis Carroll (1865)
  • Books like these are regarded as timeless classics, and are viewed as literature that can be read and appreciated by adults. They may feature children, toys, and fantasy, and be illustrated, but the themes are serious and treated as such. Winnie-the-Pooh has inspired multiple texts to explain complex philosophical ideas. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequels, Lewis Carroll introduced logic puzzles and mathematical concepts.
“Winnie-the-Pooh”, by A.A. Milne (1926)
  • Lastly, did the author write books in other prose forms? Non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, essays, librettos, etc.? Yes, many authors did, but produced no more novels. The trend is for women to read more fiction than men, and as a 2015 survey showed, since 1982, the number of people in the U.S.A. who read fiction, particularly novels, has been dropping ever so slightly year on year, in favour of other media and “easier” non-fiction formats, like news sites. These trends are reflected in the number of authors who concentrate on producing novels. Thus, if a novel becomes a hit, it is partly due to a smaller, but dedicated, demographic of readers and authors. Considering people’s tastes, it is unusual for a hefty scientific non-fiction work on a difficult subject, like Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies, to become a genuine literary hit.
Next time: Video of literary one-hit wonders - keep an eye out!
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