We’re all familiar with the term “one hit wonder” and how it’s generally employed; we know it’s used to signify a song (or a band) whose rise to prominence is often meteoric, yet fails to last longer than a single, bright flame in the annals of cultural history. We understand one hit wonders as things like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” or Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” but can we take that paradigm and apply it to other mediums? What about literature? We know we’re damn well going to try, which is why we here at Goliath have rounded up 10 beloved authors and their respective novels, all of whom were “one and done” when it came to their big hits (although as we will see, there’s most definitely some leeway in this discussion. Just look at #10…).
10. Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird)
Had this article been written last year, Harper Lee would’ve almost certainly clocked in at #1. Her novel To Kill a Mockingbird (published in 1960) is one of the most ubiquitous novels in the history of American literature; it’s taught in classrooms worldwide, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and its universal themes of acceptance and morality are translatable both through culture and through time, giving it incredible staying power. The novel also had the distinction of being the only one ever published by Lee, until this year’s curious publication of Go Set a Watchman, a supposed sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird that is so starkly different from the original that many questioned whether Lee was sound of mind when the text was published. We’re putting Lee at #10 on this list because we feel like even though she has now technically published two novels, the debate surrounding this extremely unorthodox publication has been too captivating not to address.
9. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher In the Rye)
Despite popular claims that he only wrote one novel, the widely read The Catcher In the Rye (published 1951), J.D. Salinger also published texts like Franny & Zooey (which can be read both as a short novel or two interconnected short stories) and Nine Stories (a collection with submissions to magazines like The New Yorker). Salinger qualifies for this due to the debate surrounding whether he published any other novels during his tenure as a writer; seeing as how he technically didn’t, we’re going to sneak The Catcher In the Rye on here at #9 due to its enduring influence in both literary and popular culture, with the novel’s protagonist Holden Caufield remaining one of the most iconic (and bratty) in contemporary literature. Salinger, whose prose communicated the angst and confusion of adolescence as well as anyone, shied away from the spotlight associated with being a famous author, and instead lived a highly reclusive life to the end of his days.
8. Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)
Much like J.D. Salinger, Sylvia Plath was a prolific author whose publications are many and varied, but in those publications there is only one novel (and much like Salinger’s, it is a spectacular one). The Bell Jar, published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, exists as Sylvia Plath’s defining literary text. While she will be forever remembered for her poetry, it is her novel that qualifies for this list here; The Bell Jar, which chronicles a woman’s descent into madness (and is said to parallel Plath’s own life, quite strongly), is a monumental literary achievement that brought attention to issues of patriarchy, identity and domesticity. A fundamental feminist text, The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel, but it’s a doozy.
7. Arthur Golden (Memoirs of a Geisha)
If you’re going to call it quits after writing a single novel, you’d best make it a good one. At least, that’s what author Arthur Golden had to be thinking when researching and writing Memoirs of a Geisha, the literary sensation that has sold over four million copies in English alone, while being translated to over 30 different languages worldwide. Golden, who spent over six years researching and writing the novel after living in Tokyo and Beijing, is said to have been working on a follow up novel for quite some time. However, as of today, he has only published the one, which makes him a literary “one hit wonder,” for all intents and purposes. That said, if you’re only going to write one novel, writing one that gets adapted into a feature film by acclaimed director Rob Marshall and goes on to win three Academy Awards isn’t so bad. It could be worse, you know? It could’ve been Brett Ratner directing that movie!
6. Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind)
Gone With the Wind, the famous Southern tale which tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara and her quest to save her beloved plantation, Tara, from its slow descent into poverty in during the American Civil War. The novel, written by Margaret Mitchell, is the only one the author ever published; however, much like the aforementioned Arthur Golden, she made sure it was a good one. Gone With the Wind won the National Book Prize in 1936 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1937, catapulting Mitchell into the spotlight until her untimely death by way of a car accident in 1949. While Mitchell never wrote another novel, she did live long enough to see her text adapted for the silver screen, with 1939’s Gone With the Wind starring Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable and Leslie Howard and receiving 10 Academy Award nominations.
5. Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights)
Emily Bronte, the sister of the more prolific Charlotte Bronte (Of Jane Eyre fame), never realized the esteemed literary legacy she left behind, as she died just a short year after the publication of her now famous novel, Wuthering Heights. A notorious recluse whose life is shrouded in mystery, Emily Bronte holds the #5 spot on our list of literary “one hit wonders” due to the overwhelming literary significance of Wuthering Heights and the fact that the lesser known of these two literary sisters never published another novel in her lifetime. Wuthering Heights, originally published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell (her sister published under the name Acton Bell early in her career), tells the story of the family who resides at the titular farmhouse, an isolated and eerie place located deep within the moors of Southern England.
4. John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces)
Much like Emily Bronte, John Kennedy Toole had passed long before his presence in literary history would truly be felt. His lone novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, was published almost 11 years after the author committed suicide at age 31. Published via a manuscript discovered by the late author’s mother, A Confederacy of Dunces would go on to be recognized as one of the fundamental texts of modernist American literature and is often cited as one of the funniest novels in the history of the English language; these accolades, of course, were never lavished on Toole himself, who struggled mightily with depression and the rejection associated with being an author. Awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to fiction, Toole’s legacy persists despite the fact that his literary canon is so small; like many of the authors on this list, the sole novel he did contribute turned out to be incredibly influential and beloved.
3. Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel the late poet, playwright and author left to his literary legacy; however, he did publish several plays and collections of poetry which carry in them the same literary esteem that Dorian Gray does. The subject of innumerable censorship and indecency trials, The Picture of Dorian Gray is in many ways demonstrative of the same characteristics that still define Wilde over a century after his death; the novel is incendiary, philosophical, witty and fascinated with the idea of “art for art’s sake,” as it were. The text, which revolves around a very famous painting of a very narcissistic young man, maintains a titanic literary influence despite the various ways in which it has been censored or dragged through the mud in its publication history; the most famous of these censorings, the removal of some five hundred words from the text’s original manuscript without the author’s knowledge, remains some of the most egregious in editorial history.
2. Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago)
Originally published in 1956 (despite being completed earlier), Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago takes its name from its title character, Yuri Zhivago, and navigates the treacherous social, political and cultural terrain of Soviet Russia in the time between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Russian Civil War (1917-1922). The text, the only novel published by Pasternak in his lifetime, is considered one of the greatest in the history of Russian literature, despite its significant condemnation at the hands of the Soviet government at the time of its publication. Doctor Zhivago, which carries in it kernels of rebellion alongside deep musings of loneliness, Russian identity and political strife, is one of the lesser known texts on this list despite the novel’s literary status and the excellent film adaptation based on the text. We’re hoping this might change in the near future, as the novel remains an excellent read despite the standard difficulties of Western audiences in internalizing Russian literature.
1. Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time)
Marcel Proust, the famous French author and essayist whose magnum opus is best translated as In Search of Lost Time, qualifies for the #1 spot on this list for numerous reasons, the best of which is that his sole novel was so insanely good that he’s often regarded as one of the finest authors and manipulators of prose ever. That’s right, folks; one novel, and you’re commonly cited as one of the best of all time. How many lifetimes would one need to make that happen? It’s crazy to think on. In Search of Lost Time, which clocks in at an astounding 4,215 pages, is viewed as one of the definitive works of the modernist period, eschewing traditional literary devices like plot in favor of attempting to capture, in the most realistic way, the conditions of the human experience. It’s a monumental success and one that helped shape the form of literature as we understand it today.