Now up on our homepage is an article by Richard Cohen about the curious phenomenon of the one-novel novelist. Until today, Harper Lee was one of the most famous examples of this phenomenon. Other notable examples: John Berryman, Berthold Brecht, Woody Guthrie, Noel Coward, and Napoleon. Some one-off novels are classics (Wuthering Heights, Invisible Man); others are remembered only because their authors were famous for other things (leading Britain through World War II, crushing democracy in Spain). Cohen includes a list of about ninety "celebrated" one-novel novelists at the end of his article, and laments that Lee is no longer on it:
Lee said years ago that she did not intend to publish another work, and we know that Go Set a Watchman was rejected by her editors both before and after To Kill a Mockingbird was published (she had also spent several years working on a novel called The Long Goodbye but eventually abandoned it). Even if her new publication gives us pleasure, I would prefer to remember her as the author of a single towering achievement, a member of one of the most unusual groupings in literary history.
Cohen also speculates about what would motivate a person to write only one novel. If you can do it once, why not do it again?
Most writers mature as their careers continue, but if a first novel is produced in maturity—Lampedusa, Pasternak—the novelist may have nothing more to say. The published novel may be the product of a lifetime’s striving.
Many of those on the list were writers by trade or vocation and contributed in other genres. Literary fashions also count, influencing writers to take up or abandon a particular form. If someone’s first novel is a great success, does that make future novels more difficult? Sometimes an author might have written more, but died early: Emily Bronte, Erskine Childers, Alain-Fournier, Sylvia Plath, and Mikhail Lermontov are the best known. But there is still the feeling that Herbert Read articulated: writing at least one novel entitles you to enter a privileged group engaged in a vital enterprise. Being a novelist is special, a siren calling.