Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One-book Authors

Sandra Parshall

Does the name Ross Lockridge Jr. ring a bell? No?

In 1948, he published Raintree County, a novel that became the number one bestseller in the U.S. (If you’re a film buff, you may have seen the 1957 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.) Herman Wouk declared Lockridge’s book the genuine Great American Novel that so many have aspired to produce. It should have been the start of a brilliant career. But Lockridge never wrote another book. Deeply depressed, he committed suicide in March of 1948, as his book reached the height of its popularity. At the age of 33, Lockridge joined the ranks of one-book authors, most of whom have faded into obscurity while a handful have achieved lasting acclaim for their single, and singular, works of fiction.

John Kennedy Toole also committed suicide, not after his book was published but because he was crushed by his failure to get A Confederacy of Dunces into print. Following his death in 1960, his mother embarked on a mission to fulfill her son’s dream. After seven years of frustrated efforts, she persuaded novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript, and he in turn found a home for the book at Louisiana State University Press. It was published in 1980 to wide acclaim, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Dunces has never since been out of print.

Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee also produced novels of such merit and appeal that they have remained in print and continued to sell steadily since publication. Both their novels won the Pulitzer Prize. Mitchell apparently enjoyed the success of Gone with the Wind (1936), but she suffered – and I believe “suffered” is the right word – an invasive degree of fame that even Janet Evanovich and Stephen King couldn’t imagine. Fans gathered outside her home and peeked in the windows. They swarmed her when she emerged. She lived another 13 years, dying in 1949 after she was struck by a taxi, but she never wrote another book. Perhaps she was paralyzed by the twin fears of re-igniting the obsession of readers and producing a book the world would declare an unworthy successor to GWTW.

Harper Lee’s only book, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), is widely considered the most outstanding American novel ever written, and high school and university teachers all over the country use it as a teaching text. Ms. Lee is still alive, and she travels to accept awards and other honors, but she prefers to remain out of the limelight. She did, however, give a newspaper interview last year when she was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bush, and in that interview she
confirmed her desire for a simple, quiet life filled with reading, not writing.

Toole, Mitchell, and Lee and their books wouldn’t fade from memory in any case, but the internet is keeping alive the reputations and work of more obscure one-book writers. Ross Lockridge and his book are celebrated
on a website. Mark Moskovitz, a director of political commercials, made a documentary about his search for Dow Mossman after he discovered the writer’s only published novel, The Stones of Summer. Because of the film, Barnes & Noble has republished the book. Moskovitz created a website called The Lost Books Club to bring attention to other books he feels shouldn’t be forgotten.

These days, many publishers push writers to produce a minimum of one book per year. Is it possible now for anyone to write a masterpiece, given the pressures of the marketplace? We can all name writers we think should have quit after one good book, but that would be a nasty way to treat people who are just trying to stay published and make a living. Instead, can you think of any living writer who could have created a lasting legacy with a single glorious book?

If you had to fill a time capsule with great contemporary novels and could choose only one from your favorite writer, which would it be?


Bill Crider said...

I remember RAINTREE COUNTY mainly because of the movie with Elizabeth Taylor, but for a good while, copies of the paperback were everywhere in used-book stores.

Sarah G said...

My first thoughts are off-genre. I'd do 'Nine Princes in Amber' by Roger Zelazny, because his works inspired me to write, and 'The Heritage of Hastur' by Marion Zimmer Bradley, because I consider it MZB's best book.


'Bitter Medicine' by Sara Paretsky.

'The Face of a Stranger' by Anne Perry would definitely be my choice for her.

Devil's Waltz' by Jonathan Kellerman. They don't put his stuff in the mystery section, but there's definitely a mystery here.

Sandra Parshall said...

My choice for Dennis Lehane would definitely be MYSTIC RIVER.

Among non-mystery favorites, I think Louise Erdrich's first book is still her best: THE BEET QUEEN. But most of what she has written has been superb.

I'm not sure Charles Frazier can ever write another book as good as COLD MOUNTAIN.

Julia Buckley said...

What an interesting article, Sandy! I don't know that I'd want to be so invested in my book that its failure (or success) would prompt me to take my own life.

I agree with the COLD MOUNTAIN assessment; and since it is loosely based on THE ODYSSEY, I'll mention another great work related to that epic: Margaret Atwood's THE PENELOPIAD. But if I had to choose one Atwood novel only, it would be THE HANDMAID's TALE.

In the mystery genre? Some of Sue Grafton's early stuff is really strong--I think I'd choose I is for INNOCENT.

Darlene Ryan said...

I can't pick just one. Honest. I can't. May I have a bigger time capsule?

Karen said...

"The Stand" by Stephen King. By far his best, in my opinion.

For Lehane I'd choose "Shutter Island." I could read that book a million times.

T. Jefferson Parker's "Silent Joe." Also Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Elizabeth Berg's "The Things We Keep," and Anne Tyler's "Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant."

Good question, Sandy. That was fun.

Jen said...

While I don't think these are the only great books by any means, if I was only allowed to pick one to put in a time capsule, by each author it would be L.A. Requiem for Robert Crais and Sorrow's Anthem for Michael Koryta.

And I completely agree with Karen's choice of Shutter Island for Dennis Lehane. What a phenomenal piece of work!

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree completely re: Parker's SILENT JOE, Sebold's THE LOVELY BONES, and Tyler's DINNER AT THE HOMESICK RESTAURANT (a work of pure genius). But I'm not giving ground on MYSTIC RIVER!

David Cranmer said...

Amazing coincidence... I happen to be on a work assignment in Louisiana, and today a co-worker let me borrow a bunch of books and A Confederacy of Dunces was among them. I hadn't heard of it beforehand, and I'm looking forward to checking it out.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Choose only one book? Sigh. Okay, I'd have to go with WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson.

And while I'm no Harper Lee, I often prefer reading to writing. I grind my teeth far less when reading.

Sandra Parshall said...

Lonnie, what got me thinking about one-book authors was a recent request for my contribution to Forgotten Books Friday. The book I wrote about was WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. Shirley Jackson wrote some wonderful books and that was the best, IMO, but she seems to be remembered only for a single short story, The Lottery.

Marcia said...

I'd choose Josephine Tey's classic, DAUGHTER OF TIME. It's one of a handful of books I re-read annually.

-- Marcia Talley

Carol said...

I'm probably getting in on this conversation too late, but, like, Sandy, my choice for Dennis Lehane would be Mystic River -- my favorite mystery, ever. I love his P.I. novels, too. Sacred is my favorite of those.

Favorite non-mysteries are Fifth Business (Robertson Davies) and Beloved (Toni Morrison).

Beth Anderson said...

My favorite would have to be THE SOURCE by James Michener. That one contains so much information about the middle east and its beginnings that although I love all of his books, I truly cherish that one.

Beth Anderson

Karen said...

Carol, "Sacred" is terrific, too. I think "Gone Baby Gone" was my favorite of his PI novels. I was very impressed by the movie, as well.

Jen, I nearly added "LA Requiem" to my list, I LOVE that book. It's amazing to compare it to his early stuff and see how Crais amped up his game.

Sandy, glad you agree about Tyler. I read "Homesick" for a college lit course - it's one of the few assigned reads that I've reread for pleasure. Along with "Mockingbird," of course. That's only my favorite book ever. I even named my cat Scout. ;)

Anonymous said...

Had Richard Adams stopped at "Watership Down", I believe he still would never have been forgotten, and readers and critics would have driven themselves crazy projecting what might have been.

Anonymous said...

Oh, sorry guys, but just three more! And two of these are actually 1 hit wonders that I didn't see in the article:
"Memoirs of an Invisible Man" by H.F. Saint, an amazing first and only novel, funny as hell and yet constantly suspenseful. I have resisted watching the movie because it can't possible compare.

"The music stops and the waltz continues" by David G. Smith. This book has such evocative and haunting passages. More than any other book I can think of, it charts the similarity of emotions and reverberations on ones life that occur via love and via friendship, which at times feel indistinguishable from each other. And yet if there was a real clamor from anyone for more from this writer, I haven't found it. No interviews, no speculation. In fact, I haven't found any other evidence of his existence besides this book. I hope it is more widely read someday.

Last one, I promise: Had Michael Chabon stopped at "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh", he would have been entreated to write more for decades to come.