Once in a lifetime: is one great book in an entire career really enough?

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Harper Lee is eighty eight years old and is the author of one novel and one novel alone.  You’ve probably read it. To Kill A Mockingbird was published to huge acclaim in 1960. The book remains a classic and was made into a successful film in 1962. Lee did, in fact, work on a second novel in the Sixties entitled The Long Goodbye but eventually abandoned it. At the end of the day, To Kill A Mockingbird came out when Harper Lee was in her thirties and has never had a novel published since. She probably never will now.

Lee is not the only member of the “one novel only” club. Oscar Wilde wrote many plays, poems and stories but only one novel The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1890. Other famous cases are, like Lee, female. Emily Bronte also wrote poems but unlike her sisters, only one novel Wuthering Heights in 1847 Anna Sewell only ever wrote Black Beauty (1877) Margaret Mitchell only ever wrote the massive Gone With The Wind (1936)

None of these examples are quite like Harper Lee though. Of these four, only Anna Swell made it past the age of fifty. Sewell, was in fact, well past that age, when her book was published but died soon afterwards.

Joseph Heller wrote five novels after the massive success of his debut antiwar satire Catch-22 in 1962. But none of them recaptured the magic of his debut novel. His sixth book Closing Time (1994) was actually a somewhat belated sequel to his most famous book. His last, Portrait of An Artist, as an Old Man focused on an elderly author trying to repeat the success of his earlier work. It was published in 2000, the year after Heller’s death.

Heller was never modest about his early success, however. Asked why he had never written anything as good as Catch-22, he would typically respond: “Neither has anyone else!”

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JD Salinger, increasingly reclusive in later life, wrote nothing for publication after the 1960s and nothing as good as 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger only died in 2010 and left several stories which he insisted, only wanted published fifty years after his death. So be patient, Salinger fans. More is on its way in the year 2060.

Donna Tartt’s story is happier, however. The Secret History was a big success in 1993 and since then she has published one novel a decade The Little Friend in 2002 and The Goldfinch, just last year. The latter, a very long book, was almost as well received as her first. The thriller writer Thomas Harris writes at a similar rate, publishing an average of a novel a decade (including the four Hannibal Lecter novels) since his first non-Hannibal book Black Sunday in 1975.

I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, if you are a writer shouldn’t you damn well write? Harper Lee clearly has a major talent. Imagine all the novels she could have produced in the fifty years since! What a waste.

On the other hand, she certainly wouldn’t have needed to write from a financial point of view: To Kill A Mockingbird remains very popular, although she had no way of knowing it would continue to endure so well when it was first published. Not every classic book does

There is also something undeniably cool about writing just one sensational hit and leaving the reading public wanting more.  Particularly, as any subsequent novels would undoubtedly have been compared to her first and however good they were, found wanting.

Besides, if Lee didn’t feel inspired, why should she not write anymore? It is unlikely any other book would have ever been as well received as her first.

And let’s face it: would we think more or less of Salinger or Heller had they only ever written one book? I’m guessing, we would probably esteem them more. Like a bad film sequel, their later works although by no means awful, slightly diminish the reputation of their early respective masterpieces.

That said, Harper Lee could now have produced a wealth of books. Like Daphne du Maurier or Donna Tartt, her debut might have overshadowed her other works. Daphne du Maurier will probably always be chiefly remembered as the author of Rebecca. But she also wrote Jamaica Inn. And the stories which inspired the classic films Don’t Look Now and The Birds.

Harper Lee certainly deserves the rich praise she has received. One truly great novel is more than most people, indeed most novelists, ever achieve.

But what more could she have done? We will probably never know now.

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