It’s impossible to overstate just how much of an impact one great book can have. More than any single song, film or video game, individual works of fiction have reshaped our perspectives of the world and become household names even among those who might never have read a book. As we move into the 21st century and other forms of media monopolise our attention, this might not continue to be the case, but the idea that a lone writer can affect the mood of a generation is still an exciting one.
Of course, you might think that if a writer can change the world once then they should be able to do it again. But that would be underestimating just how many factors are involved when a book manages to reach the iconic status of an all-time great. Experience, talent and craft all have a major part to play in a writers’ success, but so does serendipity and that intangible quality that connects a book to the zeitgeist of its time.
The fact is, no matter how talented a writer might be, they’ll probably never have a book listed among the greatest and those that do will probably find that it’s an achievement they won’t be able to pull off again. So what is it about the writers who did gain such an extraordinary amount of recognition and why is it they could only do it one time? Well, for starters, some of them just didn’t see the point in trying…
The Ones Who Walked Away
The most indisputably famous case of a writer who created a bonafide classic only to step back from the typewriter and walk away is most likely Margaret Mitchell with her novel, Gone with the Wind. Gone with the Wind was published in 1936 and sold over one million copies within two years. As an epic romance set on the confederate side of the American Civil War, it’s understandably been a bit out of step with the times for a while now, but that hasn’t slowed down its sales. Today the book still numbers almost eighty-thousand copies sold per year and I would guess that those eight-thousand people are surprised each time they discover Margaret Mitchell never decided to publish again. Apparently she just wasn’t all that into being famous and spent the years afterwards volunteering for the Red Cross.
Harper Lee is an equally interesting case. After the enormous success of To Kill a Mocking Bird, which did a lot to highlight the pervasive problem of race relations in America, she retired from the literary scene until the release of a supposed sequel almost fifty years later. Sadly, there was some question as to her mental state at the time, so when her publisher began to tout the release of the so-called sequel it was met with no small amount of suspicion. When it was finally released the book turned out to be the first draft of To Kill a Mocking Bird from a time when the humanitarian themes that made it such a beloved classic had yet to be developed. The first draft of a classic so far removed from the final product is fascinating in its own right, but this was certainly a case of exploitative behaviour from a publisher that was all too happy to lie in order to make some easy money.
J.D. Salinger has also had his reputation become a bit tarnished over the years, more so for his questionable interest in younger women than for anything his publisher ever did. Nevertheless, the revelations of his personal history have hardly had an effect on the reputation of Catcher in the Rye which stands as the ultimate work of fiction from a writer who went on to become a recluse and never publish again. Why did he disappear from public life? A lot of people tend to confuse his decision with that of his famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, the young boy from Catcher in the Rye who just couldn’t bring himself to pretend that he was happy with the miserable state of the world. What’s important to remember though is that where Salinger decided to retreat to a private residence where could live away from prying eyes, Holden Caulfield actually ended up accepting his connection to the world.
Pour One Out For These Guys
Not all writers are lucky enough to have chosen to stop publishing. Many had their lives cut short. Luckily for us, a few of them managed to create some genuine pieces of art before their untimely deaths. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is the only book on the list I have yet to read, but from what I understand it was incredibly unappreciated in its time. In fact, her sister’s work was far more respected by the critics of her era who thought it best that Emily stick to what they considered to be her true craft; Writing poetry. Maybe Emily took their criticism to heart or maybe she was just naturally inclined to fall back into the world of poetry, but regardless, she died of tuberculosis at thirty years old and left behind a novel that has since been re-evaluated as a genuine work of genius and tops just about every poll for the greatest books of all time.
By comparison, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is a bit more of a contentious entry. Some say it’s a classic account alienation that did a huge amount to communicate the struggles of living with a mental illness as a woman in the nineteen-sixties, while others say that it falls a little short for a writer who can easily be considered one of the best poets of the twentieth century. Regardless, the partially autobiographical novel grants us an enormous amount of insight into her poetic work, which she never got to see reach such critical acclaim before she ended her own life at the age of twenty-three.
Unfortunately, she isn’t alone in this regard. John Kennedy Toole wrote a number of novels and was praised for his talent as a writer, but he didn’t manage to get anything published before he succumbed to a debilitating depression and ended his life at only thirty-one years old. The story would end there if it wasn’t for the dedication of his mother who found a copy of his novel A Confederacy of Dunces and introduced the world to one of the greatest comic creations of all time. The character of Ignatius Reilly might be a bit too obnoxious for some people’s taste, but if you’ve ever met that particular kind of personality who always seems to have an answer to a question you didn’t ask, then you can certainly understand why John Kennedy Toole’s creation would be an appropriate mascot for the internet age. Let’s just say we should be grateful Mr Reilly didn’t have access to Twitter, though there probably isn’t a shortage of blustering imitators clogging up your feed.
God Loves a Tryer
Needless to say, the vast majority of writers who produced an all-time great book didn’t fail to create another one for lack of trying. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is still the best anti-establishment book ever written. But as a compelling, hallucinatory novel that somehow manages to have both a meandering yet tightly plotted pace, you might be surprised by how sluggish the other books Ken Kesey wrote really feel. Sure, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was one of the more popular texts of the sixties, but it’s a relatively straightforward account compared to other memoirs of that time. And while Kesey’s other attempt at the great American novel, the aptly named Sometime’s A Great Notion, isn’t anything to disregard in a single sentence, it also isn’t one you could recommend to a friend without warning them that they’ll have to slog through at least two-hundred pages before it starts to get good.
This kind of disappointing follow up to a classic book seems to be more common than not. William Golding practically won the Nobel prize for Lord of Flies, but while his other works were intellectually stimulating they never really generated any impact. Similarly, it’s near impossible to ignore On The Road by Jack Kerouac when it comes to books with an enormous amount of cultural cachet. His fictionalised biography inspired by the five years he spent drifting back and forth across the continent inspired countless American kids to explore life outside the suburbs for the very first time. And though I do count one of his other works, The Dharma Bums, among my favourites, it’s admittedly hard to live up to a book that resulted in an entire nation of youth to be known as the beat generation.
All said though, when it comes to the greatest one-hit-wonders of literature you can’t find a better example than Joseph Heller with his incredible book, Catch 22. Even though it was a bit of a flop upon its release, word of mouth among disaffected youth helped it to become the definitive book for those who recognised the insanity of the Vietnam war. Over time, it would spread across America from East to West and gather a cult following that’s never stopped growing. Catch 22 is an insanely imagined, non-linear narrative that by some invisible force becomes one of the most elegantly structured antiwar stories ever told. All of this from a book that gifted us some of the greatest quotes of all time, not least among them:
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Joseph Heller did write a handful of other novels. Some of them even featured characters from Catch 22. But it always proved impossible for him to capture that lightning in a bottle for a second time. Nevertheless, the lack of another book to equal his masterpiece never seemed to bother him. When asked why he never wrote another book as good as Catch 22, he was quoted as having replied, “Who has?”
Finally, George Orwell isn’t exactly short on classics. Animal Farm alone produced so many iconic images and phrases that it’s a go-to reference in any conversation about equality. Down and Out in Paris and London is a truly great little biographical book. His essays like, Shooting an Elephant, are among some of the very best non-fiction articles you’ll ever read. And all of this was accomplished before he published 1984 in 1949, only one year before his death. Even so, if we’re grading all of this on a curve, then it might be fair to say that 1984 is such a monumental achievement in the world of literature that it makes even the objectively great work he produced before it look like amateur hour.
Altogether, no matter how great George Orwell’s earlier books were, you just couldn’t have imagined that the same mind would conjure up what is arguably the greatest novel of the twentieth century. 1984 is a methodical, humane and ultimately devastating examination of what happens to humanity when it’s subjected to the heartless machinations of a totalitarian regime. Over the seven decades since it was published, it’s continued to act a pervasive warning against governments that overstep their bounds. What’s more, the portrayal of what it’s like to live under such circumstances offers genuinely original insight on the human condition that allows it to become far more than just a mere political sermon. Overall, George Orwell had just never written a book like 1984 before. But like Joseph Heller said of his own book, who has?
Still, whether or not any of these books remain important for another hundred years is anybody’s guess. Perhaps the best lesson to take from them is that of Johnathan Kennedy Toole, whose writing would have gone completely unnoticed if it wasn’t for the single-minded devotion of his mother. There are probably a hundred such masterpieces left sitting in some dusty drawer. And even among the millions of books that have been published, there might be one waiting to be discovered or to become more relevant as the times continue to change.