The literary world is full of ‘one hit wonders’: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (published 1936) is a favourite of mine, as it gave me information about the American Civil War I never knew before; Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden is another, as is Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger and perhaps most famously, Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte (not a book I’m fond of, if I’m honest. It’s too long and I got bored after Cathy died).
In February this year, the author of another one hit wonder, Harper Lee, the author of one my all-time favourites, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), died. I studied this book in school and loved it. Since then I’ve read it about a hundred times, loving how such a sensitive story of racism, prejudice and injustice is told from the point of view of a young tomboy. Scout recounts the events leading up to how her brother Jem has his arm badly broken at the elbow: in her home town of Maycombe, a black man is wrongly accused of rape by a white woman and Scout’s lawyer father, Atticus Finch, represents him in court. The innocent lives of young Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill are shattered, but they have a distraction in Boo Radley, a mysterious reclusive neighbour with whom they are fascinated by rumours that he is some sort of monster. At the end of the book, however, Boo Radley turns out to be a hero when he saves the children’s lives.
Although claimed not to be autobiographical, the characters are believed to be loosely based on people Harper Lee knew and the plot is drawn from her experiences of the civil rights movement in America in the 60s. After it was published, Harper Lee had no way of knowing how her book would be received. No author does, but although it became a massive hit, sadly it didn’t encourage her to write any more. I read in an obituary that she felt she couldn’t follow it. I think that’s a shame. Of course, in 2015, her other work, Go Set a Watchman, was published. I haven’t read it yet and the reviews are mixed: some say it’s excellent, most people say it’s poor. Maybe Harper Lee was right; maybe To Kill a Mockingbird was the only real book she had in her.
Many authors, however, have enjoyed success with multiple books and series: Terry Pratchett, Jackie Collins, Enid Blyton…but the one hit wonder should encourage the unknown author to continue writing because you never know if your book can reach those dizzy heights. As for self-published authors like me, books like The Martian (2011) serves as a major encouragement to keep writing!