November 16, 2008

SLICE OF PIE: One Book Wonders and How To Avoid Them

Not reading them – BECOMING them.

When I first started my search for fantasy and science fiction “one-book-wonders” (authors who wrote a single novel then either stopped writing SF/F or dropped out of sight for extended periods – OBWs from here on out) I couldn’t find much specific to the field.

But I DID stumble across a discussion on SF author John Scalzi’s blog (here ) and it launched me into a spiral of thought. With names like Barry Hughart, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Tom Godwin, George R. Stewart, Bruce Bethke (sorry, my friend), Daniel Keyes, Alexi Panshin and Jeffery Kooistra – not to mention Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Emily Bronte, Ralph Ellison, John Kennedy Toole and H.D. Salinger – I started to wonder if being a OBW was prerequisite to being remembered for all time.

Think of it – where would be without BRIDGE OF BIRDS or CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ or “The Cold Equations”? “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” would have no meaning today if it weren’t for Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND and in Minnesota, generations of suburban ninth graders would have remained totally ignorant of racism without TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

More than the cultural reflections though, this tweaked me to wonder what all of these might have had in common that led them to such an exalted status. That consideration led to a couple other thoughts: there are some people who were OBFs – one-book failures. These people wrote a book that some editor and publisher loved…but no one else did. They disappeared and sadly or gladly remain unlamented. What was the difference?

My thoughts:

1) OBWs said something new in a way it had never been said before. It was not an accident. I KNOW no one writes a book to fail, but anyone who claims to be a writer knows when their work goes beyond the edges of the imagination explored by others and these books made their writers afraid.

2) OBFs most likely tried to pander; ‘catch the wave’ or they just weren’t paying close attention to the world around them. Worse, their writers perhaps worked simply to pay the bills rather than “say something”. Other OBFs failed for that very reason: they tried to “say something” and weren’t subtle enough.

3) OBWs said what they needed to say and were done with it. They didn’t try to make their works An Important Literary Series. In fact, I can’t think of any series but THE HOBBIT/LORD OF THE RINGS that went on to become a literary classic in the way TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD or FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON did.

4) The advice of the OBW? Work hard to say what you need to say and frame it in a way no one has ever done before.


Paul said...

Some other thoughts: From my days at Barnes & Noble, I remember many new titles being released by this or that hot new writer who's turning the literary world upsidedown, and then these people are never heard from again. The buzz, of course, is created by marketing departments, and if sales fail to live up to their expectations, the writer may not get a deal for a second book, ending up taking a job writing greeting cards.

On the other hand, if a deal is made, the writer may find that writing under a deadline is a lot tougher than writing the first, golden, book at their comparative leisure. The result is weak, and the marketeers decide to cut their losses by not pushing it very hard and make way for the next young lion.

William said...

Perhaps there are intentional and unitentional OBW's. Some may want to publish more but can't stand the deadline pressure or can't interest a publisher in something different or are simply overwhelmed by their initial success. But some writers (ex. Salinger) seem to spurn publication and turn their backs on public readership after a single book. Maybe those writers had one great thing to say, said it well, and then knew when to stop. Few things are sadder than a great book or character stretched to thin mediocrity over a commercially driven series. Remember how Arthur Conan Doyle came to hate Sherlock Holmes, but was forced to drag him from a watery grave to please his public--one loyal reader complained to Doyle that Mr. Homes was "never the same after he went over Reichenbach Falls."


So my goal should always be to create a OBW -- to say something with so much power that I never need to speak again. If I DO have to write more, then maybe I just didn't get it right the first time and need to try again...always striving to say that "one" most important thing.

Paul, my question is though, do those who end up being OBFs INTEND to write a book that disappears, or are they not true to the vision the see or the message they should have been passionately speaking all along? Let me rephrase that: can a book that is truly passionate fail?

William said...

Ah, here it gets sticky--if you only have one thing you want to say to the world, then you might indeed strive until you got it right and then never write again. I can't see it myself. There are so many things to write about-- important to you, if not always "ultimate importance" to other people--that I have difficulty understanding those few writers who produced a masterpiece and then never wrote (or at least published--not the same thing at all) anything else. Most "writers on writing" essays and books I've read confirm what I've experienced--you write because you have to, and you can't imagine not doing it. Saw a great cartoon once--doctor peering deep into writer patient's ear with otoscope and tells her: "Yup, there's a story in there--it'll have to come out." And until it does, it itches and burns.


William -- interesting point. I guess when I think of "one thing" I want to say, I mean the thing that lives at the very heart of me. The think I bleed for. The Big Thing in my life that comes out repeatedly as a theme for my work. Maybe Harper Lee only had the one thing she had to say. But David Brin has a message he repeats over and over in as many ways as possible because it's "his message" to the world at large.

Thanks for the thoughts!

Jeff Kooistra said...

Well, so far I'm a OBW--I do think I have at least one or two more in me.

Jeffery D. Kooistra

Jeff Kooistra said...

Well, so far I'm a OBW. I do think I might have one or two good books in me yet before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Jeffery D. Kooistra