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 http://whatever.scalzi.com/2008/03/03/one-hit-lit/ ) 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?
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.