Literary One-Hit Wonders
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.”
When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa.
I have found that artistic one-hit wonders are typically conceptual works, that tend to appear early in an artist’s career, and often life. Consider some famous one-hit wonders in literature.
Frankenstein (1818) was Mary Shelley’s first novel, published when she was 21. Harriet Beecher Stowe was 41 when she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), but it was her first novel. Stephen Crane was 24 when he published his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Gone With the Wind (1936) was Margaret Mitchell’s only novel, published at 36. Call It Sleep (1934) was Henry Roth’s first novel, at age 28. J.D. Salinger was 32 when he published his only novel, The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Jack Kerouac was 35 when he published On The Road (1957), his second novel. Joseph Heller published his first novel, Catch-22 (1961), at 38.
These books varied widely in substance, from fantasy and satire to melodrama and tragedy. But in every case, the author’s goal was to express an idea, often with symbolic aims. Two of these books were so highly conceptual that their titles entered our speech, so that we now immediately understand references to Frankenstein monsters and Catch-22 situations.
Recognizing the conceptual nature of this phenomenon suggests a general resolution to a familiar puzzle: why do some writers publish one famous work, then fall silent or continue to publish with much less success? Generations of scholars and critics have pondered J.D. Salinger’s long silence, but their proposed explanations have always been idiosyncratic. Recognizing the commonality of this phenomenon may allow a more general, and more convincing, explanation. Quite simply, the elevation of one book by an author may be the result of the author having had one idea that far surpassed any others. And in the cases cited, the successful idea followed a pattern typical of conceptual creativity more generally, in being conceived early in the author’s efforts in the discipline.
The question might be raised of why the lack of good ideas was so devastating for their authors, for ideas are only one of the elements of a novel. An author who lacks a strong theme or plot might compensate by emphasizing observation, characterization, and situations. Yet although this substitution is possible in theory, it is unlikely to be a real option. Careful observation that produces complex, lifelike people and situations is generally the domain of experimental novelists, not of conceptual writers capable of such stylized and symbolic works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Catch-22.
In his 1987 History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins commented that Howl (1954) may have influenced American poetry more than any poem since The Waste Land. Noting that Ginsburg was only 29 when he wrote Howl, Perkins contended that his career degenerated thereafter: “He wrote too much, he mythologized rather than criticized himself, and he repeated himself like a dotard.” The language is harsh, but the basic judgement is one that has been made of many conceptual innovators – that having made an important early breakthrough, they became captives of their own discovery, and never subsequently surpassed or even matched it. In some cases, this led to repetition, in others, to silence. Ironically, many great innovators thus spend much of their lives being criticized as unoriginal, whether for repeating themselves “like dotards” or retreating into silence and choosing not to compete with their early genius. Whatever their reaction to the curious burden of their early masterpieces, these innovators all share a one-dimensional identification with a single idea.