Today, Nathan Bransford asks on his blog, “You tell me: What is your greatest fear as a writer?”
Among the many fears readers name in the comments (success, obscurity, expectations) is this: “That I’ll be a one-hit wonder.”
And I wonder, now, “What’s wrong with being a one-hit wonder?”
I had a literary agent, once. Before having an agent, when writing, I worried about silly little writer-y things like compelling and realistic dialogue, creating evocative images, conveying a thought or a mood as perfectly as I could, and telling the story my way, using my own style and my own voice. And I used to love worrying about those things.
But suddenly, once I had an agent, I was thinking about things like “commercial appeal” and “marketability.” I was worrying about so many new things, so many less important things, that I forgot how to write.
I freaked out. What if I never wrote another book I was proud of? What if I couldn’t write one a publisher would buy, and I continued to flounder in obscurity?
After about a year of reflection, which involved a writer-life crisis combined with an identity crisis combined with a crisis of confidence, I discovered that it really didn’t matter if I never wrote another book. If it wasn’t in me, it wasn’t in me. Who would it hurt? (No one.) How would it affect the world? (Not at all.) Would it destroy me? (Only if I decided my happiness was dependent on whether I wrote another book–and how foolish is that?)
I’ve already written something I completely love (the book that attracted the agent in the first place) – isn’t that enough? If I can do it again, great. If I can’t, so what?
I would probably refer to myself as a one-hit wonder if I never produced another book I was proud of – even if I’m just a one-hit wonder in my own mind.
But what about the other one-hit wonders? The REAL ones, I mean. The Awakening was Kate Chopin’s only real hit (unless you count a few of her short stories, but let’s stick with novels). To Kill a Mockingbird was certainly Harper Lee’s. Tim O’Brien has written several books, but can as many people recall any of his titles as quickly as they can the brilliant and beautiful The Things They Carried?
Other one-hit wonders:
J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
To have designs on being a career novelist and fearing only one book will sell is one thing–obviously, that would destroy the career-novelist dream. But those novels by the one-hit wonders in the list above are better remembered, more studied, shared in more high schools and universities, and analyzed more frequently than anything written by most career novelists.
Maybe the one-hit wonders wrote The Thing they had to write and had no need to write anything else. Maybe they put everything they had into The Thing. But The Thing they created is magnificent. Better than that, it’s lasting.
I’d consider it damn fortunate to be a one-hit wonder.