Literary One-Hit Wonders: The Double-Edged Sword of Greatness

Literary one-hit wondersIn the world of music, the term “one-hit wonder” has long been used to describe artists that only have one song reach the Billboard Hot 100 list. The phrase has become synonymous with names like Toni Basil, Deep Blue Something and Chumbawamba, but little thought has been given to artists in other mediums that fit its general definition. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to place F. Scott Fitzgerald in the same category with Aqua but, in one respect, he should be. Fitzgerald was a one-hit wonder.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “The Great Gatsby is one of the most widely read and heavily praised novels of all time!” While this may be true and even though The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be “The Great American Novel,” few outside of the English major crowd would be able to name another one of his works. And he is not the only culprit; many of the most well known novels in the English language were either written by authors who failed to produce a sophomore novel entirely or failed to produce anything that came close to their well-known work’s success. These are literature’s one-hit wonders, and some of them may surprise you.

5 Literary One-Hit Wonders

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is praised around the world for its accurate depiction of the excessive lifestyle of the 1920’s. It is read by high school students all across the United States and features one of the most memorable characters in all of literature in the form of Jay Gatsby. It is one of the most well known and widely read books of the twentieth century. It was also novel number three for Fitzgerald, who would go on to write two more along with countless short stories before his death. How many can you name?

While every piece of work Fitzgerald published was well written, none reached the level of success afforded to The Great Gatsby. Perhaps it was simply that The Great Gatsby’s shadow obscured the rest of his works. Or perhaps the level of success it received was only possible once every generation. One thing is for certain, Fitzgerald will be remembered for the rest of time, but he will be remembered for The Great Gatsby.

Harper Lee

            Ask someone to name some of the books they read in school and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is bound to come up. Ask them to name another one of Harper Lee’s novels, however, and they are bound to come up blank. Luckily, this is one of those instances where having no answer is the answer, as To Kill a Mockingbird is Lee’s only published work.

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird received almost instant mainstream success, winning Lee the Pulitzer Prize and finding its way into English curriculums across the United States. Yet, since its publication, Lee has failed to release a sophomore effort. Her second novel, The Long Goodbye, has been filed away unfinished, leaving the world to wonder what could have been and leaving Lee with the mark of the one-hit wonder.

J.D. Sallinger

J.D. Sallinger’s seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye is a story filled with teenage angst, frustration and rebellion. It is also J.D. Sallinger’s only well-known work. Despite being lauded as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century by both Time and Modern Library, Sallinger’s other works have failed to live up to the standard set by Holden Caulfield and his teenage antics.

Sallinger continued to write short stories and novellas after The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951 but, like the other authors on this list, failed to achieve much success with them. Unlike the book’s main protagonist, who struggles to find his identity throughout the book’s 224 pages, Sallinger’s identity as an author can be summed up in five words: The Catcher in the Rye.

Margaret Mitchell

The name Margaret Mitchell may not be familiar to some, but the name of her only major publication is universally recognizable. Gone With the Wind is one of the most well known works in all of literature and went on to inspire one of the most successful films in the history of the medium. Unfortunately, it would be the first and only book Mitchell published, and not for lack of ability, but for lack of time.

Mitchell did not publish anything after Gone With the Wind’s publication in 1936 because she was not given the chance. Thirteen years after her first novel’s publication, while crossing the street on her way to the theater, Margaret Mitchell was struck by a vehicle. She died five days later on August 16, 1949. Because her life was cut short, we have no way of knowing whether she would have remained a one-hit wonder or whether she could have matched or exceeded Gone With the Wind’s success.

Herman Melville

Our final author is another iconic name that owes everything to one iconic work. In fact, many consider Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to be the only real competition The Great Gatsby has in the race for the title of “The Great American Novel.” Others consider it no contest at all, so great are the words that grace Moby Dick’s pages. Either way, Herman Melville is another author whose greatest work proved to be too great, forcing all of his other works to pale in comparison.

Moby Dick is somewhat unique from our other works in that it did not receive swift success and propel its author to instant stardom. Actually, quite the opposite was true: the book was considered a failure at the time of its release and marked the decline in Melville’s writing career, despite Melville’s belief that it was his finest publication. Since Melville’s death, however, the literary world has come to see Moby Dick as the work of literary genius it is. Unfortunately, many have also forgotten his other great works in the process. Bartleby the Scrivener who? Benito Cereno what? To a majority of readers, Herman Melville is Moby Dick.

What do you think Studio 602 readers? Are there any standout literary one-hit wonders that we missed? Which one of these authors has a lesser-known work that you appreciate? Let us know in the comment section below!

1 reply
  1. Charles Berolzheimer
    Charles Berolzheimer says:

    Great post Alexander. Oh, but what hits they all were. But isn’t that also every authors dream, to write THE Great American Novel? I am sure many a writer would give up authorship several of their works for that one blockbuster hit. Coincidentally, just re-read The Great Gatsby last week on vacation (or rather listened to it on the CD in the car along the way).


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