By Sharan Saikumar Feb. 19, 2017
Harper Lee is burdened with producing only one masterpiece in her life. But what’s wrong with that? Authors like her told us one story and then gracefully laid their pens down.
n 2015, a year before Harper Lee died, the New Yorker ran a headline about Go Set a Watchman: “Harper Lee’s Failed Novel About Race”. The piece went on to discuss the “striptease” of literature, in this case, the long, overdrawn pre-publication and national event status of what can best be described as an auxiliary volume of a famous novel.
One year after the death knell of Go Set a Watchman was rung and novel pronounced as a “string of clichés”, Harper Lee died. And the word failure forever tacked on to her luminous name.
Why did Harper Lee agree to publish Go Set a Watchman when she had maintained a dignified silence in response to the clamour of a second novel for 55 long years? When she had, in fact, said, with a rare self-knowledge that every writer needs but few have that, “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again.”
Newspapers claimed that To Kill a Mockingbird’s success certainly tormented her. There were rumours that it was actually the work of her childhood friend, Truman Capote. Later, she struggled with a manuscript, entitled “The Long Goodbye”, which went nowhere. There were also stories of Lee being a victim of “elder abuse” and fears of being labelled that most derogatory of all terms: a one-hit wonder.
Without Go Set a Watchman, would Lee have sat on the many one-hit wonder lists that populate the internet? Would she have been clubbed with JD Salinger or Emily Bronte? And more importantly, should these people ever be part of anything that reeks even faintly of fluke?
The term “one-hit wonder” originally belongs to the ’70’s when the US music industry was flooded with artists, who, despite trying and then trying some more, never featured in the famed Billboard US Countdown again (remember Vanilla Ice with “Ice Ice Baby”?)
Nearly all the novelists who have won the Booker Prize in the last 40 years with a first novel, have managed to write duds as follow-ups.
This definition has freely been interpreted in the literary world for authors that have blazed out of oblivion with works of earth-shattering significance and then quickly retreated back into oblivion when their next dud popped up on the horizon. The problem with this slightly disparaging term being used for the redoubtable JD Salinger, is that it implies that the creator tried again and again to repeat that success but failed miserably. But JD Salinger never wrote another novel again. Neither did Margret Mitchell or Sylvia Plath, both authors with enormous reputations that pivot on a single significant piece of literature. For some reason, one life-altering work of art proved enough for them as their life’s literary output.
Stephen King, the ultimate factory of the successful novel, asked in genuine bewilderment in On Writing: “Why on earth would you not write again if you obviously have the talent to?” The answers have ranged from lack of inspiration to ego or then simple fear, but the one that rings true is put forth by The Telegraph: That the writer is destroyed by a single huge success. The burden of fame and acclaim combined with the secret knowledge that their best work is possibly behind them, is crippling to the creative mind.
Yet the temptation to attempt another bestseller is over-whelming. Nearly all the novelists who have won the Booker Prize in the last 40 years with a first novel, have managed to write duds as follow-ups. It’s enormously difficult not to write. It’s difficult to squash the ego, which must, no doubt, scream for another fix of fame. It’s difficult not to treat your talent as a factory production line, a viable livelihood.
But they did. They told us one story and then they gracefully laid their pens down.
And yet, we continue to confuse brilliance with consistency. Aldous Huxley once said, “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.” The Vir Chakra recognises that: Just one act of supreme bravery by an otherwise indifferent solider is enough. We don’t ask for his track record.
It’s time for the lexicon to graciously expand to accommodate new terminology that acknowledges an author’s emphatically single status and at the same time grants them the respect that’s so desperately due. The breadth of human achievement that unfolds between the pages of a once-in-a-lifetime book is insufficiently held together by the weak “one-hit wonder”. The “sublime soloists” perhaps?
This might not change the past, but this will at least ensure that in the future, whether some other Harper Lee or Margaret Mitchell ever writes another intense award-winning novel or not, she will be celebrated throughout her lifetime for the one that she did write. Without ever being saddled with Vanilla Ice.
Sharan can usually be found chasing down stories about blackmarket baby-sellers and reformed cocaine carriers. She makes up for her dark side by writing feel-good, puppy-driven prose in her free time.