Acclaimed Authors Who Only Wrote One Book

by Online Degree Programs, Site Administrator

April 2010

For many authors, a great novel is simply one part of a larger lifetime of creative work. For others, however, a great novel is a once in a lifetime blessing, one that was never followed up with another due to creative stagnation or circumstances out of his or her control. The authors listed here wrote books that have been read in high school and college courses for years, many of which won numerous awards. These books mark the greatest literary achievements of each author’s lifetime.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird: This notoriously reclusive author was terrified of the criticism she felt she would receive for this classic American novel. Of course, the novel didn’t tank and was an immediate bestseller, winning great critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961. While Lee spent several years working on a novel called The Long Goodbye, she eventually abandoned it and has yet to publish anything other than a few essays since her early success and none since 1965. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man: Invisible Man is Ellison’s best known work, most likely because it was the only novel he ever published during his lifetime and because it won him the National Book Award in 1953. Ellison worked hard to match his earlier success but felt himself stagnating on his next novel that eventually came to encompass well over 2000 pages. It was not until Ellison’s death that this novel was condensed, edited and published under the title Juneteenth. Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago: Pasternak’s inclusion here by no means limits him as a one hit wonder, as he was and is known as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. But when it came to writing novels, Pasternak was to only create one work, the epic Dr. Zhivago. It was a miracle that even this novel was published, as the manuscript had to be smuggled out of Russia and published abroad. Even when it won Pasternak the Nobel Prize in 1958, he was forced to decline due to pressure from Soviet authorities, lest he be exiled or imprisoned. Pasternak died two years later of lung cancer, never completing another novel. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind: Margaret Mitchell never wanted to seek out literary success and wrote this expansive work in secret, only sending it to publishers after she was mocked by a colleague who didn’t believe she was capable of writing a novel. She turned out to be more than capable; however, and the book won a Pulitzer and was adapted into one of the best known and loved films of all time. Mitchell would not get a chance to write another novel, as she was struck and killed by a car on her way to the cinema at only 49 years of age. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights: As part of a family of women who enjoyed writing, Emily did work on a collection of poetry during her life, though the vast majority of her work was published under a more androgynous pen name at first. While Wuthering Heights received criticism at first for it’s innovative style, it has since become a classic and was edited and republished in 1850 by her sister under her real name. It is entirely possible that Emily may have gone on to create other novels, but her poor health and the harsh climate she lived in shortened her life, and she died at 30 of tuberculosis. Anna Sewell, Black Beauty: Sewell didn’t start off her life intending to be a novelist. Indeed, she didn’t begin writing Black Beauty until she was 51 years old, motivated by the need to create a work that encouraged people to treat horses (and humans) humanely, and it took her six years to complete it. Upon publication it was an immediate bestseller, rocketing Sewell into success. Unfortunately, she would not live to enjoy but a little of it as she died from hepatitis five months after her book was released. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde is best known as a poet and playwright, but he did make one attempt at a novel during his life, the sometimes controversial The Picture of Dorian Gray. While his plays brought him the most success during his lifetime, it is this novel that has secured a place for him in literary history. Yet it was a bit too racy for Victorian society at the time, with critics calling it everything from "effeminate" to "unclean", largely due to the book’s homoerotic and hedonistic undertones. Because of this criticism, Wilde revised his novel, but he was never to undertake the task again, instead sticking to poetry and plays for the rest of his career. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces: John Kennedy Toole was a well-educated and intelligent man who taught at Dominican College in New Orleans. It was during this time he wrote his comic novel. Unfortunately, the stress of not being able to get his work published–book critics didn’t think it was about anything in particular–as well as other factors took their toll on his health, and Toole quit his job and descended into a deep depression, eventually committing suicide in 1969. It was not until 1980 that his work was published, finally earning him the recognition he desired and a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar: Sometimes a work of fiction can be a little too personal, as was the case with Plath’s The Bell Jar, published in 1963 under a pseudonym. While an accomplished poet, Plath struggled with bipolar depression, a condition made worse by an unfaithful husband and a miscarriage. In the acclaimed novel, the main character suffers a break and commits suicide, a fate Plath herself was to share, killing herself only months after the publication of the book. While this was to be her only novel, Plath did win the Pulitzer for her poetry in 1982, the first writer to ever posthumously do so. Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things: This author is mentioned last because while she has to date only published one work of fiction–one that garnered her the Booker Prize–she is still working today. Much of the work she has published since her novel has been nonfiction and political essays as well as a number of screenplays. After a significant hiatus from her last book (13 years and counting), she is reported to be working on a new novel, though there is no guarantee that she will return to the novel-writing genre.