One and Done: When Successful Novelists Never Publish Again

It’s time to talk about our collective Castle problem.

The TV show Castle has been on the air for years now, and the titular character, played with great finesse by Nathan Fillion, is the problem. He’s an immensely popular writer, and the show steps hard on every possible misconception and cliché about being a writer in the modern day. Castle never has any trouble coming up with ideas for his novels, is never actually shown working, and generally seems to imply that writing a novel is something you can do in your spare time, casually writing a few tens of thousands of words over lunch, perhaps.

In the real world, of course, most novelists never achieve that kind of success, even if they do publish several novels. And most writers do suffer from intense bouts of “writer’s block” during which they struggle for inspiration. Many first novels are written over long periods of times, sometimes years or even decades, and when they are successful, everyone—especially the publisher—begins nagging for the second book.

Sometimes, that book never comes. Which seems crazy to people for whom “Castle” is the common image of the successful writer: if your first book sold well, got great reviews, and was made into a movie, surely you finally have the free time to work on your writing, and that second novel should be a simple matter of choosing an idea and getting to work! And if ideas are a problem, just contact that one relative (every writer has one) who’s got plenty of great ideas and is willing to “split the profits” if you take his theoretical bestseller and “just write it up.” And yet the world is full of authors who had wildly successful first novels and either haven’t or never will produce a second.

Author Existence Failure

Sometimes, of course, life intervenes to prevent a second novel. And when we say “life” we naturally mean “death,” because many authors managed to publish their first novel only to promptly die before they could produce a second. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide after The Bell Jar was published, but she worked on a second novel, apparently called Double Exposure, that was either burned by her estranged husband Ted Hughes or simply “went missing” years after her death, depending on who you believe (most people believe Hughes burned it because it was autobiographical and none too flattering to him; that’s another problem that has been solved by Cloud backups, we hope).

There are plenty more examples of writers who simply didn’t manage to live long enough to give us that second novel: Emily Brontë gave us Wuthering Heights, then promptly died of tuberculosis. Anna Sewell published Black Beauty while already gravely ill, and died soon afterward. And of course the most tragic of these examples might be John Kennedy Toole, who didn’t even live to see his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Confederacy of Dunces published, committing suicide in 1969, 11 years before the novel saw publication thanks to his mother’s tireless efforts. (And Toole wouldn’t make this list anyway, as a second posthumous novel, The Neon Bible, was published in 1989.)

Failure to publish a second novel because you died is tragic, but totally understandable. It’s the writers who are or were perfectly healthy and capable and whose first novels did well enough to pretty much guarantee publication of a follow-up, but who never published it, that are fascinating. The world is full of people who are struggling every day to publish one novel. The idea that you would have the opportunity to publish a second and take a pass is mysterious and worth exploring.

Salinger Land

The conversation has to start, of course, with J.D. Salinger, who The Catcher in the Rye and shortly thereafter decamped to Salinger Land, never to publish again. Salinger Land is a not-infrequent stop for authors whose first books reach a level of popular success that’s nearly incomprehensible to them. Salinger is the most famous example: a writer whose early work inspired such a reaction that he retreated. Given financial independence by the success of that first book, Salinger didn’t have to write to support himself, and he simply opted out.

But he’s not the only one. Margaret Mitchell was so taken aback by the fame Gone with the Wind brought her, she vowed to never write again. The New York Times wrote in her obituary in 1949, “She said one day, in a fit of exasperation as she left for a mountain hideaway from the throngs which besieged her by telephone, telegraph and in person, that she had determined never to write another word as long as she lived.” Reportedly it took her about three years to write the first draft of Gone with the Wind, and an additional five or six to find a publisher (to be fair, anecdotes abound of her using piles of her manuscript to prop up wobbly tables and the like, so the phrase “trying to find a publisher” apparently meant something different for Mitchell than for most). She was a trained journalist, and spent a considerable amount of time and energy in the years 1941–45 working for the Red Cross and promoting war bonds, leaving her little time to write. Still, by all appearances her own success so overwhelmed her she had little desire to repeat the experience.

So, fine: sometimes writers are victims of their own success. Unless you’ve had millions of people buy your books and find ways to contact you in the middle of the night to tell you how you changed their lives with your words, you can’t know how awful success can be. The fact that it can actually sour the creative impulse is kind of horrifying, however. Movies and other stories are full of the idea that no one should create art for money alone. But what happens when you have all the money you could ever need and still don’t want to write that second book?

Step One: Panic

Writing a novel isn’t easy, all jokes about Stephen King writing several novels a month aside. Just ask anyone who participates in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month): winding up with a coherent story is hard enough. Adding in compelling characters and evocative settings and details, good writing, and that indefinable “it” that makes a story work is even more difficult.

Again, first novels are often the result of lifelong inspiration and years or even decades of work researching, writing, revising, getting feedback, and revising again. When the novel is published and becomes a huge success, the second novel looms and the author has a choice: crank out something relatively quickly, or sit back with their royalty checks and take just as long on their second novel as their first. It’s a nice problem to have, of course, and most novelists don’t enjoy the kind of success that allows for it.

Arthur Golden did. He published Memoirs of a Geisha in 1999 to immense acclaim. The book became a sensation, sold more than 4 million copies, and was eventually adapted by Steven Spielberg into a 2005 film. Golden hasn’t published a new novel since, marking more than a decade and a half of silence.

The cynical might say the lawsuit had something to do with it: Mineko Iwasaki, the famed Geisha, sued Golden and his publisher in 2001, claiming defamation and breach of contract, among other things. Iwasaki claimed she’d spoken with Golden under assurances of anonymity, and that he not only broke that promise by clearly listing her in his acknowledgments section, he also falsified several aspects of her life and presented them as true: that she was sold into the geisha life, and that her virginity was put up for auction, among other less-unsavory claims.

Golden refuted all of Iwasaki’s claims and stated he had recordings of their conversations to prove her wrong, but he and his publisher settled the suit privately in 2003. It’s easy to speculate that the experience may have dampened Golden’s ability and desire to work on a second novel.

An Attempt at a Major Novel

When Ralph Ellison won the National Book Award for Invisible Man in 1953, he described it as an “attempt at a major novel.” Ellison was a perfectionist in his writing, and felt the weight of his fame and public position very strongly. He began working on his second novel, Juneteenth, in 1958. In 1967 he lost most of that manuscript in a fire, and had to begin all over again, and when he died in 1994 at the age of 80, he left behind “Manuscript pages, computer disks and scribbled notes…everywhere in his home….He had written and written and written. A gush of words, and chapters and notes about the chapters. There were background notes—musings on writing and America and fiction—much of it also beautifully written; notes about plot outlines and more characters, built word by word, then buried under more notes. It was a spouting gusher of artistic creation, fat manuscripts covering other fat manuscripts, almost all related to that second novel.”(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/15/AR2007081501365.html) He’d worked on Juneteenth for nearly 40 years, and it took his friend John F. Callahan another four years to edit it down into something resembling Ellison’s vision, published in 1999.

Juneteenth can’t count as a second novel from Ellison, because he never actually finished it. Callahan’s efforts have given us a glimpse of what Ellison might have produced, but it will always be just a shadow. Once Ellison’s first novel was a success, he had the power to work on his second novel until he found it worthy, a state he never quite reached.

The list of modern authors with one major novel who have yet to publish a second is surprisingly long: Arundhati Roy published The God of Small Things in 1997, and it won the Man Booker Prize for fiction. Roy has certainly not been silent since, publishing other works and numerous essays, but despite many references to a second novel, none has come. Kathryn Stockett published The Help in 2009, and it sold more than ten million copies, but six years later there’s no follow-up novel. These and other authors may yet publish, of course. In the modern age it’s only surprising because we’re all so conscious of the publicity cycle, and the fact that authors can now be forgotten and tilled under by history just like pop singers who take too long with their next album, the zeitgeist passing them by.

And then, of course, some writers may only have one story in them, and be content with that. Koushun Takami published Battle Royale in 1999 and has only published one thing since: a 2014 manga one-shot set in the Battle Royale universe. Otherwise, he has maintained almost perfect radio silence, releasing nothing. In fact, he’s almost invisible, the living definition of “low profile.”

Takami might be working on a novel, or ten novels, or nothing at all—but his complete silence is different than that of other working writers and thus far one-shot novelists. Takami gives every sign that there is not only no second novel, but little interest in playing the game. Where most novelists struggle to get publishers interested in a second novel, these folks could publish anything they wanted, and—so far, at least—have chosen not to.

All this could change. 2015 could be the year all the famous one-and-done authors will drop their second novels and instantly date this essay as a charming Fail. Which is fine, because we’re already working on the next one.

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