Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rotten Tomatoes

Like Pooh, I had a wondering: would I rather have a long-term career as a midlist writer, or be a one-hit wonder with one book that sold a gazillion copies, followed by failure?

There's a certain appeal to the one-hit wonder thing. First off, it means you wrote a great book, even if it's the only one. And some of those books survive in the public consciousness forever. Harper Lee and S.E. Hinton and J.D. Salinger are all one hit wonders. Not a bad way to go, really. Write a classic, have a great run, then hang it up and spend the rest of your life ... oh. That's right. Spend the rest of your life what? Discussing the same book over and over? Wondering how you did it the first time and wishing you could do it again? Is it possible to smile with equanimity and move on from that kind of thing? "Yes, it was a fabulous experience, but now I run a bakery."

Maybe it's counterintuitive, but there's also an appeal in a long career with a smallish audience, as opposed to a very short career with a huge audience. I hate the idea of reaching a peak and then downsliding. I hate the thought that you can reach a point when your best writing is behind you. Writers aren't like athletes. We get better with age. And I like the idea of spending years and years improving, tending to a small garden rather than watching an award-winning, 100-pound tomato win the county fair and then rot in the sun, never to grow another tomato.

What do you think? One-hit wonder or years of small sales?

(p.s. And we're discounting the obvious: years and years of massive sales ... that's cheating!)


Natasha Fondren said...

LOL... see, I always go boggle-eyed when people talk about distribution as if it's the be-all-to-end-all. I hate to say it, but I need the money. I'll take my tiny online presses over a small press with national distribution in bookstores on any day. I love my readers, yes, but I couldn't care less how many people read my book as long as I get paid.

Show me the money, honey. :-) I just want the most profitable option.

Mark Terry said...

Overall I'd like a long career doing what I do. Alternately, I wouldn't mind something handing me a few million (Robert James Waller?) and then I can decide what and how I'll do what I do irregardless of the money, I suppose.

Stephen King commented once that so many of his long-time readers view "The Stand" as his best book, which, he says, can be a bit disconcerting in that he wrote it about 30 years ago.

I don't necessarily think it's his best (although it's one of his best), but I can certainly see how that would be a bit disconcerting.

LurkerMonkey said...


Spoken like a true freelance writer!

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah, that would be weird. I think I've heard him say, though, that he considers his newer books his best work. That's got to be a nice feeling.

I wouldn't mind the money either, but then again, Robert James Waller is probably right now nursing a drink in some Third World bar, thinking that he was the peregrine, the last falcon of a doomed race, a soul born to fly on the wings of the zephyr into the primordial embrace, timeless, powerful and isolated but not alone.

Mark Terry said...

Or maybe a butterfly, a butterfly gone, with leopard stripes, or tiger stripes...

LurkerMonkey said...

Sadly, I read that book a few weeks ago (I'm a bit of a compulsive reader, so sometimes I read things that just happen to be at hand -- that's my excuse and I'm sticking with it). It was so awful, so delightfully bad I had to read sections out loud to my wife ...

Anonymous said...

S.E. Hinton wrote 5 YA novels, three
of which are best-sellers, two
childrens' books, an adult novel,
Hawkes Harbor, which was listed on the NY Times best seller list,
and recently published a volume of
short stories.
Doesn't look to me like she's been
spending her life counting her money.

LurkerMonkey said...


I knew somebody was going to ding me for including SE Hinton on the list. Or at least I wondered if someone was. And Rumblefish and Tex were pretty good books ... although I never read her adult novel or her recently published short stories. Moreover, she seems perfectly happy. I read an interview with her recently where she was lightly laughing about the "Where is SE Hinton?" questions she sometimes hears. She basically said, "I live in the same house, and I shop in the same grocery store every week. If someone wants to find me, they can find me there."

So am I forgiven a little? I was actually thinking of her when I wrote that bit about smiling with equanimity.

But I think we'd both agree that SE Hinton will forever be known for The Outsiders. Ultimately, this is why I included her ... yes, she's published a lot of books, and some that did quite well, but The Outsiders is a seminal, game-changing work.

For what it's worth, I almost included Melville on the list -- despite the fact that he was actually a best-seller in his day and the book he's famous for now (Moby Dick) was a critical failure.

Anyway, I deliberately never said the one-hits were sitting around counting money, because I don't believe that to be the case with any of them.

Anonymous said...

I once heard S.E. Hinton at an
English teachers' convention.
She said "I'll always be known for writing The Outsiders, but that's not the worst thing that can happen to a writer."
She was very funny, too.

So, you're forgiven.

Jenna said...

A friend and I were just discussing this today. We talked a bit about Sue Monk Kidd with Secret Life of Bees. I know she's done others stuff before and after but nothing hit like Bees. And of course Harper Lee came up. And I've often wondered if there will ever be anything new from Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper's Daughter).

If I could only pick from the two I would go with one work of brilliance...I'd rather be Harper Lee than author-mid-list-busting-my-ass-to-make-a-buck-and-getting-no-respect.

Great topic!

E. Flanigan said...

Lurker, loved the R.J.W. impression! Spot on.

The good news is, you don't have to (and don't get to) pick which one you get. Maybe it's best to break the rules and wish for years and years of massive sales after all, because you'll have to cope with anything less either way!

P.S. I'd rather have the one work of brilliance. It's one more than I have currently ;)

Jude Hardin said...

If I had to choose, I would take the one-hit. Especially if it became a timeless classic like Harper Lee and JD Salinger gave us.

Melanie Avila said...

Hmm, I'm going back and forth. I think I'd choose a long-term career as a mid-list writer, but I worry about the constant struggle. A one-hit wonder would be great, but the same people I'd hope to impress with that one success are the ones who'd criticize me for not following it up. So you can't win. ;)

LurkerMonkey said...


Thanks! I've never read Secret Life of Bees, but heard good things about it... Didn't she write a follow up?

LurkerMonkey said...


You said: "Maybe it's best to break the rules and wish for years and years of massive sales after all, because you'll have to cope with anything less either way!"

To which I say, spoken like someone who knows me too well.

p.s. And I'd take either at the moment myself. Then I'd cope :)

LurkerMonkey said...


That seems to be the consensus ...

LurkerMonkey said...


... except for you. That's where I started off, too. Thinking I'd rather have a long career of smaller sales. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I might prefer a one-hit wonder after all, if only for the chance to contribute something to the literary world that really lasted. Something that was perhaps larger than myself.

Melanie Avila said...

Well that's a good point. :)

J.T Wilbanks said...

I'll take the long term career with a side of fries please.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I think I'd like the long term career. But when it happens - I'll let you know.

Have you read "Starting Out in the Evening"? It's about an author who wrote a few great books and then went on to obscurity. One of my absolute favorite books ever.

Kath Calarco said...

My feeling is that it's not up to the writer whether their book becomes a "one-hitter." I believe (and I'm naive 90% of the time), that all writers begin a story with the thought that it's going to be their best yet. After "The End," it's up to savvy agent/editor and whoever else gets a buzz going about it, which gets the movie deals, a spot on Oprah's couch, etc.

My only hope is that when I'm published I'll always feel the fire in my gut to write, no matter if my sales are low or high. Do the "one-hitters" stop writing? Was it really that big of a chore? Do we ever know that side of the coin?