Saturday, 5 January 2008

Whatever happened to...

Like most of the readers of this forum/blog, I read a lot. Duh. Obviously. That's what got us would-be writers (if you are actually a real writer please don't boast here) going in the first place. But in my twenties, I read voraciously. (These days I toss books aside if they don't grab me within a chapter or tell me anything new or interesting - I'm halfway to being a septuagenarian this year, after all!) In my early twenties, I had a temp job which had long periods of doing pretty much nothing, mainly because my employers were of an older generation and had no idea how long it took to do basic administrative tasks on MS Excel or Access. Thus they gave me jobs that they thought would take me weeks which in fact only took days and then kept me on regardless. For a whole year I was given the job of scanning in old engineering blueprints. Any normal person would have run a mile; me, I was the longest serving temporary worker there. The reason I stayed so long was that no one bothered me - and in all that empty time I usually managed to read sneakily. Whilst scanning in blueprints, I would feed paper, press a button and then return to my book as the paper whirred through the feeder.

I wonder at the state those scans must be in; but I doubt anyone has ever looked at them since.

I lived in a shared house near Ealing in West London and Ealing was brilliant - it had a Waterstone's and a big library (note to anybody who works at Ealing Library: I am a better person now; I am sincerely sorry that I never returned the Rachel Ingalls books, but honestly, according to the borrowing slip stuck in the cover, I was the only one who borrowed them in years, and they have a good home with me...). Even better, the local church had a book sale every two weeks in a portacabin around the back. It was absolutely brilliant; exciting. Every fortnight I would wander around the stalls of secondhand booksellers who travelled from different parts of London, and spend twenty (or about five hours of work) on ten books, carrying them out in old Sainsbury's and M&S bags that had been stashed by the booksellers. I bought whatever took my fancy, because it was cheap: classics, authors I'd never heard of but liked the first line, books with covers that took my fancy. And then I'd walk the three miles to work with my nose between the covers and sneakily read whenever I could during the day.


At the same time, I'd pilgrim over to Waterstone's for anything that caught my eye in the Sunday Times Books section (now part of the Culture section, sob) or the Saturday Guardian Review.

This is going somewhere, trust me. Going there self-indulgently, yes, but somewhere nonetheless.

Anyway, my point is this:

During that time, I came across a number of books by new writers that I was convinced were going to be BIG. Books that I absolutely loved; writers with real style and something to say. Some of them were novels, others short story collections. Some were brilliant in and of themselves, some blew me away with their style but I felt sure there was better to come.

And then I never heard of them again.

So, I thought I'd put together a list of kind of "one-hit wonders" in literature. Except that term is too derogatory; the term, in its pop music sense, implies novelty without substance. These books aren't like that. These books are - in my opinion - good. Most of them are from that period in my twenties when I read about twice as many books in a year as I manage now. Some are more recent. So, I decided to put my internet addiction to good use and look up all of these authors on Amazon to see what they've done since, if anything. Here is my list.

Edit: Since composing this list, I've updated it as, it turns out, some of these authors didn't disappear at all (sorry for my ignorance!). Thank you to the posters who replied to put me right (and especial apologies to Susannah Waters, one of the authors in the list who was kind enough to reply). It is heartening to know that not all of these talented writers disappeared, though.

Jenny Offill - Last Things
Brilliant. The writing is touching without being mawkish. The narrator's mother - really the main character - is infuriating but fascinating. How could Offill not have written another novel since? How?

Thomas Beller - Seduction Theory
Hmm, he does have some other stuff out there, just nothing that seems to fit with what I expected from this superb collection.

Bo Fowler - Scepticism, Inc
A complete Vonnegut rip-off; he had one other novel published then disappeared. But despite his huge debt to Vonnegut, there was still something fresh here, and I thought he'd shake the influence and go onto some really cool stuff... Oh well.

Sandra Newman - The Only Good Thing That Anyone Has Ever Done
Actually, Amazon reveals she did write another book recently, Cake, so I'll have to order that.

Maria Amparo Escandon - Esperanza's Box of Saints
Amazon tells me that this was made into a film in Spain and that she did have one book published later, in 2005. I can only hope she has more waiting to be translated into English.

Tibor Fischer - The Thought Gang
Oh, wait. Scratch this one. I read this, the Collector Collector and, uh, something else by him, too, but he's had lots published since so I guess I just wasn't paying attention.

Brian McCabe - In a Dark Room with a Stranger
This was a short story collection published in the early 90s, which was brilliant. He had a novel published before that, but it was already impossible to find when the story collection came out. Since then, he has published two more short story collections. Why no more novels? Why isn't he better known?

Carsten Jensen - Earth in the Mouth
Beautiful, lyrical travel novel. Short, too, which I tend to like. Turns out he did write something else that was published in 2002, but that seems to be it. Why not more?

Kate Pullinger - Forcibly Betwitched
This was a very small short story collection that was published as a Penguin 60s edition a few years back. The Penguin 60s were fantastic - in the year that Penguin celebrated their 60th year of publishing, they produced these small, pared down special edition books that would fit in the palm of your hand and cost 60p each. They were generally excerpts of larger works - so, I bought Orpheus in the Underworld taken from a larger new translation of Ovid; a small collection of the Buddha's teachings and aphorisms; and among the others, Kate Pullinger's short stories, which I bought entirely on the basis of the attractive, thoughtful girl in the photograph on the front cover. The stories were very short, concise and beautiful, but I could never find the collection from which the Penguin 60s edition was culled. And now I see she has had quite a lot published (though I am alarmed to discover that she co-wrote the novelisation of The Piano), so I need to buy something by her soon. (My personal favourite story is The Wardrobe. I have re-read that dozens of times.)

Junot Diaz - Drown
This was a beautiful and brutal short story collection set in South America, and it was rightly critically acclaimed when it was published. I've looked for something else by him intermittently ever since. Bizarrely, now that I am writing this, I see that he has a new book being published in 2008 - the first since Drown was published 11 years ago. I hope it's as good.
Edited to add: Apparently Junot Diaz's new book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is receiving rave reviews in America (it still isn't published here), so he has anything but disappeared. (Still, I wonder where he went for ten years!)

Alan Spence - Stone Garden and Other Stories
Huh. Seems he's had a fair bit published both before and since, too.

Christopher Kennedy - No Christmas, No Kafka / Susannah Waters - Funerals
These were two superb short stories that appeared in Stand magazine a few years ago. I always looked out for other works by these writers, but never found any, much to my regret.
Edited to add: I did indeed look out for these writers, but I guess in the wrong places. Susannah Waters has had two novels published since that short story, Long Gone Anybody and Cold Comfort, both of which are available via Amazon. Apologies! (And I look forward to reading them.)

There are more, but that's enough for now.

Actually, this has been quite heartening. A lot of the authors I thought had disappeared are actually still around, still writing and still getting published. Anyone who says the internet is killing reading or books should take stock: I haven't seen the some of the above authors in a bookshop in years, but I can get their books from Amazon or Amazon market place. I just wish I'd heard a bit more about them in the review pages in the interim.

I have no idea whether this says more about what happens to promising authors or about my own ignorance. Probably both. Or probably just the latter.

Edited to add: It seems that this does, partly, say something about my ignorance. It also, I think, says something about review space and the fact that a few big names get all of the attention whilst there is some other real talent out there getting published without much fuss. In the end I think this leaves me somewhat optimistic.

If anybody has ever wondered what happened to a writer they thought was going to be something special but who then disappeared, please share, either here or on the forums.


  1. I wonder if there is such thing as novelty without substance when it comes to novels. A decent novel is a huge undertaking, you can hardly get there with no substance.
    Thanks for the list, anyway. That'll come in handy, 'specially since I have to freshen my English, what with having a screenplay to write. I guess my first novel is bound to be written in Russian if I want it to be done in a reasonably near future, so I'll be training on scripts as I wait.

  2. Si Spurrier thrust SCEPTICISM, INC on me a couple of years ago, and it made me laugh like a drain. Shame Fowler's disappeared.

  3. Sergey - that is actually what I meant: that the term "one-hit wonder" implied novelty without substance in pop records, and therefore wasn't a very precise term for the books I was discussing (all of which most certainly do have substance).

    Antony - it made me laugh, too. It was a bit of a mess and has one of the most annoyingly stupid mathematical errors in the first few pages, for which the copy editors should be shot (Edgar Malroy is a three week-old baby in a church siege 1998 at the very beginning; a few pages later the shopping trolley narrator tells us that Edgar Malroy is 23 when he meets him in 2024. I had to fight the urge to throw the book away in annoyance at that). But it is very funny and, although massively indebted to Vonnegut, it felt genuine and warm and had enough originality of its own. I have The Astrological Diary of God lying around somewhere, but I admit I never read it. Someone else was telling me that Bo Fowler received a very big advance and then sales flopped, which is perhaps why he disappeared. A great shame, though, as he definitely had something; I wish he'd been nurtured rather than tossed aside, if that is indeed what happened.

  4. Ha! I didn't even notice that error. My maths is awful, so I can't throw stones...

    Therein lie the dangers of huge advances, of course. It does make me wonder if Fowler is now writing under a pseudonym, a common solution for midlist writers whose names are tarnished by a catastrophic misstep...

  5. Junot Diaz has had several stories published in the New Yorker over the past few years. The most recent Winter Fiction Issue had a short-ish one from him about losing a girlfriend. Also, according to Wikipedia, a novel a few months ago (I guess the '08 pub date is for the UK version) that got raves from NYT and Time.

  6. Wow, big great post. I want to comment on the notion of "making it big" or "becoming well known." Two things. First, I believe the way a text resonates with the reader is highly dependent on the reader's context. Especially for those of us who are not professional writers. That is, I might start to read something and put it aside not liking it only to rediscover it with new insight and meaning a year or two later. Conversely, I might pick up a book that i remember loving many years ago and not really be able to "get into it again."

    Second, multiply an individual by the number of people in a market and you can see that whether or not a writer becomes popular or well-known really is dependent on whether the book resonates with a broad range of people at a particular time in their lives.

    Finally, to be able to resonate with the general population numerous times through a series of works is truly rare. It may well have much more to do with chance than talent. (See Hollywood Economics, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan)

  7. Junot Diaz has been quite the buzz this year with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao making a number of "Best of 2007" lists.

  8. Thanks for all the comments.

    I'm pleased to hear that Junot Diaz's novel has been well received in America - yes, the publication I got was from Amazon UK, and there has been no press about it over here yet, so I had no idea. I'll definitely be buying that when it comes out here. I guess that's one to strike off the list, then!

    cprof - I completely agree. I tried reading Catch 22 when I was 19 or so and put it down after a few chapters. Then I read it when I was 22 or 23 and I couldn't put it down - and it's still in my list of favourite books. Likewise, as you note, the converse is true of certain other books I once loved but which disappointed me on the re-read.

  9. Hello.
    I'm really pleased you liked my short story, Funerals - it was the first thing I ever had published, and it made me start writing more seriously. I wanted to tell you I have had two novels published - Long Gone Anybody, Black Swan/Transworld, and Cold Comfort, Doubleday/Transworld. I'm working on my third novel now, which is taking much longer, but that is no bad thing. Funnily enough, it's based on that short story, Funerals.
    Thanks for putting me on your list - always good to get encouragement, especially years later.
    Susannah Waters

  10. Susannah - thank you for your comments. Many apologies that I got my facts wrong and completely failed to spot those books on Amazon. I really did like Funerals - it was one of those stories that stuck with me somehow - so I'm especially glad to hear that you are writing a novel based upon it. I'll be sure to check out Cold Comfort and Long Gone Anybody.
    Sorry again!
    All the best,

  11. This is a great list! There was a wonderful article about Junot Diaz (one of my fave writers as well) that talks about what he was doing during those ten years. Basically, he was trying hard to write, but was having a bitch of a time at it....I can't remember where I read it, but I want to say that NYTimes Books section or something like that.

  12. I was curious to your take on a recent comment Steve Jobs made, when asked about Amazon's Kindle:

    “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

    Now, maybe I'm a minority... but I like to read. I come from a family of readers, and most of my friends are avid readers too. I'm not personally interested in the Kindle because I prefer the physical tactile experience of reading a book... but if I was a serviceman in the Navy or something, where space was a premium, I'd love to use the Kindle.

    For such a visionary like Jobs, it's a shame to see such (what I perceive to be) such a narrow view here. I don't know what the Kindle's connectivity options are, but wouldn't it be cool if Scrivener (and other similar apps) could export directly to the Kindle? Just a random thought.

    At any rate, while I take a great interest in modern technology, a good hardbound book is something that can never be replaced in my life.

  13. Wonderful list! Thanks. And I'd add, Elizabeth Gilbert's short story collection, Pilgrims, that came out maybe a decade ago before she made it big this year with Eat, Pray, Love.

    She is a complete master of the short story form with an amazing sense of humor and heart!

  14. Interesting list, Keith. I have met both Brian McCabe and know Alan Spence. Brian's first story collection, LIPSTICK CIRCUS may not be familiar to you, but it's excellent, and Alan has written several novels now. Alan is also a rather good poet.

    Some one-hit wonders or two or three hit wonders, of course, just happened to die at the wrong time, or are unjustly ignored now. For example, the wonderful Ana Kavan (Ice and Asylum Piece notable - the only two novels of her's I've read, but amazing).

  15. Thanks for the kind words. Many wrong turns on the road to the next novel and other distracting circumstances (sickness, child, too much unrelated work) but hope to be done within the year.

    Here's a link to a recent essay I wrote if you're interested.

    Look forward to reading some of the other "vanished".

    Jenny Offill


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