Nine Prolific Writers Who Only Wrote One Novel

Anton Chekhov

Thanks to this year's surprise publication of Harper Lee's long-lost Go Set a Watchman, Lee is no longer a member of that elite group known as "Famous Authors Who Only Wrote One Novel". The Internet is filled with lists about these people, and you'll see the same names over again: Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind), Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar), etc. But most of those writers were one-hit wonders, famous because of those solitary novels. For my list, I chose writers better known for their plays, short stories, and/or poetry. In many cases, their sole published novels are mere footnotes in their careers, and remain little-known to the general public.

  1. ANTON CHEKHOV: The Shooting Party, published 1884-85. The great Russian playwright – who, interestingly, only wrote six full-length plays (four of them classics) – actually completed this mystery novel before writing for the stage.
  2. OSCAR WILDE: The Picture of Dorian Gray, published 1890. Surely you've heard of Wilde's only novel, which often pops up on the aforementioned lists. Like Chekhov, Wilde authored his book after establishing himself as a writer of prose but before becoming a playwright.
  3. EDGAR ALLAN POE: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, published 1838. Often referred to as just plain Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe's lone novel came out some six years after he began writing short stories, and eleven after he wrote his first major poem Tamerlane, yet it predates all of his best-known work (The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, etc.).
  4. WALT WHITMAN: Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times, published 1842. This "temperance novel", a warning to readers to abstain from alcohol, was dismissed by its own author as "damned rot". Whitman, who was 23 when Franklin Evans was published, also claimed to have only taken three days to write it – while drunk. Leaves of Grass came out 13 years later.
  5. HAROLD PINTER: The Dwarfs, written 1950, published 1992. Once again, as with Chekhov and Wilde, the austere English playwright tried his hand at the novel before giving up and turning his attentions toward the stage. He later adapted the semi-autobiographical The Dwarfs into a radio play, and another writer (Kerry Lee Crabbe) turned it into a never-filmed screenplay in 1996, and then finally into a stage play!
  6. ARTHUR MILLER: Focus, published 1945. History keeps repeating himself: playwright/screenwriter Miller already had a number of stage works under his belt by the time he published this novel about antisemitism in 1940s New York, but his best-known plays – All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Crucible – were yet to come.
  7. TOM STOPPARD: Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon, published 1966. According to Britain's The Guardian, playwright/screenwriter Stoppard's sole novel initially sold just 688 copies – many of them, inexplicably, in Venezuela. Also that year, Stoppard wrote the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and the rest is history.
  8. ATHOL FUGARD: Tsotsi, published 1980. What is it with playwrights and their one-and-done novels? (Note: Tennessee Williams and David Mamet each wrote two.) Tsotsi was published deep into the South African playwright's career: The Island won the Tony in 1975; "Master Harold" ...and the Boys would debut in 1982. Tsotsi itself was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2006.
  9. KATHERINE ANNE PORTER: Ship of Fools, published 1962. Finally, a female writer – and a non-playwright. Porter's name isn't so well-known today, but as a Pulitzer Prize-winning short story author, she was huge in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. When Ship of Fools was published, after the 72-year-old Porter had reportedly worked on it for 22 years(!), her legions of fans made it the bestselling novel of the year. It became a prestige picture in 1965 and won a couple of Oscars. Before I close this list, I should also mention Gwendolyn Brooks, Emma Lazarus, Mikhail Lermontov, Spike Milligan, and Carl Sagan as other prolific scribes who only published one novel.