Tuesday, June 23, 2015

One-hit wonders.

We tend to think of one-hit wonders as bands of the modern era, musical acts that had one moment of lightning in the bottle and then nothing. Wikipedia's article lists acts like Right Said Fred, Soft Cell, Carl Douglas, and Men Without Hats. Among many others.

They also list one-hit wonders in sports, which is a little trickier; no one comes off the bench, hits a grand slam, and totally disappears from the books. But they list some like David Tyree, maker of the helmet catch that saved Super Bowl XLII for the Giants, whose career was not particularly distinguished but for that one colossal moment. Odd that they did not include Charlie Robertson, whose 1922 perfect game was a supernova in a 49-80 career.

There are those in the world of books, too; Wikipedia's entry under Homo Unius Libri ("A Man of One Book") discusses writers known for... you guessed it: one book. But this is a less exact term, and one that has changed over time. As the article notes, it can mean writers whose success is limited to one book, but also writers who completely mastered a single topic, or writers whose learning was extremely narrow. It properly applies to writers of scholarship anyway, but to make the comparison to pop music, it ought to be narrowed to writers of popular fiction or nonfiction.

Herman Melville might be considered a one-hit wonder, but not for the book you're thinking of. Moby-Dick was a flop in its day; his earlier book Typee (no relation to David Tyree) was his breakout book and, in his lifetime, his one big hit. John Kennedy Toole wrote Confederacy of Dunces and killed himself 11 years before his mother convinced a publisher to go with it, and it became a huge best-seller. Suicide: a good reason to be a one-hit wonder. (Even so, a rough manuscript he wrote at age 16 was published a decade later, proving that publishers never leave money on the table.) Will Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, one of my favorites, was also published after the author's death by suicide; and though he had been publishing humorous essays and books for years, nothing matched the success of that one.

Like Cuppy, other writers feel like one-hit wonders, despite their continuing work, because the one hit was so monstrous. Robert Fulghum has written plenty since All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, but that book was on the Times best-seller list for more than two years. Peter S, Beagle has been quite busy with screenplays and magazines and much else, but will probably always be the guy who wrote The Last UnicornJay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City was such a monster hit that it seized up his subsequent career; people strongly identified him with the book's hero, and they wanted that hero in that book, and nothing else.

And then there's this:

Yep, a creation of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, who gave the world Superman. Funnyman was a TV comedian whom circumstances forced into heroics; using his gimmicks, wits, and apparently a boxing glove that could fit in a handkerchief-size pocket, Funnyman set forth to fight crime.


Six issues. Then nothing.

People who have read the books say Funnyman wasn't funny; Siegel and Shuster were not comedic writers, and it showed. But the whole concept was weird. Kids read Superman, wanted to be Superman; even the class clown didn't want to be Funnyman.

I note also that other comics characters like Funnyman---the Prankster, the Joker, Toyman, the Jester---are all bad guys. Interesting, eh? (There was another Jester, a Quality Comics hero from the 40's, and probably others by the name, but it's not like they were real successful.)

Shuster and Siegel never did capture lightning in a bottle again, and as someone who fancies himself a writer, it's easy to sympathize. Say you write a book, or a song, and it becomes a culture-changing smash hit. How do you replicate that? (You're especially keen if you are Shuster and Siegel, or a musician who signed away song rights because you were starving, and so you're not getting a nickel from your genius creation.) Do you do more of the same? Do you try to analyze why people like what you did the first time and use logic to create the next instead of inspiration? Do you just keep doing what you were doing? You dig in the well for inspiration but nothing comes, certainly nothing that the public is afire over. Now what?

I don't know. But I'll tell you what: If everyone agrees to buy one of my books, and it becomes a Fulghum-like smash with two years on the best-seller lists, I promise I won't complain. Deal?

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