After the initial success of great literary authors, Priya Garg analyses why subsequent novels fail to live up to their predecessors.
In literature, careers do not have a smooth uniform graph. Some authors rise before spiraling downward in their literary careers. J. K. Rowling, J. D. Salinger, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, Harper Lee, Joseph Heller, and Khaled Hosseini, to name a few, are authors whose literary careers saw a fall after their debut works reached the zenith. Not all their works were a huge success in terms of either critical acclaim, fan following, or sales.
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was a 20th century phenomenon. Following this success, Rowling’s life changed dramatically. She won numerous awards for Harry Potter including the Hugo Award for best Novel. Her works published after the Harry Potter series, however, were not as successful. These works included The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and Career of Evil. Although The Casual Vacancy won awards such as The Best Fiction Award and the Goodreads Choice Award 2012, it doesn’t come near to the number of awards Harry Potter earned. What could be the reasons for such a difference in success among texts written by the same author?
“Although it sold one million copies within the first three weeks in the US and the UK, it could never beat the millions of sales of Harry Potter.”
The Casual Vacancy was J. K. Rowling’s first publication since the Harry Potter series and her first novel for adult readership. Politics, class, and social issues such as rape, prostitution, and drug use are the thematic concerns of the novel. Although it sold one million copies within the first three weeks in the US and the UK, it could never beat the millions of sales of Harry Potter. The Los Angeles Times stated that The Casual Vacancy failed to conjure Harry Potter’s magic. Readers did not come away with the feeling that they knew the back stories of the Vacancy characters in intimate detail, the way they did with the characters in the Potter universe. Another reason for the failure of The Casual Vacancy in comparison with Harry Potter is the scope of Rowling’s readerships interests. Most of her original readership were captivated by a new, wholly invented world that they could lose themselves in, a place of magic and fantasy. The world of The Casual Vacancy, however, is far too real-life and close to the very lives that her readers wish to escape.
“A landmark publication of gothic, romantic and science fiction, Frankenstein was well received by critics such as M. A. Goldberg and Harold Bloom”
Mary Shelley was a writer best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus. A landmark publication of gothic, romantic, and science fiction, Frankenstein was well received by critics such as M. A. Goldberg and Harold Bloom for its “aesthetic and moral” characteristics and for being “a very bold fiction” by The Belle Assemblee. On the other hand, The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel, received the worst reviews of Mary Shelley’s novels. The book was labelled “sickening” and carped for its “stupid cruelties.” Shelley’s imagination was called “diseased.”
“The next work of Lee, Go Set a Watchman, failed to receive such critical acclaim.”
American novelist Harper Lee falls in the same category. She is widely known for To Kill a Mockingbird. Renowned for its humor and warmth, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and became a classic of modern American literature, addressing issues such as class, race, gender, courage, and compassion. It has sold more than 30 million copies. The Chicago Tribune praised Lee’s “rich use of language.” The next work of Lee was published 55 years later, Go Set a Watchman, failed to receive such critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly criticized the novel for being “replete with incongruities, bad dialogue, and underdeveloped characters.” A problem widely publicised with Go Set a Watchman is that it was marketed as a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, when in reality Watchman was written as the first draft of Mockingbird.
Many authors may not be able to recreate the imagination and ingenuity of their first books. As a result, authors like J. K. Rowling, Mary Shelley, and Harper Lee saw a decline in their literary careers providing a cautionary tale for novelists around the world, that sometimes you strike literary gold just once.