The 10 Most Famous One-Hit Wonders In Literature

by E. Ce Miller

When you think of famous “one hit wonders” the music industry probably comes to mind first — filled with hits that totally rocked your world (or, at least, your preteen summers) like the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out?" or the "Macarena" by Los Del Rio (a band whose name I guarantee I’d literally never heard of before Googling “who sang the Macarena?”, even though I spent all of 1996 macarena-ing my arms off. As did we all.) What might not immediately come to mind are all the one hit wonders in literature — but believe it or not, there are more than a few. And while some of the writers on this list became iconic for the first and only novel they ever published, most of these writers have more than one book under their literary belts — after all, the mark of a true one hit wonder is that despite their 12-track album (or shelf-full of books) they’re largely only recognized for that one book that readers have never, and will never, stop talking about. You know: THE ONE.

From those one-book-novelists that everyone knows to some names that might totally surprise you, here are 10 of the most famous one hit wonders in literature.

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

First published as a novel in 1951, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an iconic title of teenage angst and alienation — but while lots of casual and seasoned readers alike would be hard pressed to name another Salinger title, there are actually two: the 1953 short story collection Nine Stories, and the 1961 novel Franny and Zooey. But honestly, Catcher will always have our hearts (and shelves.)

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'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë

This is one author who actually did only publish one novel — but what a novel it is. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (one of my absolute faves) is so filled with heartache, rage, and intensity that it’s no wonder it took everything Brontë had. This one hit wonder has inspired everything from ballet and operas to television and film adaptations.

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'Gone with the Wind' by Margaret Mitchell

The Civil War-era saga, Gone with the Wind, was the one novel written by Margaret Mitchell that was published during the writer’s lifetime. For her efforts to depict the immense struggles faced by those living in the southern United States during the American Civil War and Reconstruction, she won the 1963 National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937.

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'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee

I know. I know. Go Set A Watchman. Whatever. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an ICON of American literature, and no matter how many copies Watchman (which, technically, has been cited as a first draft of Mockingbird anyway) might have sold it can’t really change Lee’s place in literary history. She won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.

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'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath

For readers who aren’t as head-over-heels for poetry as I am, The Bell Jar might seem like writer Sylvia Plath’s one hit wonder. While The Bell Jar was, in fact, Plath’s only novel, she’s also the author of eight poetry collections (only one published during her lifetime) as well as a number of collected works (again, all published posthumously). It’s also rumored that she wrote another novel to follow The Bell Jar, titled Double Exposure — but it’s said to have mysteriously disappeared around 1970.

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'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison

Novelist, essayist, short story writer, and literary critic Ralph Ellison has actually written and published several texts (in case you didn’t already know) despite being most widely recognized for Invisible Man — which won him the 1953 National Book Award. In terms of fiction, Invisible Man was the only novel published during the writer’s life, but a second novel, Juneteenth — compiled from Ellison’s notes — was published five years after the author’s death.

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'Black Beauty' by Anna Sewell

This novel might be single-handedly responsible for the immense love young people (readers) have for horses. Boasting a sale of over 50 million copies, Anna Sewell’s one and only novel, Black Beauty, was written in the last years of Sewell’s life and published — to great fanfare — just five short months before the writer’s death in 1878.

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'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace

While it might seem crazy to put a writer like David Foster Wallace on this list — after all, he wrote at least dozen books: fiction, nonfiction, essay, short stories, nearly all to critical acclaim; and was called "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years" by the Los Angeles Times — it does seem like Infinite Jest is the ONLY title anyone ever mentions when talking about David Foster Wallace, Maybe because it’s 1,079 pages.

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'Doctor Zhivago' by Boris Pasternak

Famous for being refused publication in the USSR and being smuggled to Italy before being published in Milan, Doctor Zhivago is Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel that is notoriously complex (and at times can read convoluted) that takes a critical eye to both the Marxism and the communism that existed between the 1905 Russian Revolution and World War II — one for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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'A Confederacy of Dunces' by John Kennedy Toole

You might recognize this one from your 11th grade recommended reading list. One last Pulitzer Prize-winning one hit wonder to land on this list, A Confederacy of Dunces was, sadly, published an entire 11 years after the death by suicide of its author, John Kennedy Toole. It’s considered both a comedy and a tragicomedy, and tells the story of a described “modern day Don Quixote”, Ignatius J. Reilly, the young woman he corresponds with, and his mother.

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