“All great writers only have one fantastic book in them. Anything else they write is simply a subpar variation on that same theme.” That’s what one of my English professors in college once said (approximately).
Aside from not wanting to accumulate crippling student debt, let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t go to grad school.
Examples this professor gave included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. I get what he was saying: Fitzgerald wrote about the dysfunctional malaise of rich white people while Hemingway couldn’t get over the horrors of World War I.
But rhetoric like that is reductionist bullshit—and damaging to readers and writers alike. It implies writers shouldn’t try beyond their greatest hit and if they do, readers shouldn’t give them a chance.
I’m not denying authors have common themes in their works because many of them do. But great writers don’t have one book in them—they have a universe, an area of expertise they explore in their body of work. This is a beautiful thing. Why?
1. Variations on theme allow the author to explore a topic more deeply. There is no One Thing to Say when it comes to corrupt governments, science gone wrong, race issues, falling in love, and gender complexities. The deeper that writers and readers dig, the more we learn. There’s a huge difference between laziness and exploration.
2. Readers love theme variations, from genres in general to tropes in particular. There are kernels of stories that people want to read and re-read. In romance, this includes fairytale retellings, secret babies, small-town communities, marriage of convenience, and friends to lovers. In crime stories, people love who-dunnits and how-dunnits. Even in literary fiction, readers expect slower-paced character pieces to learn a bitter (sometimes bittersweet) life lesson.
3. Variations on theme build a conversation. As I mentioned above, there is more than One Thing to say about a topic. Writers influence other writers. Writer responses can range from “YES! But ALSO…” to “WHAT?! NO, how about…” For example, after Fifty Shades of Grey, BDSM romance and erotica exploded (*snerk*). Some writers cheered and wanted to build on E.L. James’s concept. Others stood up, said “NOPE!”, and wrote in the genre from a completely different angle (*snerk*). Controversial books can stir up conversation, but she didn’t stop at one book. She wrote a trilogy, and followed up with books from Christian Grey’s point of view. This may or may not have been a money grab, but with every book, there was more for writers and readers to play with or dismantle. For better or for worse, the books started a conversation and opened a door to a huge room for writers and readers to explore.
This is one of those moments where I wish I could go back in time to that English class. I would recover from my surprise faster and interrupt that professor’s lecture and say, “Congratulations! You’ve stumbled upon the concept of genre, universe, and tropes. Now stop shitting on them!”
What do you think—do writers only have one thing to say?