That’s all she wrote
The recent death of Elspeth Barker got me thinking. I knew her briefly and remember her fondly. In October 1998 she taught me on an Arvon Foundation course and I can see her now, commenting with lively sympathy on the first few pages of what became my first novel. Her novel, O Caledonia – not much more than a novella in length – had been published in 1991, won her numerous awards and has become a modern classic. It was her first novel and as it turned out her last, although she was to live for thirty more years. Why was that, I wonder?
She’s not the only writer to be known for one outstanding novel. Another classic example is Alain-Fournier. Death in the trenches of WWI ended his career when he was only 27. He left behind just one much-loved novel, Le Grand Mealnes, so moving in its evocation of adolescent love and longing. He would probably have gone on to other things, but what about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird? It came out in 1960 and the rest was silence (if we draw a veil over the unfortunate publication Go Set a Watchman. That novel too dealt with childhood and adolescence – as indeed does O Caledonia. Maybe Lee had only one novel in her, or perhaps she felt that she couldn’t top that. It won a Pullitzer prize and has sold many millions world-wide. There are other writers who wrote a few other things, but only one major novel (The Catcher in the Rye, Under the Volcano . . . ). Other writers have produced a whole body of work, but are only really remembered for one thing and that seems to be especially the case with comic novels, such as Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Where am I going with this? I’m not sure. But maybe it is one of the dangers of writing fiction as a career that second-rate novels are written because the writer has to write something if only to put bread on the table. Maybe Salinger and Lee are to be applauded: they wrote the great novel they were born to write and pretty much left it at that.
To go back to Elspeth Barker, I don’t know why she didn’t write more, but if you’ve written something as good as O Caledonia, that’s surely enough.