The Limitations of a Masterpiece

In this blog post, Shauna Nolan Doyle shares her thoughts on the phenomenon where authors who have produced numerous novels are often only known for one popular novel, and the effect this has on often obscuring their other equally important work.

When an author becomes renowned in the literary tradition, it is often the case that one novel in particular accumulates the vast majority of attention amongst readers and critics alike. It is, of course, only right that authors are recognised for their contributions to literature. However, there are limitations which this can impose upon the author and their other works, limitations which some authors go on to resent as their careers progress. It is not just authors who are inclined to feel strongly about the aftermath of their ‘masterpiece’; their readers can also become frustrated with the fame one novel receives, whilst the other works are nowhere near as widely read or discussed.

There are countless authors in the literary canon that are easily recognised for having produced a particularly famous work. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (1969), are titles most readily associated with their authors. These novels are from varying time periods and different genres, yet something about these novels in particular captured the attention of millions of readers. The only drawback of this recognition is that their other works are often overshadowed, or at the very least repeatedly compared to, what the majority deem to be their single masterpiece. In fact, all three of these well ­known authors produced a vast wealth of literature which is largely ignored.

It goes without saying that authors do not get the right to dictate how their work is received by readers once it has been published. In the case of Puzo’s The Godfather the author admitted to not having much pride in the book; he is said to have only written it “to make money”, yet this is a book which sold millions of copies before the infamous movie was even thought of. Puzo, perhaps more than any author, has a vast oeuvre which was condemned to do nothing more than gather dust. The Fourth K (1990) is set during the fictional presidency of Francis Xavier Kennedy; it was not a success but Puzo dubbed it his “most ambitious” project. The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) is the novel that Puzo felt deserved the success that The Godfather received, but it is not for the writer to decide the fate of their novels. It is also impossible to truly determine what makes one book succeed where the others fail.

Neither can the readers who decide to read the majority (or all) of an author’s works determine why the masses only recognise the importance of a single novel. As an avid reader of anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’ve found that my patience for discussing The Great Gatsby has all but disappeared. I appreciate that it is a spectacular book, but his worth as an author is not determined by Gatsby alone. Authors deserve recognition for their entire contribution to literature; the work that is deemed a masterpiece by the masses is by no means less valid than the other works which authors spend months perfecting for the enjoyment of the public. Reading some of the lesser known works of well known authors allows readers to follow the artistic development of an author; without making an effort to appreciate varying literary contributions, the perspective of the reader will remain a limited one.

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