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The Sophomore Jinx and Novelists

I just returned from a writers’ conference where I had some success with the literary awards, taking a few second places as well as making the top ten in an anthology they published, so for a few days I had a modicum of notoriety, congratulated many times by many writers.
Then I come home to my loving wife who is more impressed with my ability to remember to take out the trash on Thursday than she is on any awards or publication credits I happen to amass. Ah—literary fame, a huge high and then a big downer, kind of like illegal drugs and sex, though less dangerous.
From the few conversations I have had with New York Times Best-selling authors, it seems their biggest fear after achieving fame with the success of their first book, is the sophomore jinx. It’s because the only thing worse than publishing a book and having it fail is publishing a book and having it succeed. A successful book now means you have to follow up with another, just as successful, otherwise you feel you are a failure. Take J K Rowling for example. She followed up the mega-hit Harry Potter series with a ho-hum novel about local politics, the forgetful, Casual Vacancy. Gag me with a spoon.

Other examples of well-known authors who have a big hit for their debut book and then limped home for the rest of their career:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee: Never wrote another book.
  • Catch 22 -  Joseph Heller – A one hit wonder after writing a novel that has ingrained its title into the English language,
  • On the Road- Jack Kerouac- One book - then zip.
  • Catcher In The RyeJ D Salinger. He wrote the book, then holed up in a bomb shelter somewhere and never surfaced.
  • The Bell Jar – Silvia Plath – Okay, she had an excuse. You can’t write another book when you’re dead.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde: Wrote the best book he could and then became preoccupied, if you know what I mean – Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink.
  • Jane Eyre:  Charlotte Bronte – I guess she was no Jane Austen
  • Moby Dick: Herman Melville- He may have bored himself so much writing the first novel that he couldn’t take another.
Here's a list on the web:

All have had their share of fame but couldn’t beat that sophomore jinx with a successful or even decent follow-up novel.
Okay- some trivia. What novelist sold more books than anyone between 1898 and 1915 while having the most number one bestsellers those years? A riddle and a hint- you’ll recognize the name yet not the author. Huh? Give up? Okay, it’s Winston Churchill. But wait, JJ, you say. I know Winston Churchill and he wrote only one novel so what’s up with that?
Glad you asked. It ‘s not that Winston Churchill, it’s the other Winston Churchill. Now that you’re totally confused, I’ll explain. The Winston Churchill I’m talking about is the American author, who in his time, was a rock star of novelists and yet no one remembers him anymore, and all because the British Winston Churchill moved into the limelight during World War II and stole the poor yank’s thunder. It’s like being a famous scientist named Adolph Hitler in the eighteenth century, dwarfed by the evil dictator in the twentieth.
If the poor American Churchill had used a nom de plume instead of his real name, he would still be fondly remembered, like Dickens or Poe. Such is life.
I hope to God that if I sell a number of best sellers sometime, some guy in the future named John J. White doesn’t get elected President or assassinate a president because then all my hard fought fame will go the way of the American Churchill and my descendants will be pissed.
Lesson learned: Pick your pseudonym wisely and enjoy your fame while you can.


  1. Many congratulations, John! At the rate you are going you'll soon have to change the name of your blog :-)

  2. You may be right, Nilanjana. I believe I subconsously wrote this blog as a catharsis from the rejection that's a natural process in the business. I also needed an outlet for humor since most of my other writing is seriously bleak. If I get a book out there I'll change the title of the site to Give It Up You Might Never Be Published. Hope all's well.


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