Authors can be placed in one of two groups. Alive or dead? Sure. Female or male? Yup. But the two groups I'm thinking of are authors who wrote a great novel that far outshines their other novels, and authors who wrote a great novel that's just a bit better than their next-best books.
Oh, I suppose there's also a third, in-between category: authors who wrote a great novel that's somewhat better than their very good runner-up works.
Anyway, I'm going to offer examples of authors I feel fit into each category, ask if you agree or disagree with my groupings and also ask for examples of your own!
One author who wrote a book that I think towers over the rest of her canon is Charlotte Bronte, with the magnificent Jane Eyre. (I just reread it, and it's still my favorite novel ever.) Bronte's Villette and Shirley are good, but nowhere near as good as Jane Eyre. Of course, the author's early death at age 38 may have thwarted a second, later-career masterpiece.
Among the other writers I would include in the just-one-brilliant-novel group are Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward), Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), William Thackeray (Vanity Fair) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22). (A tip of the hat to Jill Press, who mentioned Catch-22 in this context in a comment under a recent post of mine.) I deliberately left out authors -- such as Emily Bronte and Harper Lee -- who wrote one spectacular novel but no other novels, good or bad.
Much larger is the group of authors whose next-best books are nearly as stellar as their top ones. At the risk of sounding obvious, I think there are more authors with several great works in them than there are authors who write only one novel for the ages. Some multiple masterpiece mavens and their books' (just my opinion) rankings:
-- Margaret Atwood: The Robber Bride (her best novel); The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace (her almost-as-good novels).
-- Honore de Balzac: Old Goriot (best); Eugenie Grandet (almost as good).
-- Willa Cather: My Antonia (best); Death Comes for the Archbishop (almost as good).
-- Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White (best); The Moonstone and Armadale (almost as good).
-- Charles Dickens: Great Expectations (best); too many to name (almost as good).
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment (best); The Brothers Karamazov (almost as good).
-- Jack London: Martin Eden (best); The Call of the Wild (almost as good).
-- Cormac McCarthy: Suttree (best); Blood Meridian (almost as good).
-- L.M. Montgomery: The Blue Castle (best); Anne of Green Gables (almost as good).
-- Erich Maria Remarque: The Night in Lisbon (best); Arch of Triumph and All Quiet on the Western Front (almost as good).
-- John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (best); East of Eden (almost as good).
-- Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (best); The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome (almost as good).
-- Emile Zola: Germinal (best); The Ladies' Delight and The Beast in Man (almost as good).
Then there are the authors whose runner-up books are excellent, but still rank a ways below their best work. A few of many examples include F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby followed somewhat distantly by the very good Tender Is the Night), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo then The Three Musketeers), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter then The House of Seven Gables) and Carson McCullers (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter then Reflections in a Golden Eye).
Well, I think I've rambled on long enough. Do you agree or disagree with my examples? Which other authors wrote a great novel that far outshines their other novels, or wrote a great novel that barely outshines some of their other very good novels?
Dave Astor's 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others. Those three also appear in the partly humorous book, along with other famous columnists and cartoonists and people such as Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King and Martha Stewart. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.