The Top 100 Writers – Finding the Best Writers in History, Part 2

Editor’s note: This list doesn’t represent my views, so don’t bother telling me why you disagree. It’s a compilation of the views of critics, fans, and experts from at least 10 different surveys of “greatest writers.” For Part 1, where I detail the methodology for selecting the writers listed below, click here.

Before I list the Top 100 writers, I thought it might be interesting to share a few other top writer lists from my survey.

Top 10 Writers According to Critics

  1. James Joyce
  2. William Faulkner
  3. Henry James
  4. Virginia Woolf
  5. Vladimir Nabokov
  6. D.H. Lawrence
  7. William Shakespeare*
  8. William Butler Yeats
  9. George Orwell (tie)
  10. Ernest Hemingway (tie)

A little surprised? Again, this is influenced by the existence of novels. Had Shakespeare’s plays been critiqued as if they were novels, he would have been 1st among critics. (Even a ranking of 50th would have been enough to put him in first. So, we’ll consider him 7th, but the top playwright in history.

Top 10 Writers According to Readers

  1. J.R.R Tolkien
  2. Stephen King
  3. William Shakespeare
  4. George Orwell
  5. Leo Tolstoy
  6. James Joyce
  7. William Faulkner
  8. John Steinbeck (tie)
  9. Agatha Christie (tie)
  10. J.K. Rowling (tie)

Quite the different list, no? Two things stick out immediately. First, readers like Shakespeare more than critics, a fact that surprised me somewhat. Second, sales were not as big a factor as one might expect. The 3rd through 7th highest in sales did not make the readers’ Top 35.

Top 10 Poets

Big Bill- nah, doesn’t work.

The Top 4 poets are all named William. I’m wondering if anyone ever called Yeats Billy … maybe Bill Blake.

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. William Butler Yeats
  3. William Wordsworth
  4. William Blake
  5. Walt Whitman
  6. Edgar Allen Poe
  7. John Milton
  8. Rudyard Kipling (with a big assist from “Kim”)
  9. Emily Dickinson
  10. John Donne

Top 10 Women

  1. Virginia Woolf (#4)
  2. Toni Morrison (#26)
  3. Willa Cather (#31)
  4. Jane Austen (#37)
  5. Emily Dickinson (#41)
  6. Edith Wharton (#46)
  7. George Eliot (#47)
  8. Emily Bronte (#54)
  9. Charlotte Bronte (#57)
  10. Flannery O’Connor (#79)

It’s a bit obvious from the numbers that there were relatively few women in the top 100. Not surprising, given the historical (lack of) opportunities for women. Glad to see that nonsense has been put aside.

Note to critics: Emily and Charlotte were two different women, with separate writing careers. It’s a bit insulting to lump them together. They each earned their spot in history.

Charlotte “Jane Eyre” (l) and Emily “Wuthering Heights” (r) – number of movie adaptations of their novels – 37. Number of Bronte sisters publishing novels in 1847 – 3. Number of sisters dead by age 40 – all 5.

Top 100 Writers of All Time

Without further ado, here is the list of the Top 100 Writers of All Time. (Dun dun dun!) Actually, it’s the top 101, since there was a tie at number 100. It’s never perfect, right?

That’s right, the winner is James Joyce. As a writer, I am embarrassed to admit I never read Joyce or Faulkner. I will be fixing that soon enough. However, I did read Cervantes’ Don Quixote in Spanish in High School. I get extra points for that, no?

Joyce
Nabobov
Faulkner
  1. James Joyce
  2. William Faulkner
  3. Vladimir Nabokov
  4. Virginia Woolf
  5. William Shakespeare
  6. Henry James
  7. D.H. Lawrence
  8. George Orwell
  9. John Steinbeck
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Ernest Hemingway
  12. Joseph Conrad
  13. Leo Tolstoy
  14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. Marcel Proust
  16. William Butler Yeats
  17. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  18. William Wordsworth
  19. Herman Melville
  20. William Blake
  21. Ralph Ellison
  22. Charles Dickens
  23. Franz Kafka
  24. Walt Whitman
  25. Edgar Allan Poe
  26. Toni Morrison
  27. John Keats
  28. Joseph Heller
  29. Kurt Vonnegut
  30. E.M. Forster
  31. Willa Cather
  32. Aldous Huxley
  33. Homer
  34. John Milton
  35. Rudyard Kipling
  36. Dante Aligheri
  37. Jane Austen
  38. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
  39. Gustave Flaubert
  40. Stendhal
  41. Emily Dickinson
  42. J.D. Salinger
  43. Theodore Dreiser
  44. Samuel Beckett
  45. Jack Kerouac
  46. Edith Wharton
  47. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
  48. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  49. Evelyn Waugh
  50. Laurence Sterne
  51. John Donne
  52. Geoffrey Chaucer
  53. J.R.R Tolkien
  54. Emily Bronte
  55. Murasaki Shikibu
  56. Percy Bysshe Shelley
  57. Charlotte Bronte
  58. William Golding
  59. Anton Chekhov
  60. Malcolm Lowry
  61. Richard Wright
  62. Charles Baudelaire
  63. Thomas Mann
  64. Euripides
  65. Virgil
  66. Pablo Neruda
  67. James Baldwin
  68. Thomas Hardy
  69. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  70. Henry Miller
  71. Robert Musil
  72. Thomas Pynchon
  73. William Carlos Williams
  74. Ovid
  75. Harper Lee
  76. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  77. Jack London
  78. Saul Bellow
  79. Flannery O’Connor
  80. Ayn Rand
  81. Honore’ de Balzac
  82. Sophocles
  83. Gertrude Stein
  84. Nathaniel Hawthorne
  85. Robert Frost
  86. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  87. Langston Hughes
  88. Robert Browning
  89. Alfred Lord Tennyson
  90. Henry Fielding
  91. Rabindranath Tagore
  92. Maya Angelou
  93. Anthony Burgess
  94. Ford Madox Ford
  95. Charles Bukowski
  96. Sylvia Plath
  97. T.S. Eliot
  98. Alexander Pushkin
  99. Ivan Turgenev
  100. Carson McCullers
  101. John Irving
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23 thoughts on “The Top 100 Writers – Finding the Best Writers in History, Part 2

  1. 1. James Joyce – I’ve tried, I really have. But Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about the most un-redneck book ever written. The night before the final exam, I flipped through the (unread by me) novel trying to figure out which scene my Joyce-loving professor might be smitten by. I found one with somebody (an angel?) on a cliff talking to the protagonist. I hit on the nail — that was the passage that made the final. With a little help from Cliff’s Notes, I aced it. I’ve also tried Ulysses and Dubliners several times and never gotten past page 3.
    2. William Faulkner – It’s like drowning in honeysuckle nectar. The only bad one is the one about the abortion (The Wild Palms). Abortion novels are always bad.
    3. Vladimir Nabokov – My personal favorite for #1. I’m still not sure exactly what was going on in Ada, but I know that it was even better than death by honeysuckle nectar. How could Nabokov have been such a genius in a language not his own?
    4. Virginia Woolf – I’ve tried, I really have. (Okay, I’m lying. I sort of tried, but not really that much.)
    5. William Shakespeare – Like a really really good TV sitcom or crime drama. Witty and pithy.
    6. Henry James – Really? The really short novel, Daisy Miller, wasn’t really all that.
    7. D.H. Lawrence – A little overheated, but the dirty parts are pretty good.
    8. George Orwell – Definitely, he’s a 20th century hero. I should read the non-fiction.
    9. John Steinbeck – Excellent, but I’m not inspired to read his entire output.
    10. F. Scott Fitzgerald – Good, but a bit of a period piece.
    11. Ernest Hemingway – Seriously overrated (says a nobody that nobody has ever heard of).
    12. Joseph Conrad – Superb. Like Nabokov, another English-as-a-Second-Language genius.
    13. Leo Tolstoy – Okay, I’ve made it as far as page 100 in Anna Karenina before giving up in despair. I wonder about reading authors in translation.
    14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – A little overwrought.
    15. Marcel Proust – Self-indulgent suckitude.
    16. William Butler Yeats – Some great poetic moments, but I can’t claim to have read enough to judge.
    17. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra – The unabridged Don Quixote in high school Spanish? I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never gotten beyond about page 10.
    18. William Wordsworth – About as good as poetry gets.
    19. Herman Melville – Here’s a test — turn to any page of Moby Dick, pick out a paragraph at random and read it out loud to yourself. Then imagine repeating that incredibly detailed experience roughly 5000 times. No thanks.
    20. William Blake – Since this is the best writers of “All Time,” shouldn’t the King James translation of John of Patmos’ Book of Revelations be rated higher than William Blake, who basically plagiarized the Biblical material?
    21. Ralph Ellison – If you’re picking on the basis of the highest heights achieved, Ellison is a top ten author. For career output, well ….
    22. Charles Dickens – Treacle. Very adept treacle, but treacle nevertheless.
    23. Franz Kafka – Gimmicky, does not belong in top 100.
    24. Walt Whitman – Don’t be silly. He does not belong on this list.
    25. Edgar Allan Poe – His power declines after the reader’s adolescence, but inspiring generations of adolescents to an appreciation of the beauty of poetry and horror is no mean achievement.
    26. Toni Morrison – I’ve tried, I really have.
    27. John Keats – Seriously, seriously underrated. Maybe the greatest English language poet.
    28. Joseph Heller – Just one readable novel, but that one novel (Catch-22) is brilliantly funny.
    29. Kurt Vonnegut – I love Kurt Vonnegut’s work, but my gut tells me #29 is way too high.
    30. E.M. Forster – I plead ignorance.
    31. Willa Cather – In high school, my goal was to read every serious book in our small town library. Death Comes to the Archbishop ended that quest.
    32. Aldous Huxley – Brave New World is superb and Point Counter Point was insightful and funny. But Huxley’s later trippy works were completely unreadable.
    33. Homer – I’m really good at deciphering words phonetically. So in the fourth grade I “read” The Iliad. As I recall it was meandering and confusing. And I haven’t read Homer since then.
    34. John Milton – Some of the pre-Awakening erotic stuff is good, but the later more pretentious work leaves me cold.
    35. Rudyard Kipling – Really?
    35. Dante Aligheri – Got to be top 10 (at least in translation)
    36. Jane Austen – There’s a gender gap on this one.
    37. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) – Way up on my personal top ten. Way up.
    38. Gustave Flaubert
    39. Stendhal
    40. Emily Dickinson – should be top ten

    1. You are much better read than I. My love of books (and the classics) happened between ages 4 and 11. Once I hit puberty, I hated reading, except whatever I was forced to endure. I tried to ensure I keep my own opinions out of this. Suffice it to say that critics love what I would deem to be melodramas (Dostoyevsky, Emily Bronte) and almost unreadable works (Milton, whose poetry made me long for illiteracy).

      I was surprised to find some of the writers listed due to singular works (Ellison, Kipling, Heller, Emily Bronte). However, I weighted the scale as I did because I wasn’t looking for the true literary geniuses. I will leave that to critics to debate. Frankly, I find criticisms both useless and tiresome. Instead, I define the “greatest” as some others have done – those whom have had the greatest impact on society. The Iliad and the Odyssey were interesting stories, poorly written. Others, in my opinion, overwrote their books. However, for their time, they were masterpieces. That we still endure them, and teach based on their structure, devices, descriptions, etc. show they have defined literature.

      And, Nabokov is listed primarily for the one work, Lolita. I would go so far as to assert that one book is all it takes. Having written four, I would delight to create a single master work.

      There are likely some masterful books that few have ever read. There are others that are “treacle” upon which generations of writers have been fed, like pablum. I would say the latter is the greater writer. For it is our job to reach … if no one has read it, we have failed, irrespective of the quality of words.

      I did not include the bible, as it is a compendium of essays. The New Testament comprises, in large part, letters from Paul. I would consider Revelation to qualify, however, as I think John made that bit up out of whole cloth.

      I almost did not include any poets, as I consider most “classical” poetry to be tedious. Modern poets are largely taught not to emulate them, and seem to be trying to write mini-short stories. However, if I left off poets, I would have been forced to dismiss the likes of Emily Dickinson and Keats. Given poets’ work generates little income, and little acclaim, beyond other poets, it is hard to assert their greatness supercedes that of novelists. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone who has even tried to rank poets.

      P.S. I HATED HATED HATED Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I even forgot I had ever read it. Wish I had known about Cliff’s Notes then.

  2. I have read some of those authors, but very few. I will confess something- I hate reading Shakespear. I love watching his plays, but I cna’t stand to read them. I’m such a description whore, the dialog only just doesn;t transport me into his story- and it wasn’t meant to,. They are plays he meant then to be acted not read.

  3. Who can even understand Joyce? I think everyone just agrees he’s the best because no one wants to admit that they don’t/can’t/haven’t read his stuff.

    1. Ha! That was kind of my belief too, but I didn’t want to admit it. 🙂 Then there’s Faulkner, whose use of words is masterful, but I’ve yet to finish one of his books. It’s like eating cheesecake – after a while, you start to get a little sick.

  4. I’ve been seeing the post title but only got to read this post today. Thank you very much for compiling these lists. A few of the authors are favorites of mine, the others I would need to get to know in the next decade, I guess with all the other reading I’ve got with my kids. Thank you again.

  5. Pingback: Why be an Author? | This Blog Intentionally Blank

  6. Very interesting and detailed list. As is the case with anything subjective, there will always be some disagreement. But all in all, it makes for a good read.

    1. Thanks. I thought it was interesting that the author generally considered the best is the one I see most people call unreadable.

      I hope when I retire to eventually read one book by all of them.

  7. thierryhubert

    It seems to be an Anglo-Saxon list.
    Corneille, Moliere, Hugo, Lamartine are much greater than Proust.

    1. Being a native English speaker, the source information for my survey was largely gleaned from English-language sources, the authors of whom predominantly picked authors who wrote in English.

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