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?

  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

The Top 100 Writers – Finding the Best Writers in History – Part 1

It should already be evident to all of you that finding the absolute best of anything as subjective as writing is impossible. However, it is possible to glean a consensus of who is redeemed in writing, and who is not.

With that in mind, I set out to do determine what is a consensus view of who the best writers in history are. Given I don’t have time to read a sampling from every major writer, I ruled out first-hand research right off. Instead, I turned to Internet research.

The How

My belief is that there are a number of factors to balance in determining artistry. Namely, those are critical assessments of the writer’s work, readers’ assessments, and readers’ voting by virtue of purchasing the writers’ work. I was able to find a number of listings of writers – each at least 100 writers deep – that covered all three categories. This list is the compilation of ten different writer surveys, as well as other data.

I awarded points to writers in each survey I used, giving 100 points for a 1st-place vote, down to 1 point for a 100th-place vote. As such, writers must have finished in the top 100 in any poll to gain a vote. The writers who ended up near the top are those that appear on the most lists. Again, it’s about consensus.

In all, I ended up with 360 names, of which I will reveal the top 100.

The What

Assessments were sorted into one of 3 groups: Critical surveys, Popularity, and Longevity.

The first, and arguably most important, is a critical consensus. In order to achieve balance, I used critical surveys that focused on all writers (novelists, short story writers, poets, & playwrights); others that focused on only the best novels; and some that focused only on poetry. Critical assessments came from literary critics and publishers.

For popularity, I used a few online readers’ polls, and added listing of the top-selling writers. Finally, because sales data tends to favor newer writers, I balanced it by adding points for longevity. After all, a book still held in high regard after 350 years should be considered a bit more robust than one on the shelves for 3 years.

George Bernard Shaw – #185

The Summary

So that this blog post doesn’t get too long, I will list the complete result of my Top 100 Writers in History survey tomorrow. For now, here are some things I’ve learned from doing this – some surprising, some not.

  • Critics love older works – of the top 50 writers in my poll, the average date of birth is 223 years ago. That’s 1789, for you non-math whizzes.
  • There is almost zero correlation between books that sell, and what critics like. Critics are looking for literature – the type that is taught in schools. Readers are looking for entertainment.
  • If you want to know what are the most popular novels by readers, look to the movies. Whether the book’s popularity came first, or the novel’s, I can’t say. But if readers loved it, it was almost certainly made into a movie by somebody.
  • Shakespeare was NOT number one in the poll. That is likely because he wrote no novels, and so lost points there. However, before you scream that isn’t fair, Miguel de Cervantes, an older contemporary of Shakespeare’s, wrote Don Quixote, which is considered to be the 1st great European novel. Which brings us to the next point.
  • The best writers are multi-talented, but the truly elite focus on one medium. Most of those are novelists. Of the top 50 writers, only 9 were primarily poets. Of those, only 5 were exclusively poets (other than essays, etc. which were not counted).
  • Many of the top writers did not write in English as their native language. Do not fear translations.
  • Most living novelist made the top 350 only due to sales. Most of them got zero critic votes.
  • Critics love traditional non-genre novels.
  • Readers love genre novels (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Romance, Mystery, Westerns)
  • If you can write both types as one book, you’ll probably rule the world one day.
  • The top woman writer was Virginia Woolf (#4).
  • The top African American writer was Ralph Ellison (#21).
  • The top (non-Shakespeare) poet was William Butler Yeates (#16).
  • Best critical survey quote: “The Adventures of Augie March makes The Catcher in the Rye look like a fucking children’s book.” Yep.
Robert Hayden #353

Some Notables Who Didn’t Make the Cut

Just a few, for kicks.

  • Salman Rushdie – #102 (tie) – who knew he could actually write?
  • Stephen King – #109
  • A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) –  #166
  • Dr. Seuss – #176
  • John Grisham – #206
  • Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, TV) – #290
  • Stephenie Myers (Twilight) – #309
  • James Michener – #346
  • Me

Part 2: The List

Carson McCullers – #100, and coolest female writer name