The Twenty Greatest Writers of All Time

A review of the twenty greatest writers of all time.

  1. Count Leo Tolstoy – Nothing would stand in the way of Anna Karenina and War and Peace. If he had written these two books alone, he still would have been the greatest writer of all time. Yet he still added Resurrection which I haven’t read but wont doubt its greatness. Tell me that I am wrong.

  2. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – There is something about Russians and writing. Anyone who has read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov will agree with me that this man could write.

  3. William Shakespeare – I place the bard here simply for the beauty of the more than one hundred and fifty sonnets. No other soul living or dead could have come up with such stuff. Shakespeare the poet was greater than anything that I have read in poetry. Forget Milton, forget Seamus Heaney. They don’t come close when it comes to poetry. Had he written drama without so much poetic influence where it wasn’t needed, he would have been my greatest.

  4. Charles Dickens – So far, and I stand challenged on this one; there isn’t a soul that can be half as humorous as Dickens. The witty characters he created come to life, jumping out of the texts to mingle with the common man. Nobody who has read the Great Expectations can forget Pip, and so are Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and many others. They have since become historical figures.

  5. Rabindranath Tagore – Now some people might never have heard of this great Indian writer. Bagging the 1913 Nobel Prize doesn’t say much about his ability to write music, for that is what his writing is. Great music. I have my free copy of the greatest of his writings, and the best known, Gitanjali. This is the soul that penned two national anthems, one for India, and another for Bangladesh!

  6. Patrick White – It doesn’t matter if this Australian was gay or not. The beauty of his prose would leave any lover of great literature slapping himself in excitement. Riders in a chariot, Eye of the Storm, Voss…What else can I say?

  7. Gustave Flaubert – The Frenchman is well known for penning the beautiful Madame Bovary, and being a significant contributor to realism in literature, and for his creation, I can’t help but place him among the top ten writers of all time.

  8. Miguel de Cervantes – Now, if the Spanish writer didn’t appear here, some readers would want to swallow me, all because of Don Quixote. He deserves his place on this list.

  9. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – If he wrote One hundred years of Solitude alone, and added nothing else, I would still place him in this position. I bet he won’t write anything better than this, never!

  10. Margaret Atwood – I love this old girl and I must say so. Where she gets the ideas for her works I can’t tell, but I would pay her to give me one or two. She is simply fantastic. I always wait with bated breath for her next work of fiction!

  11. Salman Rushdie – He is here not because of controversy but because the complexity of what he conjures up. Literature students where I schooled could not finish reading Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The two novels…

  12. Marcel Proust – The Frenchman’s A la recherché du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time must surely place him on this list.

  13. Honore de Balzac – la comedie humaine. That is what Balzac is all about. He decided to rewrite all his major novels and novellas to form one story of human life in the Paris of those days.

  14. D.H. Lawrence – Here is where you turn to when you want to feel inanimate objects teem with life. Lady Chatterley’s Lover kicked off a storm that lasted for decades, but this is not his only claim to eminence. Lawrence was great in so many aspects, though much of what he wrote smells so autobiographical!

  15. V.S. Naipaul – I haven’t read anything like A House for Mr. Biswas for a very long time. That is probably the best he could get. The others I have read by the same author from Miguel Street to In a Free State come a cropper.

  16. William Golding – This Nobel laureate appears on this list on the strength of two texts Rite of Passage and Lord of the Flies. I still hold onto my old copies despite the fact that they smell so boyish.

  17. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – This is the only African writer that appears on this list. Not because he is Kenyan, and not because I haven’t read any other but because all the rest of his age group from Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri lack the courage with which to confront the real issues affecting the black continent.

  18. J.M. Coetzee – Why does he appear this far? He has won every major award that I can think of. I have read every major title that has come off his pen, but with Disgrace, he hit me as a different writer all together.

  19. Michael Ondaatje – I haven’t read anything else from him other than The English Patient. Somebody donate his other works to me please, I need to read him more, but the beauty of that one great piece earns him a place on list of the greatest twenty writers of all time.

  20. George Bernard Shaw – This Irish writer couldn’t miss this list for communicating so many ideas through his drama. He would have taught Shakespeare a thing or two about writing great plays.

Several writers do not appear on this list despite their fame and fortune. I still don’t know why Ian McEwan and Peter Carey are so much touted. They seem to write for the booker and not for their readers, but again this is my list. Gunter Grass wrote the Tin Drum, such a great piece of art, but he seems to have benefited from the Nazi atrocities. His other works have failed to touch me. Nurrudin Farah seems preoccupied with Somalia, his nation and nothing else. I rest my case.

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44 Comments
  1. Rethabile
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Interesting list. But Coetzee is African, so Ngugi isn’t the only African writer on your list. Disgrace is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

  2. shilaho
    Posted February 27, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Rethabile
    Thanks for the reminder, but Coetzee seems more European than African and is taken so on the continent.

  3. Priyaranjan Jha
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 10:09 am

    A good list and an ambitious one too. I find it hard to believe you couldn’t find places for Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett. Also, isn’t it unfair to place Balzac above Maupassant in any case? Where are the likes of Hemingway and Kafka.

    I know 20 is a little number and so it adds greater responsibility to selector.

  4. Wolf Bite
    Posted May 10, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    If William Golding is going to be on your list, then Conrad should come before him.

  5. erichlebt
    Posted June 1, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Good list BUT no german writer?
    Being german I might be a bit biased but not Goethe or Schiller or Kafka or Kleist, Rilke, Mann, Musil, Brecht or Dürrenmatt (or at least Luther :) )?
    Maybe think about expanding your list…

    Cheers

  6. Posted June 2, 2009 at 5:12 am

    #5 I must agree with you on at least three writers that you mentioned. I love Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Rilke. I adore what they have done for world literature, but then, twenty is a small number.As for Goethe, he is a little far removed. Thank you for the concern all the same.

  7. amit sharma
    Posted June 9, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    dear u must mention antov cheknov maxim gorkey they both were highly intectual souls.but ur choice is still fair up 2 a level.

  8. cullen
    Posted July 6, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    i agree with ure number 1, tolstoy is amazing. i do believe shakespeare should be before doestovsky, ive read both, and i just think shakespeare due to his prose should come in at number 2, although doestovsky is an unbelievable novelist. i find if extremely difficult to understand how you couldnt find room for james joyce on this list at all, he would be top ten if i was to ever make a list

  9. Laura.
    Posted September 22, 2009 at 8:36 pm

    Some of the ‘greats’ or ‘best’ literacy works and authors I really can’t stand. I had to read Othello in school, it was alright, had a glimpse of Romeo and Juliet, and I hate it. His writing is boring, to me. Jane Austen is among classical greats, according to many people. I tried to read Pride and Prejudice, and couldn’t get past a quarter of the book. I tried to read Emma…couldn’t get past a quarter of the book. In my opinion, the best books are usually the unique finds, the less known…perhaps even the unknown.
    Why isn’t JK Rowling on this list? Harry Potter is unarguably the best, most influential, fiction series of all time. Millions of copies sold within minutes?…you should look at the statistics, at least.

  10. Posted October 5, 2009 at 5:22 pm

    Its long since I penned this list. I have no doubt that the view as to who is the greatest writer of all time is relative. Join me on my brand new site http://www.greatestwritersforum.com, still under construction and lets have fun.

  11. dionysus
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Above comment is laughable… Harry Potter? Are you joking? Shakespeare is boring to you because your tiny brain can’t fathom him, no doubt. The greatest writers have written truly great books for intelligent adults, not average books for children. To put J.K Rowling in here among the likes of Shakespeare and Tolstoy would be silliness and would make a mockery of the list. I hazard to suggest you can’t get into the great books because you haven’t the capacity for them – no offence – legendary books written by genuine genius aren’t always easy to penetrate and certainly weren’t intended to be, particularly the older ones. Seriously, John Milton didn’t even make this list – Paradise Lost isn’t exactly a page turner for the modern reader but more craft, art and knowledge was expended in that one small book than the whole Harry Potter series combined.

    What someone said is correct – where is the German? Friedrich Nietzsche would be my choice. His books aren’t exactly thrilling but his prose was simply the greatest. By the time of ‘Ecce Homo’ (shortly before he went incurably insane) he was writing with singular style and wit, struck through with a kind of dark, fearful beauty. You can almost hear him whispering into your ear.. and what other book approaches the depth of thought and wizardry found in the brilliant Zarathustra?

    ‘It is the stillest words that bring on the storm… thoughts that come on doves feet guide the world…’

    He would have to be in the top 20, probably the top 5 or 3, simply because there is no one else quite like him – his work still stands in a world all of its own.

  12. tjfod
    Posted November 1, 2009 at 10:31 pm

    Not writing for readers isn’t a criticism, or a bad thing. The best books can’t be for everyone or they wouldn’t be the best. The greatest artists, the truly great, create for themselves firstly and what others may think becomes significant later – they create from inspiration, for love of what they do; the opinions of others run through their heads, but it is no goal or ideal. Also, what is the point of reading if you are going to judge what you’ve read by the man or woman who has written it rather than the writings themselves? It is neither here nor there if a writer benefited from Nazis, if it is a great writer it is a great writer – end of story. You shouldn’t disrespect a writer as a creator for merely moral reasons, it amounts to a betrayal of the written word.

  13. Posted November 8, 2009 at 11:40 am

    Hi, Dionysus – I agree with you to an extent but, it doesn’t help to be nasty to innocent contributions from readers. I really would want to expand the list above. I respect all German authors especially Mann, Grass, and Goethe. Nietzsche was great but he ranks more among philosophers than literary artists, that remains my opinion, hope you wont throw a tantrum!

  14. Anthony
    Posted November 18, 2009 at 7:34 am

    What do you mean ‘forget Milton’!? Don’t undermine so easily such a masterful poet.
    I’d much sooner forget Margaret Atwood: her fiction is dull, dry and exceedingly boring.
    Still, I know not to take these lists too personally/literally. It is impossible to rank authors according to ‘greatness”.

  15. Posted November 18, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Hi Anthony, I must correct you on this one, what I did mean was Milton compared to William Shakespeare. Milton was a great poet but the sonnets produced by the bard are in a class of their own. Am currently working on a list of the one hundred greatest writers of all time and the list will be available on http://www.greatestwritersforum.com, hopefully it shall satisfy those who have wondered where I place John Milton, Gunter Grass, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Boll, Carl Spitteler among others. See you then and thanks for the comments.

  16. Ian
    Posted November 28, 2009 at 3:05 am

    I tell you, it’s hard to get past Shakespeare. Firstest and bestest, so to speak. I have no problem with Rowling, I guess, but some dude named Tolkien had a pretty decent series of books himself.

  17. Posted November 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Ian, I understand your sentiments fully, but again, my reasons for placing Shakespeare where he is are simple: I don’t agree with the greatness of his plays. Had he written the sonnets alone, I would reconsider my decision. Tolkien’s literature isn’t serious enough to warrant a place in the top twenty. He was a great fantasy writer, yes, but…..

  18. tynchy
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    what about Borges?

  19. Versteeg
    Posted January 16, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    SHILAHO:
    A good list overall. I probably would have also had Aleksandr Solzhenistyn and Vladimir Nabokov (although I think you were trying to get a good mix of nationalities). And especially considering that you included Salman Rushdie and William Golding I definitely would have had George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche and Aldous Huxley in this list. I also would have had Shakespeare as first overall just because of the quality and sheer quantity of his sonnets and plays (and because he added the word bubble to the English language :D ).

    “Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri lack the courage with which to confront the real issues affecting the black continent.”

    I find this statement to be utterly ridiculous and really left a sour note on the whole list. Personally I feel that your claim that they “lack the courage to confront the real issues” to be false, especially for Soyinka and Achebe.
    Futhermore, it is quite offensive that somehow as writers they are obliged to address the issues of the “black continent” just because they happen to be black and furthermore can’t be taken as seriously as other writers until they do.
    Grouping people like that and refusing to judge them on merit only serves to increase social and racial divides (which is a real issue in the “black continent”).
    Personally I feel Okri is the best of all the African writers you have listed and I hope that history judges him as such.

    I would also have Robert Louis Stevenson in the list, possibly in the top 10, although I can see from your opinion of Tolkein that your list is taken from the perspective of a critic rather than your average reader.

    Dionysus:
    “Harry Potter? Are you joking? Shakespeare is boring to you because your tiny brain can’t fathom him, no doubt. The greatest writers have written truly great books for intelligent adults, not average books for children.”

    Don’t be such a snob, books can be written for entertainment (indeed that is what most of them were written for, especially your beloved Shakespeare and Tolstoy). And as far as entertainment there is no doubt that Harry Potter will go down in the all-time greats. Moreover books like Harry Potter are for intelligent adults as well as children, I imagine from your post your real problem with authors like JK Rowling is that you crave uniqueness and therefore attempt to cultivate a disdain for anything associated with the “little people”.

  20. Posted January 21, 2010 at 11:00 pm

    Tynchy and Versteeg thanks for your comments. I have read so much of Jorge Luis Borges, but of the South Americans I left out, I find the Peruvian Maria Vargas Llosa better by far. Forgive my taste but I still haven’t seen anything great from Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka. Please name any work from them that stands out from the rest and defend it. They are better known than Ngugi perhaps because they are Nigerians but nothing much. Things Fall Apart cant be compared to Ngugi’s mature works while for Soyinka, he is more comfortable making noise than writing. Those who find his plays entertaining in the least have a problem. Compare him with Shakespeare and draw the line. I must also say that writers owe it to the society within which they live to raise issues that can improve life for the better. They are social critics and should do much more than entertain. Thank you!

  21. David Gillam
    Posted February 21, 2010 at 6:18 am

    I am not a literaey sort I’ll admit that…but I think George Orwell deserves a mention. He made such brilliant ideas leap into the readers mind with his comand of language.

  22. Posted February 21, 2010 at 6:27 am

    George Orwell is synonymous with the satirical Animal Farm. The other texts are dwarfs in comparison and cant raise him to my top twenty. 1984, the Burmese days are not worth writing home about. Forgive test.

  23. Posted February 23, 2010 at 7:28 am

    An other great post SHILAHO…. AND GREAT LIST CHEERS

  24. Posted February 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks matt

  25. celes
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Hemingway….!!!!!! what about hemingway .. =) THe list is good except that we need him in there. lol

  26. Posted March 3, 2010 at 12:42 am

    I agree with you. The decision to leave out Hemingway was personal. I hadn’t read his books until after posting this article. After reading two of his masterpieces, I place him at number ten on my blog-post. Check the list here: http://greatestwritersofalltime.blogspot.com/

  27. Posted March 17, 2010 at 9:15 pm

    well dostoyevsyi is the greatest for me. leo may be the second:) but dosto is the fisrt foreva:)

  28. Posted April 24, 2010 at 8:09 am

    HI SHILAHO… Nice post…

  29. Posted May 16, 2010 at 8:40 am

    u perhaps didn’t know me then
    lhlhlh

  30. Posted May 17, 2010 at 8:36 am

    I agree with you LH, if I were to revise this list, many more writers would spring to mind. Thank you.

  31. jkhkh
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    I cant believe you havnt included F.Scott Fitzgerald..his The Great Gatsby was trully an amzing piece of work

  32. anonymous
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:35 am

    Hi jkhkh, what is the meaning of your name? it’s very interesting

  33. Celeborn
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 9:57 pm

    WHERE IS J.R.R TOLKIEN, he is by far the greatest writer to walk the EARTH!

  34. fred
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    TC Boyle deserves a place on your list,and if you thought The English Patient was well written read In the Skin of a Lion by Ondaatje. Gave me goosebumps.

  35. Posted June 2, 2010 at 9:02 am

    Thanks Fred, I have since read many more works by Ondaatje including In the Skin of a Lion, he is truly amazing, thanks.

  36. Posted June 23, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Thanks Shilaho. I never knew some of them until today, but I am confused, John Keats’ lines are so beautiful that I get inclined to place him higher than Shakespeare as far as poetry is concerned.

  37. Karim
    Posted September 26, 2010 at 1:40 am

    I haven’t given much thought to how my list would look. But I will say this, as of right now, Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be my number one without a doubt. I’m onyl 19, but never in my life have I been exposed to such beautiful words as I have when reading his works. He could be describing your average ham sandwhich and bring me to tears. I think that my feeling towards his writing is well expressed in one of the reviews within his auto-biography (”Living to Tell the Tale”) which describes his writing as, “The closest thing to a sensual experience that prose has to ofer.”

  38. Wilder Davis
    Posted October 13, 2010 at 2:50 am

    No Mark Twain?! No Jonathan Swift? You must not have a taste for satire. Hemingway himself gave Twain credit for the greatest novel of all time and cited his work as the true birth of American literature. I\’m sorry but a list that favors Harry Potter over Hicks Finn really lacks credibility. Selling millions of copies in minutes is quite impressive but that really could amount to her work just being entertaining and accessible. Twain\’s work helped form the identity of a nation and eloquently merged biting wit with powerful observation set against historic and timeless struggles

  39. Posted October 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Wilder Davis, where did you see Harry potter? See my fifty greatest writers of all time, it is a newer list than this one.

  40. Posted May 29, 2011 at 10:42 am

    Glad you included Salman Rushdie, contraversy is a great tool to expand minds really

  41. Marlon
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Did I overlook name ‘Goethe’? Just wondering!

  42. Posted August 11, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    There is always going to be people pulling faces and meandering around in their wooden chairs at the absence of their “Favorite” author. I use the quotation mark to highlight the presence of subjectivity in their literary assumption. I see people mentioning Tolkien, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Borges these are great writers in their own domain but they are only writers, whether they can be credited in the highest echelon of literary talent is unquestionable, but a list of twenty does not leave much room. However the word artist springs to mind, an individual who can transcend beauty enlightenment, poetry, prose and plays. That is why the author of this list should be discredited because he can merely see literature through his own eyes. For a list of twenty to omit JAMES JOYCE and not even list one of THE ROMANTIC POETS is simply the only sin that can be perpetrated amid this quintessence of dust.

  43. alex
    Posted November 5, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    wheres cormac mcarthy?

  44. Cameren Lee
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 9:45 pm

    I know his oeuvre isn’t the largest around, and he has his critics, but James Joyce deserves consideration. Ulysses changed my life when I read it (at age 15). On their own, Dubliners and Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man are great reads as well. And Finnegans Wake is one of those books that will never click with a lot of readers, but I think it’s the closest man has gotten to making a Rorshach test with the English alphabet instead of inkblots.

    Joyce fought censorship like D.H. Lawrence, and it took years before some people saw both of them not as pornographers, but as artists.

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