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.
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.
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.
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.
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