One hundred mostly great writers

August 14, 2009

I admit I am attracted to this sort of thing: a site called This Recording has compiled a list of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time” — a ranked list, no less.  All of the usual caveats and complaints apply: yes, these judgments are subjective; no, your favourite writer didn’t make the list; yes, there is a provincialism at work here (over half of those listed were writing in the twentieth-century, and over seventy wrote in English); no, ranking Gertrude Stein in the top ten is not, as yet, a federal offense.  Still, lists like this are great fun.  Each name is accompanied by a picture and a short paragraph discussing the writer’s special qualities and notable works.  Curiously, frequent mention is also made of the author’s sexual practices; the reason for this is not given — perhaps it is evidence of provincialism of another kind — but in the end it is not too distracting.

There is an unusually strong stress on poets, with roughly one-third of those listed working primarily in poetry.  I don’t know much about poetry, especially the most contemporary variety, and in consequence nearly one-fifth of the names on the list were actually unknown to me.  I have a hard time believing that these obscure figures are actually worthy to rank with the acknowledged masters of our literature, but I suppose it is not impossible.

There are some outrageous errors in the list.  I have already mentioned the appalling misprint that places Gertrude Stein among the immortals, but presumably that will be rectified when an angry mob descends upon the proprietors of This Recording.  There are certain writers whom they have surely ranked too high: the achievement of Mary Shelley (ranked 38), fine as it is, doesn’t really belong in this company; Laurence Sterne is clever and lively, but one of our twenty best?; the inclusion of Virginia Woolf (at 14) and Samuel Beckett (at 7) was probably intended to stir up stupefied indignation.  On the other hand, I would certainly have ranked Borges (65), Tolstoy (56), and T.S. Eliot (53) far higher.  (Judging from their comments, those who compiled the list reserve a special animus for Eliot.  I suppose we should be grateful that he wasn’t bumped off entirely.)

Even worse than contemplating the adulation of Virginia Woolf is the thought that she occupies a place which might have been filled by a more worthy figure.  What, pray tell, has happened to Miss Austen?  Where is Thomas Mann?  How did it happen that one of our great prose stylists, Evelyn Waugh, did not make the list?  This is unjust.

Half the fun of these lists is complaining about them, but the other half is praising them.  Many of the included names are incontestably great, and there were some pleasant surprises as well.  I was happy to see Czeslaw Milosz squeezed in (at 98, and with a great picture), and seeing Flannery O’Conner’s name (at 57) also made me smile.  Dr. Johnson was ranked surprisingly high (at 26) considering that he is remembered today chiefly for his dinner conversation rather than his literary work, but I don’t mind.  Both Melville and Dickens made the top twenty, which pleased me immensely, the former because my first reading of him (last year) was one of the great literary experiences of my life, and the latter because Dickens is too often dismissed as a sentimental populist rather than regarded as the towering literary talent that he was.

Perhaps the really big surprise about this list is that Shakespeare does not sit at the apex.  He is ranked at number 3.  Care to guess which two writers they deemed greater than the Bard?  No, not Dante.  The mystery deepens. . .

View the whole list.

(Hat-tip: The Daily Eudemon.)

12 Responses to “One hundred mostly great writers”

  1. Christina A. Says:

    Baby in utero even gave a good kick to express her disdain when she saw Shakespeare listed below Kafka! I haven’t read Faulkner, so no comment on where he should have ended up. Kafka is one of my personal top books of all time and have read the trial a few times now. But really, better than Shakespeare??? I don’t think so.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Baby is right, of course. I haven’t read any Faulkner either, but I’m still confident in saying that placing him at the top is pretty idiosyncratic.

  3. Matthew Says:

    Speaking of poets, if you haven’t heard of Derek Walcott, he is well worth a read. His epic poem Omeros is a Caribbean version of the Odyssey. I had to read it for a section of one of my American literature courses that was on black contemporary poets. Really awesome.

  4. Matthew Says:

    Since you enjoy these lists so much, why don’t you do your own? 🙂

  5. cburrell Says:

    There’s an easy answer to that one, Matthew: no time. Also I’ve a hunch that it’s more fun to comment on these things than to draw them up. Derek Walcott was one of the names that I didn’t recognize. I’ll add the title you mention to my list.

  6. All such exercises are greatly flawed, of necessity, but this is worse than many. Faulkner at his best is extremely fine, but putting him and Kafka above Shakespeare is just silly. I’m only slighly acquainted with most of the late 20th C American poets they include, e.g. John Ashberry, but I can’t see them as qualified for an all-time top 100.

    I started Omeros once but didn’t get all that far. I liked it but wasn’t carriea away. I think it needed more attention than I could manage at the time. Top 100? Doubtful.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Well, one vote and then one counter-vote. I’m back where I started.

    I cannot shake the idea that I should try to make my own list. Maybe just a top twenty. Matthew, I blame you for putting me in this condition.

  8. KathyB Says:

    I’m with Christina’s baby.

    I hesitate to recommend things to you because I know how full your reading schedule always is, but I read Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” last spring, and it really is worthwhile. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I can explain why without also spoiling the book. I will say that it unlike many works of literature, it actually portrays an positive attitude towards the Catholic clergy.

    My husband of course expresses disdain that Homer is only #17.

  9. cburrell Says:

    Oh, I don’t mind recommendations. As it turns out I’ve already got Death Comes for the Archbishop in one of the closet bookcases — in other words, not yet read. I’ve heard good things about it, and not just from you.

    I admit that I don’t really understand Homer. I don’t understand what he was doing, nor why he did it the way he did. It’s a defect in me, not him. But consequently I don’t really understand why he is so highly regarded. Unlike the Greeks — and unlike your husband — I am unable to read him in the original. Maybe that’s what makes the difference.

  10. Giovanni Says:

    Kafka ahead of Shakespeare?
    Tolstoy at 56??
    TWAIN ahead of Tolstoy???

    Clearly you need to come up with a counter-list, Craig. This infamy cannot go unanswered 🙂


  11. Nick Milne Says:

    I, for one, would be thrilled to read your list, and then outraged at its conclusions, and then happy to be able to comment on it, and then gratified by the discussion that would generate. You’re in a position to provoke a whole pageant of consequence here, Craig; seize the day.

  12. […] One hundred mostly great writers […]

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