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. . .
(Hat-tip: The Daily Eudemon.)