Twenty awfully good writers

August 18, 2009

Alright, I will try.  Last week I posted a list I found of the “100 Greatest Writers of All Time”, and then proceeded to criticize this and that aspect of it.  That was fun, and then a few other people criticized it too, and that was even more fun.  And then somebody said I should draw up my own list, purged of the errors that marred the other, and then somebody else said the same thing.  I am really not equal to the challenge — the perils of presumption lie everywhere underfoot — but I can try.

This list names twenty writers whom I judge, based on my own reading, to be the best.  They are not necessarily my favourite writers, but they are the ones whose achievements I consider to be truly and surpassingly praiseworthy.  They are all great; this list should be considerably less tendentious than that other.  I am attentive to specifically literary achievement here — language, craft, character, imagination, originality — not influence or “importance” or, needless to say, sales.

I can have no sound opinions about writers, be they ever so great, if I have not read anything they wrote, or if I have read but little.  This is true of more great writers than I would like to admit; a partial list includes Goethe, Joyce (the major works have been sitting there on the shelf for years), Proust, Whitman, Dickinson, Euripides (!), and others.  In consequence, I couldn’t put them on the list.  Also, like many people these days I have a blind spot with poets, especially Shelley, Keats, Byron, and their ilk.  I am told that they are great, and I believe it, but I don’t see it myself.

This list is ranked, sort of.  I have grouped the writers into tiers, but I won’t say where the divisions between tiers lie.  Maybe it will be fairly clear.  I also have not added commentary, because I simply haven’t time.


1. William Shakespeare
2. Dante Alighieri
3. Jane Austen
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
5. Charles Dickens
6. Miguel Cervantes
7. Geoffrey Chaucer
8. Virgil
9. Thomas Mann
10. François Rabelais
11. T.S. Eliot
12. John Milton
13. Herman Melville
14. Leo Tolstoy
15. Gerard Manley Hopkins
16. William Blake
17. Bob Dylan
18. Jorge Luis Borges
19. Vladimir Nabokov
20. William Wordsworth

What did I get wrong?

13 Responses to “Twenty awfully good writers”

  1. infloox Says:

    I came across that same list as well and mentioned it in my blog. Everyone who replied or viewed that list said they’d read far more than the measly average of 6 that the BBC was claiming! It’s hard to say who the best writers are because everyone has different standards. I mean even mediocre writers can enjoy a massive amount of booksales with the right push from publishers. Have a look at my blog ( I’ve been posting a lot lately about some of the classics 🙂

    • Christina A. Says:

      Infloox – going to be taking a closer look at your interesting looking blog – thank you for the cross-reference!

  2. Christina A. Says:

    Very difficult exercise! Good on you for attempting this! I don’t think an “all time list” is possible! Does one base it on the all time most iconic, all time best English/Russian/German/Greek authors, authors who changed the world????

    Here would be my list, thrown together quite quickly – so I mostly agree with your list, Craig (except not sure about your Bob Dylan reference!). I am also limited to those whose works I’ve read, which I will admit is not a comprehensive overview.

    1. Shakespeare – can anyone really compare to the literary stylings, the effect on the English language and the range and depth of human themes he covered?

    2. Dante – hard to put the schoolboy ahead of his master, Virgil, but his work has shaped the Western imagination for centuries.

    3. Virgil – simply foundational and timeless.

    4. Homer – also simply foundational and timeless.

    5. Chaucer – Canterbury tales seem so rare in the surviving world of medieaval literature and so damn hilarious in parts. (if Fr. Albert Trudel is reading this post, I’m sorry that this doesn’t read “Beowulf”.)

    6. Goethe – Who doesn’t find Mephistophocles tempting??

    7. Milton – Also shaped the Western imagination for centuries.

    8. Dostoyevski – Plumbs almost as deeply into the human condition as Shakespeare.

    9. Kafka – I see Kafka and Camus as early authors describing the modern person. I also love absurdity in literature and the Trial has plenty.

    10. Camus

    11. Augustine of Hippo – Confessions is one of the first “autobiographies” in Western literature and I just love all the sordid details!

    12. Charles Dickens – This is so that the Brits don’t kill me. I’ve actually never liked Dickens.

    13. Proust – This is so that the French don’t kill me.

    14. Tolstoy – Such beautiful and lasting prose.

    15. Joyce – We need at least one Irishman.

    16. Cervantes – and why not a Spainiard for diversity?

    17. Herman Melville – Moby Dick says it all.

  3. Giovanni Says:

    Seems like a well-balanced list, accounting for the omissions you mention…not sure about Dylan and Nabokov…

    Interesting how you rank Dostoyevsky ahead of Tolstoy…for me it would have been Tolstoy at #4 and Dostoyevsky at #7 or 8…


  4. Nick Milne Says:

    Thomas Mann in the top ten? Really? I’m open to the case being made in greater detail, but as it is I’m baffled by it.

    Also, read some Dickinson immediately. Do it now! “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” is a nice one with which to start, but don’t trust the line breaks as given on the linked site. Dickinson’s page construction was often highly unusual and people transcribing her poems have been known to just give up on it and strive for tidiness rather than accuracy.

  5. Jim Says:

    Christina and I were talking last night and I realized that I’m not sure I could put together a top 20 list myself (though I get to a top 16 below). I think something needs to be said about your selection of poets — even admitting that I share the modern weakness in this vein. Virgil, Dante, and Milton I won’t argue with, but Homer, Hesiod, Keats, Donne, and Goethe must all be able to make some claim to come in ahead of Eliot, Hopkins (?), and Dylan (???). So my list, understood as literature and adjusting for the gaps in my reading, would go something like:

    1. Shakespeare
    2. Hesiod
    3. Tolstoy
    4. Homer
    5. Plato
    6. Keats
    7. Marlow
    8. Wordsworth
    9. Dickens
    10. Donne
    11. Camus
    12. Hemingway
    13. George Eliot
    14. Faulkner
    15. Augustine
    16. Chaucer

  6. cburrell Says:

    Lots of interesting comments here; I’m sorry that I haven’t had much opportunity to reply.

    Christina and Jim: Thanks for taking the trouble to compile your own lists. I can see that we are in substantial agreement. I did not include Augustine because, while his Confessions are very beautiful, I have not been particularly impressed by the specifically literary quality of his other writings with which I am familiar. On the other hand, if Cervantes can make the list on the strength of one glorious book, why can’t Augustine? So that’s fine. More perplexing is that both of you ranked Camus. This I simply do not understand.

    Jim, I know that poets are a weak spot with me. Donne I admire, but I don’t think him the equal of Blake or Eliot. Hopkins is simply an amazing poet, and I think he ought to be better appreciated than he usually is. I’ve never read Hesiod, so I cannot comment on that, but it is interesting that you think that highly of him. (Or are you using ‘Hesiod’ as a code word for ‘Dante’, who has otherwise mysteriously vanished from your list?) Marlow is also unexpected.

    It’s nice to see that you both left room at the bottom of your lists for Mr. Bob Dylan.

  7. cburrell Says:

    Nick, that link to Emily Dickinson leads to a “Reported Attack Site!”. At least, so says my browser. Here is a safer one. I admire Dickinson, but I simply don’t know her poems well enough to have a well-formed judgement.

    As for Thomas Mann, I actually do think him the great novelist of the twentieth century. I know that’s not a common opinion (and keep in mind that I profess ignorance of Joyce’s greatest achievements, as well as all of Faulker, Hemingway, and some other writers who might compete for the title). With Buddenbrooks he showed that he had mastered the nineteenth-century novel; he could out-James Henry James. His two great masterpieces, The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus, are thoughtful and profound meditations on European culture in the periods (respectively) before the Great War and between the two wars. The Holy Sinner is a marvelous fable that engages with the medieval literary inheritance, and his monumental Joseph and his Brothers is a superb re-telling of one of the great Biblical stories. His short stories are nothing to sneeze at either. And he wrote all of this with a knowing wit, keen intelligence, and the most beautiful, musical prose one is ever likely to encounter (inferred, admittedly, from the consistent impression I gain from his translators). He’s just plain great.

  8. I could quibble and my own list wouldn’t be identical, but I don’t have any major arguments with this one. Except: Dylan? I love the guy, but…nah, he doesn’t belong in there.

  9. cburrell Says:

    Dylan was the whimsical dark horse, suggested by my (Dylan-despising) wife. It now occurs to me that this might have been an act of calculated sabotage.

  10. Hmm. I would definitely look into that if I were you. In my experience it’s common for wives not to take their husbands as seriously as they should. In fact, when I pointed this out to my wife, she laughed out loud.

  11. Fr. Albert Trudel Says:

    Lose Bob Dylan. Replace with Dylan Thomas. Insert “Author of Beowulf” somewhere on list. Place Bill Shakespeare lower on list; advance Dante to number one. Lose Nabokov. Replace with Chretien de Troyes.

    Otherwise, nice list.

  12. cburrell Says:

    What? Are you a medievalist or something? 8)

    It is wonderful to hear from you, Father. I hope that all is well with you! We haven’t had much news of you recently, and we’ve missed it.

    All is quite well here. My lovely wife has discovered (yesterday) that she’s accepted to Toronto for the second stage of residency, which is quite a relief to us. She’s back at work now so I am playing Mr. Mom for a few months. Baby Burrell is growing strong, and is a joy from sunrise (actually, from before sunrise) to sundown.

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