The Top 100 Writers – Finding the Best Writers in History

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on This Blog Intentionally Blank in 2012, and after well over 100,000 views, it has been updated and posted here.

It should already be evident to all of you that finding the absolute best of anything as subjective as writing is impossible. However, in an idealistic world, it is possible to glean a consensus of who is respected as a writer, and who is not. In reality, people are biased; they are racist, sexist, elitist, or just plain stupid, and so any list of the best is skewed in the favor of whoever makes the list.  (See Ranker’s list of the best writers, which omits literary greats like James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Langston Hughes and Sonia Sanchez, but lists Leonardo da Vinci, for chrissakes.) Still, curiosity got the better of me, so 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.

The How

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. I didn’t do any of the rankings; those came from the surveys. However, I did select the weightings (below) which were 60% from critics surveys, 30% from readers, and an additional 10% to acknowledge writers’ longevity via the number of years since their birth. I think we have to acknowledge that a writer listed at number 50 should be given a boost over an equally ranked writer whose work is 100 years newer.

In all, I ended up with 365 names, of which I will reveal the top 100.

The What

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.

George Bernard Shaw – #199

The Summary

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 230 years ago. That’s 1789, for you non-math whizzes.
  • Popular surveys are referendums on social politics. They are biased against female and minority authors, and exclude Asian writers altogether. I’ll be trying to fix that with surveys in the future.
  • 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 novelists made the top 350 only due to sales and popular votes. 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, tie).
  • The top African American writer was Ralph Ellison (#29). These rankings were lowered by the fact that readers on Ranker couldn’t find a single African American writer worth mentioning. Not one. Hmmm.
  • The top poet not named Shakespeare was William Butler Yeats (#21).
  • Best critical survey quote: “The Adventures of Augie March makes The Catcher in the Rye look like a fucking children’s book.” Yep.

Robert Hayden #358

Some Notables Who Didn’t Make the Cut

Just a few, for kicks.

  • Sylvia Plath – #102
  • Salman Rushdie – #105
  • A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh) – #155
  • Dr. Seuss – #144 (He did jump over 30 spots since 2012, however)
  • John Grisham – #206
  • Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, TV) – #297
  • Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) – #314
  • Tom Clancy – #320
  • James Michener – #352

Part 2: The List

Carson McCullers – now down to #103, but still the coolest female writer name

Before I list the Top 100 writers, I thought it might be interesting to share a few other top writer lists from my survey.

Top 10 Writers According to Critics

  1. James Joyce
  2. William Faulkner
  3. Henry James
  4. Virginia Woolf
  5. Vladimir Nabokov
  6. D.H. Lawrence
  7. William Shakespeare*
  8. William Butler Yeats
  9. George Orwell (tie)
  10. Ernest Hemingway (tie)

A little surprised? Again, this is influenced by the existence of novels. Had Shakespeare’s plays been critiqued as if they were novels, he would have been 1st among critics. (Even a ranking of 50th would have been enough to put him in first. So, we’ll consider him 7th, but the top playwright in history.

Top 10 Writers According to Readers

  1. J.R.R Tolkien
  2. Stephen King
  3. William Shakespeare
  4. Leo Tolstoy
  5. George Orwell
  6. Charles Dickens
  7. James Joyce
  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. John Steinbeck
  10. Agatha Christie

Quite the different list, no? Two things stick out immediately. Sales were not as big a factor as one might expect. The 3rd through 7th highest in sales did not make the readers’ Top 35. Readers and critics like Shakespeare in equal measure. William Faulkner fell in popularity since 2012, perhaps due to his subject matter. J..K. Rowling fell out of the Top 10, which isn’t surprising, since her books aren’t as new as they were in 2012.

Top 10 Poets

Big Bill- nah, doesn’t work.

The Top 4 poets are all named William. I’m wondering if anyone ever called Yeats Billy … maybe Bill Blake.

  1. William Shakespeare
  2. William Butler Yeats
  3. William Wordsworth
  4. William Blake
  5. Walt Whitman
  6. Edgar Allen Poe
  7. John Milton
  8. Rudyard Kipling (with a big assist from “Kim”)
  9. Emily Dickinson
  10. John Donne

Top 10 Women

  1. Virginia Woolf (#4)
  2. Jane Austen (#28)
  3. Toni Morrison (#34)
  4. Emily Dickinson (#37)
  5. Willa Cather (#39)
  6. Edith Wharton (#46)
  7. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) (#43)
  8. Edith Wharton (#51)
  9. Emily Bronte (#58)
  10. Charlotte Bronte (#63)

It’s a bit obvious from the numbers that there were relatively few women in the top 100. Not surprising, given the historical (lack of) opportunities for women. I daresay in 100 years, this type of list will look quite different (assuming there are still readers in 100 years).

Note to critics: Emily and Charlotte were two different women, with separate writing careers. It’s a bit insulting to lump them together. They each earned their spot in history.

Charlotte “Jane Eyre” (l) and Emily “Wuthering Heights” (r) – number of movie adaptations of their novels – 37. Number of Bronte sisters publishing novels in 1847 – 3. Number of sisters dead by age 40 – all 5.

Top 100 Writers of All Time

Without further ado, here is the list of the Top 100 Writers of All Time. (Dun dun dun!)

That’s right, the winner is still James Joyce. As a writer, I am embarrassed to admit I never read Joyce. I probably never will, in all honesty. However, I did read each of the other Top 10 writers, and I even read Cervantes’ Don Quixote in Spanish in high school. I get extra points for that, no?

Joyce

Faulkner

Shakspeare

  1. James Joyce
  2. William Faulkner
  3. William Shakespeare
  4. Virginia Woolf (tie)
  5. Vladimir Nabokov (tie)
  6. George Orwell
  7. Henry James
  8. John Steinbeck
  9. Ernest Hemingway
  10. F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. D.H. Lawrence
  12. Leo Tolstoy
  13. Joseph Conrad
  14. Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  15. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  16. Charles Dickens
  17. Herman Melville
  18. Marcel Proust
  19. Franz Kafka
  20. Edgar Allan Poe
  21. William Butler Yeats
  22. William Wordsworth
  23. William Blake
  24. Homer (not Simpson)
  25. Walt Whitman
  26. Dante Aligheri
  27. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
  28. Jane Austen
  29. Ralph Ellison
  30. Rudyard Kipling
  31. Kurt Vonnegut
  32. Aldous Huxley
  33. John Milton
  34. Toni Morrison
  35. John Keats
  36. Joseph Heller
  37. Emily Dickinson
  38. E.M. Forster
  39. Willa Cather
  40. J.R.R Tolkien
  41. .D. Salinger
  42. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  43. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
  44. Gustave Flaubert
  45. Samuel Beckett
  46. Stendhal
  47. Anton Chekhov
  48. Geoffrey Chaucer
  49. Theodore Dreiser
  50. Jack Kerouac
  51. Edith Wharton
  52. Evelyn Waugh
  53. John Donne
  54. Laurence Sterne
  55. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  56. William Golding
  57. Murasaki Shikibu
  58. Emily Bronte
  59. Percy Bysshe Shelley
  60. Virgil
  61. Thomas Mann
  62. Malcolm Lowry
  63. Charlotte Bronte
  64. Jack London
  65. Richard Wright
  66. Charles Baudelaire
  67. Euripides
  68. Harper Lee
  69. Sophocles
  70. Pablo Neruda
  71. James Baldwin
  72. Henry Miller
  73. Ovid
  74. Robert Musil
  75. Thomas Hardy
  76. Thomas Pynchon
  77. Robert Frost
  78. Albert Camus
  79. William Carlos Williams
  80. Honoré de Balzac
  81. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  82. Saul Bellow
  83. Flannery O’Connor
  84. Roald Dahl
  85. T.S. Eliot
  86. Ayn Rand
  87. Nathaniel Hawthorne
  88. Gertrude Stein
  89. Stephen King
  90. Alexander Pushkin
  91. Langston Hughes
  92. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  93. Oscar Wilde
  94. Henry Fielding
  95. Robert Browning
  96. Alfred Lord Tennyson
  97. Maya Angelou
  98. Anthony Burgess
  99. Rabindranath Tagore
  100. Ford Madox Ford
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