Who are the best writers the world has ever known? Perhaps that’s not the real question: we should instead be asking, ‘how can we judge’? With that in mind one can begin to talk about criteria. One can think about which writers had the most influence on the world as a result of what they wrote, or how their writings changed the world.
We don’t necessarily have to talk about their writing style or how good their prose is, as that is, in any case, far too subjective: their greatness could simply be about their ideas – ideas that grab the attention of the world and change the world’s perceptions forever. In that case the writing would only be a vehicle for the transmission of the idea they wish to convey. That idea or theory or research is the reason for writing the book.
And then, particularly if we are including Shakespeare as one of the influential writers, we need to look at what kind of writing we are talking about. Shakespeare falls into the fiction writer category and so, perhaps, to find our best writers we should look at other fiction writers whose work had something like the influence of William Shakespeare’s. It should therefore be clear that our list of the thirty greatest writers are all fiction writers. Our criterion will be that they should be poets, dramatists and prose fiction writers who have had a significant influence on the writers who came after them or on the direction of society.
Fiction writers do not write to transmit an idea or report on research they have done. They use language to make us think that their inventions are real, that the places they create actually exist and that their characters are real people, like us, who love and hate and suffer and strive. They invite us to enter into the world of their text and although they usually write only to entertain, there is a sense in that they point to truths just as real as those reached by Darwin and Einstein. If they do that at the highest level, in creating a world that we both recognise and can be inspired by, they reveal themselves as great writers and influence the world in that way. Like Shakespeare..
So who are these writers who can be placed in the same category as Shakespeare for doing that? Shakespeare is, of course, foremost among the great writers. Apart from writing plays that can be held up like mirrors in which we can see ourselves as human beings clearly, and come to an understanding of many of the things that make us human, Shakespeare’s poetry has had a profound effect on the English language: the way we use it today has been shaped by his words and phrases. It can be difficult at times to utter a sentence in English without using a construction first used by Shakespeare. And whenever we need to find a phrase that will sum something we want to say up perfectly and beautifully, we will find a phrase somewhere in Shakespeare’s works.
But who, apart from Shakespeare, are the greatest writers of all time? Without further ado, here is a list of thirty of the greatest writers of all time offered by NoSweatShakespeare. It would be impossible to rank them so they are listed in order of their birth dates:
Scholars have debated whether Homer was one single author rather than a collection of oral stories but it is now thought that such an author existed. His defining works are The Iliad and The Odyssey. The adventures described in these two epic poems have shaped our thinking about the ancient Greeks – their religious and social structures – and have profoundly influenced subsequent writers, who have used his characters in multiple ways… Read more about Homer >>
Sophocles, an ancient Greek dramatist, wrote plays that have stood as a model for tragic dramas, both by Greek and Roman writers and into the modern age, hugely influencing the playwrights of the golden age of Elizabethan drama in England, as well as modern dramatists. He dramatically changed the tragic form by adding a third actor, thereby eroding the role of the chorus in the presentation of the plot… Read more about Sophocles >>
Virgil was a prolific Roman poet, best remembered for his epic, Aeneid. He Was to Rome what Homer was to Greece. The national epic of ancient Rome, Aeneid follows the fortunes of the Trojan refugee, Aeneas. It is the mythical story of the founding of Rome, a story that has given us our idea of that event and the history of Rome before the modern period. It has been, and is still, used by writers as the basis of Western history and values… Read more about Virgil >>
The identity of Mark is unknown but his great book, The Gospel of St Mark, was written in about the year 70 and has had the greatest impact on the world of any book ever written. It has been translated into more languages than any other book in history, as a book of the Bible… Read more about Mark the Evangelist >>
Dante was an Italian poet. His most famous and acclaimed poem is the long narrative, The Divine Comedy, the story of the narrator’s journey through hell and purgatory to paradise. It impacts on modern life in that its picture of what hell is like, with its ice and sulphurous fire, where sinners are tortured in the most horrific way, is the image Western culture has of hell… Read more about Dante >>
Geoffrey Chaucer stands as the great giant of English poetry. His verse is still read and enjoyed today and often adapted for theatre performances. It is full of characters, still recognisable as types we encounter in daily life in spite of having been inspired by people Chaucer observed more than seven hundred years ago… Read more on Geoffrey Chaucer >>
Francois Rabelais was a French monk and physician who wrote several volumes of a huge novel, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, a story about a giant and his son. Satirical, amusing and over-the- top, it has influenced the style of writers like James Joyce, Lawrence Sterne and almost any writer who has attempted novels or plays containing the adventures of comical characters, including Shakespeare… Read more on Francois Rabelais >>
Miguel Cervantes, a contemporary of Shakespeare, actually dying the day before the Bard, is without doubt the most important writer in the history of the modern novel and, indeed, one of the most important in the history of literature. His novel, Don Quixote, was written at the beginning of the form’s development but has not been surpassed… Read more on Cervantes >>
John Donne must be one of the most interesting writers who ever lived, both as a poet and a man. His life was a colourful adventure and his poems are significant feats of language. A Jacobean writer, more or less a contemporary of Shakespeare, Fletcher and Webster, but very distant from those theatre writers, both regarding his social class and his literary work… Read more on John Donne >>
English is often referred to as ‘the language of Shakespeare and Milton.’ Milton’s poetry has been seen as the most perfect poetic expression in the English language for four centuries. His most famous poem, the epic Paradise Lost is a high point of English epic poetry. Its story has entered into English and European culture to such an extent that the details of our ideas… Read more about John Milton >>
John Bunyan was a Baptist preacher and writer. The book that has made him a candidate for the category of one of the most influential writers is The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory that has conditioned the way Christians think about their religious life. It is a novel – the most read novel of all time and the second most read book, the Bible being the most read. It has been translated into more languages than any other book, apart from the bible… Read more about John Bunyan >>
François-Marie Arouet (nicknamed ‘Voltaire,’) was a French philosopher, poet, pamphleteer and fiction writer. Candide, a novel, is the work that has lasted best, still thriving in the modern world. It is widely taught in French schools and universities and French departments in universities worldwide… Read more about Voltaire >>
Although not highly regarded either as a painter or poet by his contemporaries William Blake has the distinction of finding his place in the top ten of both English writers and English painters. The reason he was disregarded is because he was very much ahead of his time in his views and his poetic style, and also because he was regarded as being somewhat mad, due to behaviour that would be thought of as only slightly eccentric today… Read more about William Blake >>
The Jane Austen Centre’s website states: ‘Jane Austen is perhaps the best known and best loved of Bath’s many famous residents and visitors.’ One wonders at the restraint in that, considering that Jane Austen is indisputably one of the greatest English writers – some say the greatest after Shakespeare – and certainly the greatest English novelist and one of the most famous English women who ever lived… Read more on Jane Austen >>
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish playwright, travel writer, poet, novelist and story writer. His fairy tales place him as one of the world’s greatest writers ever. Written basically for children they transcend age barriers because of their universal nature: they reach the deepest levels of the human condition, each story demonstrating something profound about what it means to be a human being… Read more on Hans Christian Anderson >>
Charles Dickens was an extraordinary man. He is best known as a novelist but he was very much more than that. He was as prominent in his other pursuits but they were not areas of life where we can still see him today. We see him as the author of such classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House and many others. All of his novels are English classics… Read more on Charles Dickens >>
Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title… Read more on Herman Melville >>
Gustave Flaubert was a French novelist, most notable for being the leading exponent of literary realism in French literature. He is known particularly for Madam Bovary (1857). Flaubert’s influence on subsequent novels is vast. The critic, James Wood, commented that ‘there really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him.’ In his exposition of what is now known as literary realism Flaubert innovated in the areas of brilliant detail, visual effect, unsentimental composure, and the absence of the superfluous commentary that typified fictional prose before Flaubert… Read more on Gustave Flaubert >>
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky was a Russian novelist, journalist, short story writer, philosopher and essayist. His literary works explore psychology in the political, social, and spiritual turmoil of 19th-century Russia. His writings reveal a wide range of philosophical and religious themes. Dostoyevsky is best known for the novels, The Brothers Karamasov, The Idiot, and above all, Crime and Punishment… Read more on Dostoyevski >>
Jules Verne was a French poet, playwright and novelist but he earns his place on this list of great writers because of his futuristic adventure novels. He has been called the father of science fiction and has had an incalculable influence on the development of science fiction writing. More interesting, perhaps, is his place as a prophet or predictor of technology which wasn’t to be invented until long after his death… Read more on Jules Verne >>
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was a Russian novelist. There is a large degree of consensus that his two great novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina stand on the summit of realist fiction. He has been mentioned again and again as the greatest novelist who ever wrote, and so he wins a place in this list of great writers. He is one of the two giants of Russian literature. The other giant, Dostoyevsky, spoke of him as the greatest of all living novelists… Read more on Tolstoy >>
Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written… Read more on Emily Dickinson >>
Lewis Carroll was an English academic, mathematician and Anglican deacon. He is best known for two books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. He is noted for his brilliant word play, nonsensical logic and fantasy. He invented the genre of literary nonsense.. Read more about Lewis Carroll >>
James Joyce was an Irish novelist, best known for his novel, Ulysses, and his later novel, Finnegan’s Wake. He is regarded as one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century. Ulysses is a seminal work in which Homer’s Odyssey is paralleled in a range of episodes and literary styles. Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, is regarded as one of the best collection of stories of the century… Read more about James Joyce >>
Franz Kafka was a Czech novelist and short story writer who wrote in the German language. He is universally regarded as one of the major figures of 20th century literature. His protagonists are isolated figures faced with surrealistic or bizarre predicaments and incomprehensible bureaucracies. The work explores themes of alienation, guilt and anxiety… Read more about Franz Kafka >>
Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit… Read more about T. S. Eliot >>
Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America… Read more about F. Scott Fitzgerald >>
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine writer of poems, translations, essays, literary criticism and, what he is best known for, short fiction. It would be impossible even for the greatest fans of this Argentine writer to describe or explain his writing. The most one can say is that his work has inspired countless writers, none of whom have come close to capturing the magic of his work… Read more about Jorge Luis Borges >>
George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair, a twentieth century writer, equally at home with journalism, essays, novels, literary criticism and social commentary. He was famous in all those areas, but will be particularly remembered for two of his novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, both among the most significant works of literature of the twentieth century and two of the most influential… Read more about George Orwell >>
Gabriel García Márquez was a Colombian novelist, screenwriter and journalist, affectionately referred to by the nickname Gabo or Gabito by the writers and readers of South America, the continent to which he gave a distinctive voice. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, and it is generally considered that the novel that clinched it was One Hundred Years of Solitude… Read more about Gabriel Garcia Marquez >>
Like our list of the thirty greatest writers of all time? Any we’re missing? Check out our list of best ever English writers.