Curating a list of 20 of the world’s best fiction writers is no easy task.
Which of the many thousands of great and famous writers had the most influence on the world as a result of what they wrote?
How have their writings changed the world?
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. Our list of the greatest writers are all fiction writers – poets, novelists, and dramatists. They are all writers who had a significant influence on the writers who came after them.
So who are the greatest writers of all time? Here is our pick of the top 20. It would be an impossible task to rank them, so they are listed in order of their date of birth:
Homer, about 850 BCE
Homer was an unknown poet the ancient Greeks named ‘Homer.’ Scholars have raised the question of whether there was ever a single author rather than a collection of oral stories. His main 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. Those epics have had a profound influence on subsequent writers,
Sophocles, 496-406 BCE
Sophocles was, an ancient Greek dramatist. He wrote plays that have stood as a model for tragic plays throughout time, up to the present. He dramatically changed the tragic form by adding a third actor, thereby eroding the role of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He was the first playwright to present the fully realized psychological characters, thus providing a model for playwrights who came after him.
Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro), 70 BCE – 19 BCE
Virgil was a Roman poet, best known for his epic, Aeneid. It is the mythical tale of the founding of Rome, a story that has given us our idea of that event and the history of Rome.
The Evangelist, Mark (identity unknown)
The identity of Mark is unknown. The Gospel of St Mark was written in about the years 70 – 75 and has had the greatest influence on the world of any book. It is the first written story of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus has been taken as a historical person and worshiped by increasing numbers, and still worshiped as the God, creator of the universe, by Christians around the world.
Dante (Durante degli Alighieri), 1265-1321
Dante was an Italian poet. The Divine Comedy is the story of the narrator’s journey through hell, purgatory, to paradise. It creates a picture of what hell is like, with ice and sulphurous fire, where sinners are tortured in the most horrific way.
Geoffrey Chaucer, 1343- 1400
Chaucer was a poet, civil servant and diplomat who wrote one of the most influential poems ever, The Canterbury Tales. It’s a rounded, often amusing picture of a group of pilgrims, who range from a knight, a monk, a merchant, a carpenter, a miller and many others, each telling a story.
Francois Rabelais, 1498-1553
Francois Rabelais was a French monk and doctor who wrote a huge novel, The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, in several volumes, a story about a giant and his son. Satirical, amusing, it has influenced the style of writers like James Joyce,Lawrence Sterne and Shakespeare.
Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Cortinas), 1547-1616
Cervantes, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was a Spaniard. He is the most important writer in the history of the modern novel. His novel, Don Quixote, has not been surpassed in its influence by later novels, and is a model for postmodern fiction writers.
William Shakespeare, 1564 – 1616
Shakespeare is the foremost among the best fiction writers. His plays can be held up like mirrors in which we see ourselves as human beings clearly, and come to an understanding of many of the things that make us human. His poetry has had a profound effect on the English language: the way we use English today has been fashioned by his words and phrases and his poetic lines. It is almost impossible to say anything in English without using some construction from the poetry of one of Shakespeare’s plays.
John Donne, 1572-1631
John Donne was a Jacobean poet and clergyman (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral). He wrote poetry using images of state-of-the-art technology, science, the new geography, and astronomy. Donne stands out as a metaphysical poet in that he uses such metaphors and strong arguments to express the most profound and moving emotions.
John Milton, 1608- 1674
Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, is a fiction whose subject is the Creation, the Fall, and the cosmic politics between God and his great enemy, Satan. Several modern novelists, like Philip Pullman, have been inspired by Paradise Lost.
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), 1694-1778
French philosopher, poet, pamphleteer, and fiction writer. His novel, Candide, is widely taught in French schools. The British literary critic, Martin Seymour-Smith, named it as one of the hundred most influential books ever written.
Jane Austen, 1775-1817
Jane Austen is one of the most widely read novelists of all time and taught in schools throughout the world. . She is regarded as one of the top English comic writers, right alongside Shakespeare and Dickens. Heroines like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse are as familiar in Western culture as the characters of Shakespeare and Dickens. Mrs Bennett and Mr Collins are among the finest comic characters in all of English literature.
Hans Christian Andersen, 1805-1875
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish playwright, travel writer, poet, novelist and story writer. His fairy tales, written basically for children, transcend age barriers because of the universal nature of the stories. Each story demonstrates something profound about what it means to be a human being. The Emperor’s New Clothes, is perhaps the best short story ever written because of the way he uses the form to sum up a universal truth in a few words.
Charles Dickens, 1812-1870
Charles Dickens is the top English comic writer. There are few other writers with such a large body of acclaimed fiction works. His novels’ titles are household words: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, etc. His characters are equally instantly recognisable.
Dickens was a campaigning writer, using themes of poverty, prison horror, legal corruption, child labour, to criticise those aspects of Victorian England.
Leo Tolstoy (Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy), 1828-1910
Tolstoy’s two great novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina are among the greatest novels of the 19th century.
Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
Emily Dickinson is regarded as the most potent voice of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1896-1940
F Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist. Apart from writing some of the most beautiful prose in all American literature, Fitgerald wrote what is sometimes called ‘the great American novel’ The Great Gatsby. It is a short novel depicting a self-made millionaire’s quest to follow a dream of love and a criticism of the ‘American dream.’
Jorge Luis Borges, 1899-1986
This Argentine writer wrote short fictions which have inspired countless writers, none of whom have come close to capturing the magic of his work. His fictions have been called ‘postmodern,’ because they depart from the conventions of modern short fiction forms.
George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), 1903-1950
George Orwell’s prose is clear, sharp and sparkling. He is best known for his two political novels. Animal Farm and Nineteen eighty-four. In the latter novel Orwell invented a new language to express the features of the world he creates, and words and phrases have become everyday terms to describe those features in the world we live in today It’s known as ‘newspeak.’
And that’s our pick for the 20 best fiction writers of all time. We appreciate it’s a list that almost no one will agree with, but would love to hear your thoughts on who else should be included – or perhaps who shouldn’t be on the list! Let us know in the comments section below.