Twentieth century literature was fabulous. It was more than fabulous. It was near perfection. So to choose which 20th century authors stand out as the best of their breed is an almost impossible task. It’s like handing off the golden apple. In a pool of such talent, how could one possibly begin to rank? Well, it’s worth a try. Here goes:
1. James Joyce
James Joyce was a herald of modern literature and a leading proponent for stream of consciousness writing, a stylistic marker of the 20th century. Perhaps better than any author before or after him, Joyce knew exactly how to make profoundly beautiful the minutia of daily life and he turned that beauty into something timeless and universal. While his literary reputation as an overly esoteric, intellectual powerhouse may hold, what Joyce really offers us are deep, cosmic, and – yep, I’ll say it – simple truths about who we are and always will be. It just happens that he wraps those truths in complex, richly layered literary packages. Don’t listen to your friend who dropped out on Ulysses. Open the package. It’s worth the effort for what you’ll find inside.
2. David Foster Wallace
Arguably America’s best contribution to literature, period, David Foster Wallace stands as a titan of the modern age and a literary Charon guiding writers into the next realm – the 21st century. His work embodies the spirit of life in the late 20th century and beyond. It is manic and excessive, restless and ironic. And yet, surprisingly warm, richly self-aware, and controlled. So very controlled. Wallace’s work shows us just how far mankind has to go if we are to reclaim order in our lives. The answer he gives us: very, very far. And yet not far at all.
3. Vladimir Nabokov
Combining his Russian predecessors’ fascination with depravity, surrealist humor, and stylistic gravitas, Vladimir Nabokov managed to catapult the weight and excellence of 19th century literature into a new age, one filled with strangeness and moral ambiguity. He was prolific, like Tolstoy, and also like Tolstoy he wrote with color, painting exquisite pictures with language. Nabokov was first and foremost a student of language and it shows in his work where words dance and fight with each other all across the page. To this day, the wordplay of Nabokov stands alone as a work of art.
4. Marcel Proust
The weight of a moment – this was part of Marcel Proust’s gift to literature. And while Proust is most known for his complex, endlessly long sentences, the premise behind his work is actually quite simple. Like Joyce, he used winding stream of consciousness prose to get at the truest, barebones nature of existence. To really understand and appreciate Proust for the wise soul that he was, you’ve got to invest in the long haul. His epic, seven volume novel In Search of Lost Time may not be for the faint of heart, but it is most certainly for those eager to peel back the curtain of life and peek inside.
5. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (tie)
Surely it’s a capital offense to rank Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the same slot on a top twenty countdown of literary heft. “But they’re so different!” “But they offer such independent richness!” “But Hemingway/Fitzgerald is so infinitely better!” I know, I hear you. Still, these equally talented – yes, that’s right –titans of American literature are so indecipherably close in importance it would be unfair to separate them. Hemingway – known most for his short, sweet and to the point stylistic tendencies – and Fitzgerald – with his succinct but symbolically ripe text – both captured a specific period of life with painfully realistic lenses. They were witnesses to the fabrication and dissolution of the American dream. And they captured its delusion vividly with unforgiving and honest prose. They’re very different writers for sure, but of undeniably similar import.
6. Toni Morrison
While the rest of the 20th century explored the nature of realism, Toni Morrison attacked truth with something else: the supernatural. Yes, her characters were real. And their struggles and thoughts real, too. But there is more to reality and realistic writing than just that. There’s fantasy. There are spirits. There’s the stuff that doesn’t make sense and yet does. Toni Morrison seamlessly wove together the unflinching gaze of modern thinking with the faithful heart of ancient mysticism. The fact that the two fit so perfectly together brought into question the ultimate validity of cold modern thinking and made Morrison’s work eternal.
7. Virginia Woolf
Like the other Modernists on this list, Virginia Woolf plumbed the depths of the human thought process in search for honesty and meaning. And she found it. But what made her work truly remarkable was its exploration of a hitherto wildly underexplored subject: women. Woolf’s female leads are simultaneously uninhibited (in their streaming thoughts) and imprisoned (beneath oppressive social constructs). It is through her writing that Woolf frees them and the 20th century woman, too.
8. Franz Kafka
In many ways the 20th century Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka was a German-speaking Jew whose fascination with alienation, oppression, and abuse seem to evoke his role as a member of the Post-WWI, Pre-WWII Jewish community. But Kafka’s work draws from more than that. His style and themes line up nicely with the European school of Existentialism – the philosophical school that questioned the meaninglessness of human life in the midst of a warn-torn century. Kafka’s stories haunt their reader with a special blend of realism and surrealism, warm humor and horror, that can only be deemed Kafkaesque. Kafka died too young to be prolific, but his work has proven nonetheless timeless.
9. Pablo Neruda
The first author on this list to be known primarily as a poet, Pablo Neruda is one of the most beloved and translated artists of the 20th century. His themes are vast. He is at once a political activist, a sensual lover, and an ancient philosopher contemplating the nature of life, death, and eternity. What discerns Neruda from the other poets is not only the breadth of his work but its wild authenticity. Like every great poet, Neruda brings us along as he roots through human truths. It’s impossible to not enjoy the ride.
10. Roald Dahl
Few children’s authors are as beloved as Roald Dahl, and there’s no surprise as to why. Dahl’s stories use whimsy and heart to touch upon timeless, rather adult themes like cruelty, injustice, and suppression. He wasn’t afraid to introduce children gently to the unpleasantries of life. In trusting children to bravely face life’s dark parts, he helped them not only to grow up well and good, but to embrace the challenges and tragedies that would come with a spirit of imagination and hope.
11. T.S. Eliot
Whenever I read “The Waste Land” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, I cannot help but metaphysically gasp. How did one man manage to recreate so hauntingly the emptiness of modernity? His poems provoke quiet terror and a feeling of despair so complete you have to take a shower to wash it off. What makes Eliot so compelling is the undeniable tolling bell of truth that rings in each of his works – and the unhurried, dogged way he rings that bell. Mankind is lost, empty, and isolated. How will we ever get home?
12. Sigmund Freud
I know, I know: most of his theories are a degree of bonkers only relegated to the severely strange. And we’re no longer even certain of the efficacy of his methods. But there’s a reason his works are still held in the literature – note: not science – sections of countless university libraries. Freud could write. And write he did: volumes upon volumes, analyzing his patients with an eye so adept to symbolism it makes one wonder whether or not he would have had an even greater career as a poet. Freud not only blew our notions of the human mind out of the water, he forced us to look deeply and painfully at our innermost, disturbing truths. Few authors on this list have had such a lasting impact.
13. Kurt Vonnegut
(Image courtesy TIME Magazine)
Kurt Vonnegut was a student of human nature. He is known for the dry wit and dark humor he used to approach heavy subjects like war, death, and the dissolution of modern society. But while Vonnegut wowed in our collective ridiculousness, irrationality, and lack of control, he also loved us, warts and all. His writing requests that we be more human versions of ourselves, rational and sharp, yet gentle and loving. That’s the way to find fulfillment and to overthrow the meaningless conventions imposed upon us.
14. Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Okay. It’s happening again. You know, the thing where two totally independent and equally gifted writers get lumped together, destroying their individual life spirit. But hear me out. Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez do have quite a bit in common. Both are South American writers who championed the Magic Realism movement of 20th century art. Both worked together closely in their lives, Borges as a mentor to Marquez. And both are men who stare in awe of the profound beauty and limitlessness of existence. Many of the themes that pervade both Borges and Marquez’s works involve identity, love, and the strangeness of reality. And they both tackle these enormous themes with comparable grace and vision. They’re perfectly good writers on their own, and yet so equally good and stylistically similar it seemed impossible to rank them separately.
15. William Faulkner
Lonely souls – they pervade Faulkner’s many novels and short stories. As do a slew of hauntingly lost and morally uninhibited characters. But few authors capture the relentlessness of sin and solitude as gracefully as Faulkner, nor with as much compassion. Another stream of consciousness writer, Faulkner’s desire to share the plight of society’s lowest outcasts and bring about their redemption makes him not only one of the century’s best writers, but one of its most hopeful thinkers.
16. Albert Camus
A leader of the Existentialist movement, Albert Camus used his philosophical conclusions about the emptiness of existence to fuel his writing. In doing so, he created a vision of humanity that was horrifying immoral yet surprisingly generous. Man should not act virtuously because of the demands of religion or society; but neither should he live an unreflective, semi-conscious life. Freedom is the only virtue, and the goal of life must be to preserve it. For everyone. Hey, that doesn’t sound like an empty existence to me …
17. George Orwell
Few authors captured the tremor reverberating throughout 20th century global politics as masterfully as George Orwell. Power in the hands of the deranged spells disaster for us all. It’s the job of the free thinking man to overturn the stifling rules and demands of society, and in doing so take back the freedom of human civilization. Not exactly light stuff, but Orwell managed these themes with dexterity and one hell of a knack for story-telling.
18. Ralph Ellison
The 20th century brought with it a world of change for African Americans. The effects of the Civil Rights Movement – which brought hope and inspiration to so many – were tenuous and sluggish, as the struggle for change remained imprisoned in tradition. Ellison explored the consequences of our refusal to evolve. By searching for meaning in the newly empowered yet still repressed black community, he showed how difficult it is to know ourselves when society insists it’s already met us. That’s a truth that transcends race and time.
19. Samuel Beckett
Life is absurd. Almost unrecognizably absurd. Or at least that’s the conclusion to which Samuel Beckett came. His works persistently question whether or not there is any meaning in this crazy world in which we’ve been weirdly positioned. The answer he comes up with is most frequently a resounding No, but the delivery method of that No is what makes Beckett important.
20. J.R.R. Tolkien
Imagination, story-telling, and the musicality of language – this makes J.R.R. Tolkien a literary force of nature. Whether or not you dove in to his Lord of the Rings trilogy or fell in love with the adventure of The Hobbit, you cannot deny the man’s ability to create a timeless, lasting mythology. Plus, he invented a language. Actually, several.
So there it is. A list of the best authors of the 20th century.
I’d love to hear your list!