KEV67

Britain's all time top five authors

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I watched a lecture about Charles Dickens on YouTube by an American academic. In his introduction, he said Charles Dickens was regarded as Britain's second greatest writer after Shakespeare, or possibly Jane Austen was second. Anyway, that made me wonder who number four and five were. Thinking about C20th authors, I could not really think of anyone in that class: Evelyn Waugh - no, Graham Greene - not for me. I thought possibly George Orwell might be up there. He only wrote two great works of fiction, Animal Farm and 1984, but he wrote several important non-fiction books and many great essays. Shakespeare did not actually write any novels. Then I wondered who number five might be. I have not actually read any of her books, but I wonder if it might be J. K. Rowling.

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Posted (edited)

For me, the greatest British prose writer of the twentieth century was Virginia Woolf.

 

I'd agree on Graham Greene and George Orwell being up there, even if I'm personally not a great fan of the latter.  I wouldn't put Evelyn Waugh in the same league.  Thomas Hardy lived until 1928, wrote much of his poetry in the twentieth century, but none of his novels. Interestingly, none of them are amongst the dozen or so of the country's Nobel Laureates.  If you are extending beyond prose, then TS Eliot would have to be in the reckoning.

 

I doubt if any academic would put JK Rowling in the top ten of twentieth century 'great writers'.

 

As this speaker was talking about all-time British top 5, one would have to go beyond the twentieth century.  For me, the top 5 would probably be Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Woolf and Chaucer.   George Eliot would be my personal number six, but that's when more and more start coming into the reckoning!

Edited by willoyd

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That is a really difficult one! 

 

I definitely wouldn't put J.K. Rowling in there, even though I've read all the Harry Potter books and really loved them when I was younger.

 

There are so many people who could be in there! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle maybe, anything related to Sherlock Holmes gets a huge following even today. Wilkie Collins, for writing what most people consider the first detective novel in the English language (full length novel anyway). J.R.R. Tolkien for his huge influence in fantasy. Arguably Terry Pratchett as a more modern choice, although maybe I am slightly biased, he did break a few records and was knighted for services to literature. And then there's the children's authors, like Lewis Carroll!

 

I think @willoyd's list of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Woolf and Chaucer is a good choice though. I think a lot of people would agree with that. It covers a long time range and all they were all highly influential.

 

It is ridiculously hard to choose 5 though! 

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I wonder if Oscar Wilde might make it on that list. I know he is Irish, but Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at the time. His wit is still legendary. If someone makes a witty quote, there is a 40% chance it was Winston Churchill's, a 40% chance it was Oscal Wilde's and a 20% chance it was someone else's. Oscar Wilde wrote so many forms of literature. He wrote poetry, plays, novels, short stories and essays.

 

I have only read one book by Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, and I did not like it very much. Besides how often are there new adaptions of her books? There are always films and TV series made of Austen's and Dickens' books. Is Virginia Woolf actually very popular? If you judge by the number of adaptions made of their works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse might deserve a place on the list. I would rather have H.G. Wells on the list than Virginia Woolf. He must have been the cleverest author ever.

 

I would be surprised if there were not many great writers around today, as good as anyone in the past. There are more educated people capable of writing books. They probably have slightly more time to edit them into shape than in the past. I suspect in a 100 years time, J.K. Rowling may be viewed as one of our greatest writers. She must be at least the equal of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein.

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Posted (edited)

23 hours ago, KEV67 said:

I wonder if Oscar Wilde might make it on that list. I know he is Irish, but Ireland was part of the United Kingdom at the time. His wit is still legendary. If someone makes a witty quote, there is a 40% chance it was Winston Churchill's, a 40% chance it was Oscal Wilde's and a 20% chance it was someone else's. Oscar Wilde wrote so many forms of literature. He wrote poetry, plays, novels, short stories and essays.

 

I deliberately excluded Irish writers from my suggestions - not least because the Irish are not fond of their writers being acquired by the modern British.  If one is to include them, then the likes of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Seamus Heaney, and WB Yeats would all come into consideration.

 

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I have only read one book by Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, and I did not like it very much. Besides how often are there new adaptions of her books? There are always films and TV series made of Austen's and Dickens' books. Is Virginia Woolf actually very popular? If you judge by the number of adaptions made of their works, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and P.G. Wodehouse might deserve a place on the list. I would rather have H.G. Wells on the list than Virginia Woolf. He must have been the cleverest author ever.

 

Pure popularity does not define greatness, nor does whether the books have been made into a TV or film, however many, not least because the requirements of TV and film are different.  For instance, how do you transfer stream of consciousness onto the screen?   Dickens, for instance, is so often made into TV/film simply because his books tell good stories, and those translate easily onto the screen (the fact that he goes beyond simply telling a good story is almost beside the point, but he does).  In fact, remarkably few people actually read Dickens for pleasure - almost a third of the British population couldn't even name him as the author of Great Expectations.  James Joyce's Ulysses is generally regarded as one of the greatest books ever written, but have you seen many TV/film adaptations of it (I can think of 2 in the past eighty years - 1967 and 2003) or any other Joyce book lately?

 

I'm sorry you don't like Virginia Woolf.  However, I don't think there is much doubt of Woolf being widely regarded as one of our greatest writers. There are a number of writers I don't like, but who I still recognise are great writers (Orwell for one).  There is no doubt that Woolf is difficult - some of her books are amongst the most difficult I've read, but they have also (for me) proved amongst the most rewarding. The first book of hers I tried (Mrs Dalloway) took me several goes to get into it, but it's now one of my favourite books. 

 

Quote

 

I would be surprised if there were not many great writers around today, as good as anyone in the past. There are more educated people capable of writing books. They probably have slightly more time to edit them into shape than in the past. I suspect in a 100 years time, J.K. Rowling may be viewed as one of our greatest writers. She must be at least the equal of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein.

 

Why do you think writers have more time nowadays?  Given corporate pressures etc., I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was exactly the opposite.

 

I have to say, I can't agree with you about JK Rowling.  She writes popular books, but great books?  No, not even close IMO (and yes, I have read them all, to and alongside my son, who thoroughly enjoyed them).  Why?  Well - I wouldn't be quite as acerbic as Nicholas Lezard, but his article certainly indicates why she is highly unlikely to make it into the pantheon of writers of classics; there are many others who have said similar, but perhaps don't put it quite so pithily.  But is she bothered?  Almost certainly not - and rightly so as she didn't set out to write a 'great' book, she set out to tell a children's story, and she told a very good one.

 

Incidentally, most of the children I teach have given up reading her books - they know her stories through the films.  On the other hand, they are almost universally devouring David Walliams's books.

 

 

Edited by willoyd

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I'll second @willoyd's anti-Rowling sentiment* by saying she is no Tolkien.

 

I've read and enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, and although I can't say I've read any of her other books, her writing is good, but not great. 

 

Tolkien also had his flaws, but his books are better written than Rowlings. I can see Tolkien being in this top five list, but not Rowling.

 

On an aside, I would hope Rowling's books will be remembered in years to come because they are very enjoyable, and - because of their setting - to a point timeless, so I would hope that future generations will continue to enjoy them as we have been able to.

 

*I know that's not what you are saying! 

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Posted (edited)

11 hours ago, Raven said:

On an aside, I would hope Rowling's books will be remembered in years to come because they are very enjoyable, and - because of their setting - to a point timeless, so I would hope that future generations will continue to enjoy them as we have been able to. 

 

I would agree with you on this, and hope the films become more of a stimulus to read them than the substitute that they too often currently seem to be.  As you say, they do have a timeless element which may well help them last.  I've several times been somewhat saddened to see my favourite childhood author Arthur Ransome, left unread or abandoned simply because children don't seem to be able to relate to what he's writing about  I reread Swallows and Amazons recently as part of the English Counties Challenge, and was delighted to rediscover how good a writer he was.  However, his content could be seen as dated (which I've said more than once before, says more about our over-protective attitude to children today than anything else!).

 

Tolkien is an interesting one.  Much as I rate Lord of the Rings (like many others feel, this ranks as one of my favourite books), and respect The Hobbit (I can't say I like it), I don't think one can rank a writer on just a couple of books - although I do think LoTR was ground-breaking in many respects. (It's a bit like I don't regard Harper Lee as one of the greats, although her book is).  I know he wrote others, but I don't they are in anything like the same league as these two - but you may want to challenge me on that!  Perhaps because of its genre, LoTR might struggle in some quarters to achieve 'classic' status, but I don't have that problem, even though not a fan of fantasy as a whole.  I would certainly agree with you that Tolkien is a far 'better' writer than Rowling (and would probably make my top 10 20th century writers), but for me the only real challenger to Virginia Woolf so far mentioned is George Orwell, whose books have been massively influential (even though I don't like them!).

 

 

Edited by willoyd

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Posted (edited)

I have not actually read any of J.K. Rowling's books. I was already an adult when they first came out, and did not want to read children's books. I am just responding to the reactions of others, particularly amateur book reviewers on YouTube who nearly all love Harry Potter books, even the older ones. Personally I am prepared to believe they are not as good as the Just William books, but the Harry Potter books definitely made more impact. Her detective stories are supposed to be pretty good too. I suppose one thing against her is she has not had such an influence on society as a Dickens or a Shakespeare, but she has not had as much time.

 

I read J.R.R. Tolken's book the Hobbit many times as a child. It was my favourite book. I liked The Lord of the Rings as well, but not as much. I dare say that book had a great influence on the fantasy genre. I read The Silmarillion, which was a remarkable book. It was rather like the bible of Middle Earth. Those are three very different books, but I am still not sure Tolkein would get into a top five, although I definitely would have put him there when I was fifteen.

Edited by KEV67
typo

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I'm in agreement with most people in doubting JK Rowling would be in the top five. I'll probably be murdered for this, but I find her very overrated. I'm not sure who I would recommend as I'm known to love less popular authors, such as Alistair Gray and Lyndsay Clarke.

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Posted (edited)

24 minutes ago, Lilliputian said:

I'm in agreement with most people in doubting JK Rowling would be in the top five. I'll probably be murdered for this, but I find her very overrated.

 

Far from being murdered, I think you are, if anything, understating the case. I can't believe we are even seriously discussing her in this context.  Good children's writer, but nothing more.

Edited by willoyd

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I agree, she's certainly done a lot to get children reading, and some adults too, and there's nothing wrong with it, but as an actual writer I don't think she comes close to any of the others mentioned.

 

The William books were hugely popular in their day, I remember my mum saying she was a huge fan, and I tried one but wasn't that keen.  I think he's still popular though, and the audio versions of the books have sold well too. 

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On 17/04/2017 at 1:02 AM, willoyd said:

For me, the greatest British prose writer of the twentieth century was Virginia Woolf.

 

I'd agree on Graham Greene and George Orwell being up there, even if I'm personally not a great fan of the latter.  I wouldn't put Evelyn Waugh in the same league.  Thomas Hardy lived until 1928, wrote much of his poetry in the twentieth century, but none of his novels. Interestingly, none of them are amongst the dozen or so of the country's Nobel Laureates.  If you are extending beyond prose, then TS Eliot would have to be in the reckoning.

 

I doubt if any academic would put JK Rowling in the top ten of twentieth century 'great writers'.

 

As this speaker was talking about all-time British top 5, one would have to go beyond the twentieth century.  For me, the top 5 would probably be Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Woolf and Chaucer.   George Eliot would be my personal number six, but that's when more and more start coming into the reckoning!

 

It looks like the international critics agree with you about Virginia Woolf. She has three books in the top 25, including 2nd and 3rd.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20151204-the-25-greatest-british-novels

 

Still wouldn't have her in my top 5.

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Interesting list.  I wouldn't have had Jane Austen's books ranked so low down, especially Emma which I regard as a better book than P&P - but I love all of hers, and she is probably my favourite author.  Having said that, I'd agree with which 3 appear in the list, as I do with the Dickens books (and with the fact that Bleak House is listed as his best), and probably with Middlemarch being on the top of the pile (although it's not my favourite book, it's definitely one of the greatest IMO).  I'm not such a fan of the Brontes is the critics are it seems!

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I would definitely have Hilary Mantel in my top five; although I have only read a few of her books, they are all among my favourites.

 

A quote from an article in The Guardian mentions that  "each of her novels is a new world, freshly imagined in a special language, but in every one the twists of human desire and fear are exactly charted", and I would say that is a very good description.  Her books stay with me long after I have finished reading them, in all sorts of different ways.

 

For me, she does qualify as a 'great' writer rather than just an 'entertaining' one.

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