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Three greatest (english-language) novelists of the 20th century


Stumpy in cold weather
Staff member
Inspired by this thread ... http://badgerandblade.com/vb/showthread.php?t=85785 ... and not able to remember who is living and dead :blushing: I came up with this novel (heh heh) idea ...

... your 'three best' novelists of the 20th century! Judged on the artistic merit of their novel output in the 20th century (even if they wrote some stuff in the 19th or 21st) ... written in English, even if English wasn't their first language ... Polish sailors who also learned Russian growing up, and then learned French as a sailor, and then finally learnd English and wrote novels in English are allowed. :001_rolle

This is a list of the "best" not "most popular", so spare us the equivalent of "McDonalds is good food ... they sell so much of it" talk of how popular Harry Potter is. :lol:

I'll get us started:

1. James Joyce. (Even if Finnegan's Wake isn't English or anything else ... )
2. Joseph Conrad.
3. P.G. Wodehouse ... I would have said Graham Greene, but Wodehouse is just so darn funny.
Faulkner, even though he has not been nearly as influential as was expected. Very cutting edge. Very original. Very 20th Century.

Hemingway, more because he has been so remarkably influential than because of what he actually wrote, as good as much of that was.

F. Scott Fitzgerald--probably not really top three actually, but I am putting him for the shear quality/beauty of some of the sentences he put on paper. To me, he could write like an angel. Not a whole lot of production and kind of a waste as a human being.

To me, James Joyce turned out to be vastly overrated. He seemed very exciting at the time and for a long time thereafter, but reading his stuff now, it is harder to see that it was really all that wonderful. Does anyone still try to read Finnegan's Wake, for instance? Doesn't Ulysses seem just too damn long in retrospect?

Oscar Wilde was a wonderful stylist and essayist, an observer of the human condition. I would not say that he was a great "novelist" exactly though.

Conrad is up there. I know that others disagree, but I do not think that he was the greatest writer in putting together wonderful sentences. But his themes and insight into the human condition and the way he presents those themes is truly special and for the ages.

There are probably some Russians that belong in the top three more than any of my picks.

What novels are college kids studying in a 101 literature class these days, I wonder? I suppose one could make a case for Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I do not think Borges wrote novels. Malcom Lowry's output was too small. Pychon and the like too rarefied to me.

P.G. Wodehouse and Graham Greene, absolutely wonderful writers. Great novelist, though, as in works that will survive for hundreds of years, etc. I do not think so. Similar, John Cheever and folks like John Updike. Too much men of their own times.
Hmmmm...well, there's personal preference and there's the writer's influence on the culture, writers who had the greatest impact on what followed etc. etc


Honorable mentions: Philip Roth; Anthony Burgess; Ayn Rand; Kingsley Amis; Ian Fleming; Raymond Chandler; Dashiell Hammet; Ed McBain; Hemingway; Pynchon;
Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath)
Hemingway (Farewell to Arms)
Joseph Heller (Catch 22 is brilliant work)

Honorable mention: Although technically NOT 20th Century works, no list of great English language novelists would be complete without Mark Twain:
Following the Equator and Adventures of Huck Finn are my personal favorite Twain works.

Jack London was also brilliant Call of the Wild, White Fang and Martin Eden (which is a bit morose but a brilliantly done work as well)

Upton Sinclair The Jungle
Hard to answer here.

Steinbeck is one of my favorites. At his best, he was as good a wordsmith and storyteller as anyone. Hemingway would probably have to be mentioned in the same regard.

There are a bunch of writers who vie for my third spot.

Vonnegut was great.

I haven't read enough Faulkner and Pynchon to make an educated statement about either. So, really, I guess I may not be qualified to answer at all.
And if you're going to say Conrad, I will throw in Achebe :rolleyes:

Now, if it's the writers I constantly return to for sheer pleasure of reading (Not necessarily novelists,) it's:

P. G. Woodehouse (did he write anything that was not absolute brain candy?)
G. B. Shaw

And the bonus writer, Douglas Adams.
Raymond Chandler - (I think there are more brilliant works, but his works are so iconic and so indicative of a wonderful time period and place.)

1) James Joyce (I'm a short story writer and The Dead is probably the best one ever written IMHO).

2) Virginia Woolf (The most technically beautiful prose I have ever read)

3) Thomas Mann (This one might be fueled by the fact that I just wrote a paper on Death In Venice that I had a lot of fun with - also not written in english, but I'm putting it because even with translations he's incredible)
These are all great. I just did a bunch of Googling around trying to find out what a current university undergrad 20th century American/English lit class might be reading. Not much luck. Also, lots of lists of the greatest novels, including the Modern Library 100 top 20th century fiction list. Not too many of the top novelists.

My sense is that most of the world of literature is higher on Joyce than I am.

My own sense is that most Steinbeck if reread would seem a little dated these days. Sort of like Jack London before him. Both very powerful stirring writers, and I like both, a lot, but they do seem more of their particular eras.

Too early to say re David Foster Wallace/Don DeLillo. Probably re Kerouac and Pynchon. I suppose I should like Henry James more than I personally do. Saul Bellow has not come up on this thread, but comes up in a Google search.

I am a huge Raymond Chandler fan myself and love the way he writes. I would say that he too was hugely influential on modern writing. Virginia Woolf and Thomas Mann are interesting picks. Great writers for sure. Greatest of the novelists, I am not so sure.

I give up! I am not sure I could even do a top 25 or 50 or 100. Too much apples to oranges for one thing.
I think in a few pieces of fiction DFW surpassed the page output of Steinbeck and Hemingway combined, so on volume alone he competes. I love DFW but I feel his body of work, individual publications, is too small, though, to be placed in these lofty heights...he died too young.

I think a few of the above (Mann, Achebe) are not EAFL authors...no?
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