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The Greatest British Writers Since 1945?

Erica Wagner, in the Times, announced a list of the greatest post-war British writers as a nice way of seeing in the new year with a discussion that’s certain to provoke all round disagreement, due to notable inclusions and exclusions. As usual with these sort of things there’s the element that don’t read the main article, something that would save them the time and effort of asking why Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene haven’t been included.

For me, it’s an interesting list as it brings a few new names to mind and also acts as a spur to get around to reading a number of others. However, some of those new names being poets, I won’t be rushing in. Of the seven post-war Nobel Laureates in literature that Britain has, three of them make an appearance in this list. I have a disagreement with the the inclusion of Derek Walcott, a Saint Lucian, as, if they are going to consider someone from a Commonwealth nation as British, then they need to consider all Commonwealth nations and I’m sure we’d see the landscape of this list changed somewhat, as the Indians, Australians, and more take their place.

Wagner explains how the list came to be:

You might begin by asking how we came up with our half-hundred; and the order in which we placed them. Because there is no scientific method for making such a list in the correct order, we applied no scientific method. But we considered a number of factors — sheer quality of writing, longevity, lasting impact and, naturally, commercial success.

That latter point ensures J.K. Rowling a place on the list but not, as some commenting bemoan, Terry Pratchett. While I’m not a fan, he at leasts boasts longevity, too. Tolkien I can understand, despite being bored by his The Fellowship Of The Ring and abandoning the quest and going home. But Ian Fleming? Ian Fleming! I honestly believe that it’s the Bond film franchise that has kept his books in print, as, having read some, I’ve never had anything special to report.

But, I suppose, whittling down over fifty years of writing and hundreds of writers to a top fifty is never going to be an easy task and nobody is ever going to be happy. Here’s the list, with links to a short biography on the Times website:

01. Philip Larkin
02. George Orwell
03. William Golding
04. Ted Hughes
05. Doris Lessing
06. J. R. R. Tolkien
07. V. S. Naipaul
08. Muriel Spark
09. Kingsley Amis
10. Angela Carter
11. C. S. Lewis
12. Iris Murdoch
13. Salman Rusdie
14. Ian Fleming
15. Jan Morris
16. Roald Dahl
17. Anthony Burgess
18. Mervyn Peake
19. Martin Amis
20. Anthony Powell
21. Alan Sillitoe
22. John Le Carré
23. Penelope Fitzgerald
24. Philippa Pearce
25. Barbara Pym
26. Beryl Bainbridge
27. J. G. Ballard
28. Alan Garner
29. Alasdair Gray
30. John Fowles
31. Derek Walcott
32. Kazuo Ishiguro
33. Anita Brookner
34. A. S. Byatt
35. Ian McEwan
36. Geoffrey Hill
37. Hanif Kureshi
38. Iain Banks
39. George Mackay Brown
40. A. J. P. Taylor
41. Isaiah Berlin
42. J. K. Rowling
43. Philip Pullman
44. Julian Barnes
45. Colin Thubron
46. Bruce Chatwin
47. Alice Oswald
48. Benjamin Zephaniah
49. Rosemary Sutcliff
50. Michael Moorcock

And here’s another list, also from the Times, telling us who they left off:

Peter Ackroyd, Simon Armitage, Pat Barker, Stan Barstow, Antony Beevor, William Boyd, Malcolm Bradbury, John Braine, Basil Bunting, Jonathan Coe, Robert Conquest, William Dalrymple, Richard Dawkins, Margaret Drabble, Carol Ann Duffy, Lawrence Durrell, D.J. Enright, Sebastian Faulks, J.G. Farrell, Thom Gunn, Alan Hollinghurst, Nick Hornby, W.G. Hoskins, Howard Jacobson, P.D. James, B.S. Johnson, Hermione Lee, Penelope Lively, David Lodge, Michael Longley, Olivia Manning, Hilary Mantel, Roger McGough, David Mitchell, Brian Moore, Michael Morpurgo, P.H. Newby, Andrew O’Hagan, Christopher Priest, Kathleen Raine, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, Andrew Roberts, Paul Scott, Tom Sharpe, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, David Storey, Graham Swift, E.P. Thompson, Rose Tremain, William Trevor, Barry Unsworth, Sarah Waters, Fay Weldon, Raymond Williams, Angus Wilson, Jeanette Winterson

They must be bored.

January 5, 2008

4 responses to The Greatest British Writers Since 1945?

  1. Sam Houston said:

    J.K. Rowling? Come on…I would replace her with almost everyone on the second list. The whole list is tainted by her presence because she, IMO, is not a top-50 talent.

  2. Stewart said:

    I know, I know. I’ve sampled a page or two of the first Harry Potter and that was enough. Enough, I say. But since they were considering commercial impact (probably so they could sneak their guilty pleasures into the list) I suppose it’s (sort of) expected to see her there. I’m just glad she’s not higher.

    From the secondary list the one that interests me most is Brian Moore, especially due to the ongoing reviews of his work here and, on dedicated Moore blog, The Moore The Merrier.

    It’s just good to see they resisted the typical British media urge to stick Ian McEwan as number one, with Zadie Smith shining at number two.

  3. jem said:

    Interesting list. I think its quite hard to realistically compare novelists with poets.

    I was pleased to see Angela Carter so high up. But dismayed that there were a fair few ‘great writers’ that I have never even heard of. But then I am quite contemporary in my tastes.

  4. steffee said:

    I had to read an Angela Carter for A level English Lit. and I hated it!

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4 responses to The Greatest British Writers Since 1945?

  1. Sam Houston said:

    J.K. Rowling? Come on…I would replace her with almost everyone on the second list. The whole list is tainted by her presence because she, IMO, is not a top-50 talent.

  2. Stewart said:

    I know, I know. I’ve sampled a page or two of the first Harry Potter and that was enough. Enough, I say. But since they were considering commercial impact (probably so they could sneak their guilty pleasures into the list) I suppose it’s (sort of) expected to see her there. I’m just glad she’s not higher.

    From the secondary list the one that interests me most is Brian Moore, especially due to the ongoing reviews of his work here and, on dedicated Moore blog, The Moore The Merrier.

    It’s just good to see they resisted the typical British media urge to stick Ian McEwan as number one, with Zadie Smith shining at number two.

  3. jem said:

    Interesting list. I think its quite hard to realistically compare novelists with poets.

    I was pleased to see Angela Carter so high up. But dismayed that there were a fair few ‘great writers’ that I have never even heard of. But then I am quite contemporary in my tastes.

  4. steffee said:

    I had to read an Angela Carter for A level English Lit. and I hated it!

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