The Greats

This is an idle question, but perhaps an entertaining one too.  I was thinking to myself, while reading a biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which authors I would place among the Truly Greats.  There are thousands of authors who are good, hundreds who are very good, but I could only come up with a list of five whom I consider to be Great.  That is, their writing is not only better than other authors’, but different somehow – and so different that even imitators seem to belong to another world, or perhaps another plane.

On that list, after careful consideration, I put, in order that they wrote:

William Shakespeare
Jane Austen
Charles Dickens
Virginia Woolf
Ivy Compton-Burnett

I doubt anybody would put together this same list.  I am limited to the authors I have read and that, in turn, is limited to writing in modern English.  Some people might only have one name on their list; a lot would put down many more.  I have not necessarily chosen my favourite authors (although three of these – the women – would qualify for that too.) That would be a substantially longer list.  I have chosen the only writers whose work resonates (to me) with something extra, something special, something which sets them enormously apart from anybody else.

As I say, in some ways this is an artificial question – but I suspect some of you might have answers.  And I’d be intrigued to hear them.

50 thoughts on “The Greats

  • August 12, 2013 at 6:33 am
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    I agree there are great and not so great authors and after thought my greats would be:

    Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare and Trollope. I know a lot of people will disagree with the last name on the list but he deserves to be Great for The Last Chronicle of Barset even if for no other.

    Cannot get on with Virginia Woolf at any price and I have tried, oh how I have tried…..

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    • August 12, 2013 at 8:49 am
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      I agree Elaine I would put Trollope on the list. In fact I think your list is my list, though I might leave C Bronte off. I admire Woolf but don't think she quite makes it, ditto ICB.

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    • August 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm
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      If I had to cull this list I think perhaps charlotte might go. Just that Jane Eyre, first read at age 11, stunned me so much and set my reading pattern for life that I hold it in enormous affection

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    • August 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm
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      and after a comment below I add Edith Wharton. For some reason felt it had to be English writers which is a bit insular. Wharton is a Great writer, no argument

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    • August 16, 2013 at 2:56 pm
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      I love that this conversation has flowed between lots of people! I'm also surprised by how much people agreed, with relatively minor adjustments. I didn't expect many others to put ICB on their list, but I am going on the very subjective basis of 'a sense' I get while reading their work (!)

      If I'd read more than one book each by Wharton and Trollope, perhaps I would have added them. I loved The Warden, but it didn't seem sufficiently different from what other people have done for me to give him the epithet 'great'.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 6:58 am
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    I absolute agree :) Jane Austen and Dickens are great. I would add Charlotte Bronte and John Keats. I really love Keats' poetry

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    • August 16, 2013 at 2:57 pm
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      My poor efforts with poetry are definitely reflected in my list! I toyed with a Bronte, but ultimately decided against all of 'em.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 7:56 am
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    My set (not that I really hold with the concept as you know) would include

    Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Colette, Gunter Grass, Murakami and, for her novel Middlemarch, I'd also add Evans. If you want a poet too then it has to be Sappho.

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    • August 12, 2013 at 8:51 am
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      What a typically (for DP) international bunch. But are we to include all these foreigners?

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    • August 12, 2013 at 9:05 am
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      Simon only specified "Great Writers". I haven't read as extensively native English speakers of the "great" variety as he (and the rest of you) has. For example only a few plays of Shakespeare and only a couple of sonnets, three books by Dickens, nothing by Austen or a Bronte nor Trollope.

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    • August 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm
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      I actually think it would be better to try to confine it to writers in English. Otherwise the field is too large!

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    • August 16, 2013 at 2:59 pm
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      I am more than happy to allow foreigners on people's lists! I just haven't read enough of them to put any on mine – and no non-English works in their original language. (Does that affect a judgement of greatness, do you think? Peter, I assume some of those you've only read in translation?)

      Thank you for playing, Peter, despite not holding with such concepts! And, while I can't promise you'd love Austen, I feel fairly sure you'd like The Warden (the only Trollope I have read.)

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  • August 12, 2013 at 8:52 am
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    And Simon, have you read Trollope? and if not, why not?

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    • August 12, 2013 at 9:20 am
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      I have – only The Warden, which I loved. But I wouldn't put him on my list based on that… And I deliberately left off all the Brontes too, because (in my opinion) they don't cross from Very Good to Great. But there is, of course, a lot of subjectivity to this!

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  • August 12, 2013 at 8:59 am
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    Oh, poor Milton!

    In any case, I could not name just five. Besides, I am Italian, and it would come natural to me to go both national and international. So I pass, it is too difficult.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 2:59 pm
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      There's no need to restrict to five, that was just the number I came up with for my list!

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  • August 12, 2013 at 11:00 am
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    I don't disagree with any of those mentioned really — just putting in a 2nd vote for Tolstoy. I can't think of a writer larger in his themes or more telling in the details. And a vote for Chekhov. And the not so great writer Dostoevsky who produced the great Brothers Karamazov.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm
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      I must familiarise myself better with the Russians… their absence is only because I have read nothing by Tolstoy, two short books by Dostoevsky, and a play by Chekhov…

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  • August 12, 2013 at 11:51 am
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    Don't forget Chaucer. Tolstoy sprang to mind immediately but, much as love Trollope and the Brontes, I don't think they're on the A-list.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:01 pm
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      I did ponder on Chaucer, but for my money, the Gawain poet is closer to greatness. But I am very ignorant on Middle English, so that is just my instinctive reading, really!

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  • August 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm
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    Apart from Shakespeare, I've not read enough of the others to say whether they were great or not, but I would err towards Tolstoy. But what of later 20thC greats – Only DP mentions any. But who to suggest – Graham Greene anyone?

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    • August 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm
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      I was tempted to include Greene, but I have only read a couple of his books. Clearly distance lends some clarity perhaps to whom we might consider "Great", though I have no hesitation with Murakami.

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    • August 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm
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      I agree that distance lends clarity. Struggle to think of anybody today who counts as great in the Shakespeare/Dickens/Austen mould. (In fairness, think of the time-lapse between them.) Greene and Hardy very tempting to include as borderline great!
      Does great have to = bulk? What about the one perfect novel? (Was thinking of Il Gattopardo.)

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:03 pm
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      I couldn't think of anybody modern! Muriel Spark I wondered about, and decided against. But the biggest gap there is between Shakespeare and Jane Austen, where I have centuries without anybody!

      And very good question, Mary. I don't think quantity really matters when it comes to greatness. Emma or Our Mutual Friend or Much Ado About Nothing would each be enough to ensure greatness, to my mind.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm
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    I like your point about 'difference' being a key to one's list. I still haven't read any ICB (yet!) but a definite 'yes' to your other four. Purely in terms of difference, I might suggest (wholly unpopularly, of course), DH Lawrence. *ducks*

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm
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      That was the fundamental aspect for me, Vicki. And probably why I wouldn't include DHL (whom I often like) based on the books I've read, which don't seem vastly different from other novelists of his and later periods. ICB's strength is her distinctness, I think.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 1:34 pm
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    I have been following your blog ever since I started my own blog. Your layout is so stunning! And this question is really making my head spin. I have taken the summer to read (and in some cases, re-read) the works of Thomas Hardy. It is taking a long time because I am so immersed in them. They transport me to a time and place that I love. I am reading "Far From the Madding Crowd" aloud, because I don't want to miss one word. For sure, there is no answer to your question. Books are so personal. But what a lovely question to mull over. Thank you!
    Betty (Betty's video book blog)

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:05 pm
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      Thank you very much, Betty! Going to your blog, I see that we have the same layout – I started with the birds, and then changed the background and fonts, colours etc., and added a header – but we started from the same point! ;)

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  • August 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm
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    I rather like your choices, although I am not entirely sure Ivy makes the leap from very, very good to great. (Sorry!) At the international level, I think Cervantes, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and Proust make the grade. The usual suspect, it strikes me though.
    And I am really working hard to restrain myself from adding all of my personal favourites.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm
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      I am delighted that anybody thinks her very, very good, believe me! It is interesting that so many of the greats we each have contributed are tried and true. If the question had been favourites, I suspect it would have been a much more varied and eclectic group – my suggestions would certainly have been very different.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 5:07 pm
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    Wow, this is going to be personal – but if we are talking about resonating and individualism I would say:

    Virginia Woolf
    Italo Calvino
    Dostoevsky
    Kerouac
    Colette

    But the list would no doubt change on any given day….

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm
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      Great list, Karen – I'm intrigued to see Kerouac there, as I hadn't thought of him in that mould.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm
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    Simon, you've made my head ache!
    I can never distill to my FAVORITES on any sort of list – I simply have too many favorites, for various reasons. I agree with you on Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Ivy Compton Burnett. I agree with several other comments on their additions.

    How about great genre writers? Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, for example. Or E. F. Benson and Angela Thirkell?

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:07 pm
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      My favourites would be a different list, indeed! But how nice to overlap so much :)

      I did ponder on including Christie, because she is a genius for plotting and might deserve to be there for that reason. She was very close.

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  • August 12, 2013 at 9:36 pm
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    I completely agree about Austen and Shakespeare, but am less convinced about the others on your list. I think they are amazing stylists but I'm not quite sure that is the same thing as being Great. I'd add another vote for Tolstoy and probably throw Zola in there too.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:08 pm
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      That is such an interesting point, Claire – I hadn't realised it until you said, but I did indeed include three for style and two for character (with style an added bonus). But I think being a great stylist is probably the same as being great in my mind, because it is what I prize most in a writer.

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  • August 13, 2013 at 6:20 am
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    I note only one reference to Hardy – so I'll double his showing. I wonder whether the foreign authors are included because of their themes or their language, in which case do translators ever get much of a look in? Several reviews of Clive James' version of Dante around at the moment being compared with others.
    How much does someone need to write to be 'great'? and do they have to produce several 'great' works?
    You've even made me think about novels Si.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:09 pm
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      Success, Dad! Pleased to see you championing Thomas :)
      And an excellent point about translators – which would put me off adding anybody I hadn't read in the original. As for how much… I think one great work would make a great writer.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:09 pm
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      Thanks for your list! The only person to mention Fitzgerald, I note – but I imagine a lot of people would agree with you.

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  • August 13, 2013 at 9:45 am
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    For me Elizabeth Taylor is a 'great' writer. I will always re-read her, I think. Her writing is so good, it frequently astounds me.

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm
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      I was expecting more suggestions of that type! I think she is very, very good, but perhaps a very good version of a fairly common approach. Not sure. I do need to read more.

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  • August 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm
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    I can't argue with Austen and Dickens, but am still pondering who my other three might be. Woolf would definitely NOT be on my list. Am also considering others' comments about what makes the author "great." Clearly Austen wasn't as prolific as Dickens, but Trollope is not only very good, he was more prolific than Dickens if memory serves. So is it a matter of quality of writing alone, or does quality in great quantity get them bonus points? Ah, stuff to sit and ponder…

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:11 pm
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      You can have more than five if you like, Susan :) (or does that make things more complicated still?!) I'm unsure on quantity – but if a great writer also writers lesser works, that might affect things? (Then again, some of Shakespeare's plays are not, to my mind, great… I'm thinking Comedy of Errors, for example.)

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  • August 14, 2013 at 12:04 pm
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    Agree with Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens. Suggest Thackeray – for Vanity Fair alone he is in the first rank. George Eliot also gets my vote. I am confining myself to writers in English. Having said that, what about the Americans? Edith Wharton, Henry James etc.

    I think Trollope is superb, but not in the first five nor are the Brontes.

    Sue

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    • August 16, 2013 at 3:12 pm
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      I am so poorly read in American literature that I haven't included any – further afield, though, I was tempted to include Katherine Mansfield…

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  • August 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm
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    You doubt anybody would put together this same list? You are wrong.
    I would – only Betty MacDonald would be also included.

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