All lists are subjective. In some cases, I agree with the assessments of the various writers’ over- or underrated-ness; in a lot of cases I don’t. I’m sure the columnists are infinitely more qualified to judge literary merit than I am – at least one of them has a Ph.D. in literary criticism for goodness sake. (Though I do recall a Nobel laureate in physics once saying about a colleague’s fascination with UFOs – a Ph.D. is not an inoculation against foolishness.) Still, the tone of all the pieces does have a smidge of “why do people pay attention to them instead of me?” or perhaps just: “That will teach you to snub me at a literary gala!” My own feeling is that history will judge these things not newspaper columnists or even professors.
Having said all that, here is my list of ten writers who are neither over or underrated – merely rated by me as great. Half are dead; the rest are alive and still producing. I have excluded anyone I know personally. Since that includes a lot of SF writers, I’ve purposely left all SF writers off the list. And I’ve only included writers who write in English or for whom translations are readily available.
William Shakespeare: the author of some of the greatest plays in the English language, the work of Shakespeare has been attributed to a variety of other writers – mostly members of the aristocracy (who says the class system is dead in England?). King Lear is a model of how to construct a play; Twelfth Night, a masterpiece of comedy that explores the full range of humour. I’ve been lucky enough to act in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably as the Roman Emperor in Titus Andronicus and over the years I’ve seen about ten performed (and read most of the others).
Ernest Hemingway: winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Hemingway evokes strong emotions among many people – especially those who haven’t read him. In some respects, Hemingway’s public persona was a cover for a surprisingly sensitive and troubled writer. Among my favourites: his early novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and his short story collection, Men Without Women. (“Hills Like White Elephants” exemplifies Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing – nine-tenths submerged.) A Moveable Feast means we’ll always have Paris and the unfinished Islands in the Stream is as good a text for learning how to write as any available (Hint: compare the three parts of the novel to see how Hem went from rough to polished drafts.)
Tennessee Williams: my first in-depth exposure to theatre as an adult came from portraying Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Since then I’ve added The Glass Menagerie, A Street Car Named Desire and The Night of the Iguana to my favourites. Though his talent faded as the years went by, his ability to portray the tortured soul never left him.
Italo Calvino died too young at the age of 62 while giving a series of lectures on literature in New York. Six Memos for the Next Millennium – though left incomplete by his death -- are valuable to any serious writer. The Baron in the Trees, Cosmicomics, Mr. Palomar and If on a winter’s night, a traveler... all exemplify the values he extols in the Memos.
Chinua Achebe: Achebe’s first novel “Things Fall Apart” remains one of the most important novels in African literature. Though his subsequent fiction output has been sparse (five novels and a couple of short story collections), he continues at age 80 to produce poetry and literary criticism and non-fiction.
Tim Winton: may be the best writer produced by Australia (fans of Peter Carey may differ). His ability to portray the people and environment of western in deeply moving terms is amazing – as is his command of the English Language – Dirt Music, The Riders, Breath. All should command your attention.
Umberto Eco: people either like Eco or they don’t. The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum are immensely complicated and playful and Travels in Hyper Reality is simply ‘unreal.’ He also wrote a great essay a few years ago on how to spot fascists.
J. M. Coetzee: another Nobel Prize winner – this one living. The Life and Times of Michael K is a good place to start. And then keep going. (Of course, the fact we share a middle name probably biases me.)
Margaret Atwood: the only Canadian (and only woman on my list), Ms Atwood isn’t always brilliant (especially when she tries her hand at SF) but she is always close. Even a bad Atwood novel is worth reading just for the skill of her writing; at her best she is as good as they come. The Robber Bride is my personal favourite.
Ezra Pound: what can I say? A fascist, a lousy husband and often a worse friend, Pound was a magnificent poet and one of the founders of modernism. Try Imagist Poems or the Pisan Cantos.
Honourable Mentions: Christopher Marlowe, F. Scott Fitzgerald (for his short stories), James Baldwin, Salman Rushdie, Virginia Wolfe, Michael Chabon, Eugene O’Neill, Robertson Davies, Jane Austen and Sylvia Plath.