A reader recently asked me on my “Thoughts on Vonnegut” post which writers I would place in my list of the top writers of the Twentieth Century. It was a good question and, this may surprise you, not one I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating.
The question and ensuing debate sparked off an interesting discussion and who am I to ignore a reader’s request, especially when it provides me with an idea for a blog post? The reader in question mentioned a top five but I don’t feel confident providing a list of anything less than ten important writers.
So, if you will indulge me, here is my list of the most important writers of the previous century and what made them so damn important:
(In no particular order because I am too lazy to rank them)
KURT VONNEGUT- My reasons are listed in the previous post, but to briefly recap: He is my literary savior, the son of mankind who came at just the right moment to show me the true path to writeouesness.
HARLAN ELLISON- Definitely not known for his pleasing bedside manner, Mr. Ellison is one of the greatest living writers and he knows it. His cockiness works for him, though. In many ways he is the prototype for the angry, self-loving pop star except he deserves it. With an electric prose and an unfettered imagination, Ellison is constantly reinventing science fiction’s tired conventions and taking lesser writers to task. Gene Roddenberry still hasn’t been able to rest in his grave.
RAY BRADBURY- Whenever I’m asked the name of my favorite writer, Bradbury’s name always comes up. Simply put, he is the master of all things speculative. Prior to Vonnegut, Bradbury’s technique and approach showed me how to allow my imagination to have free reign over my inhibitions. Nobody can match his love of life and ability to see into the most mundane of things a universe of infinite possibilities. Cool speaking voice, too.
CLIVE BARKER- Even as early as the mid-Eighties, Stephen King was so successful that it seemed as if no one would ever come along to challenge his throne as horrormeister. Barker not only challenged it, he surpassed it in significant ways, a fact readily acknowledged by King himself. Barker’s stark, raw approach to horror was not simply a reworking of classic themes. Barker created new concepts of horror that were so disturbing and vivid they were incomparable to anything else on the market. Not only is he conceptually brilliant, but his actual writing style is alive and evolving, combining old English sensibility with New World immediacy.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON- As Yoda once said, “There is another.” Just when I thought Vonnegut was the only anarchist worth reading, some kid at a job I had years ago mentioned “The Illuminatus! Trilogy” by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. He was seventeen and couldn’t stop raving about the book. Later I found out he only read a few pages of it and abandoned it in favor of some other trend that made him feel hip and intelligent. I stuck with the book, however, and was amazed at its scope and depth. I have since read other works by Wilson, both fiction and non, and have continually been impressed with this brilliant scientist turned editor turned underground writer.
WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS- Naked Lunch, anyone? No? But I shaved! Fine, whatever. I guess we’ll just discuss the best gay writer of his generation. Burroughs was not only gay, he was also a junkie. From these two marginalized lifestyles emerged some truly powerful writing. Burroughs was a master at observing everyday life and capturing moments like a snapshot, a gift only one other writer I have read possessed. His prose went from free form to painfully constricted depending on the era, but always there was a disconnection from humanity that compelled me to keep reading.
ERNEST HEMMINGWAY- I’m not a fan of Hemmingway’s. I find much of his writing overly macho and painfully self-indulgent. His themes are often pretentious to the point of nausea, but the man gave us one undeniable gift: Minimalism. Before him, nobody had ever so effectively used less to say more. Without Hemmingway, we might not have had the cryptic stylings of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. And we certainly wouldn’t have had the novels of JD Salinger and even, possibly, Kurt Vonnegut.
DON DELILLO- Whenever a writer forays into surrealism as a method for portraying the alienation of modern existence, they are inevitably compared to Delillo. Practically unknown outside the field, Delillo swings back and forth between urban disconnection and primal scream therapy while never losing sight of his rich, complex characters. What Cormac McCarthy is often wrongly praised for, Delillo delivers with the regularity of an assembly line machine with a soul. “Libra” and White Noise” alone are enough for bragging rights but he doesn’t stop. That’s a good thing, by the way.
OCTAVIA BUTLER- Science fiction was once a field dominated by men, until we found out many of those men were women with abbreviated names. Once that secret was out, the next hurdle was writers of color, especially women. Octavia Butler proved black women could not only write science fiction, but write it beautifully. Her poetic narratives underlie some truly tragic and painful subject matter and never once was she preachy. A sad day when she left this mortal coil.
STEPHEN KING- The literary establishment loves to dismiss him. College instructors love to just plain diss him for his enormous output. Conservatives reader love to classify him as a demented weirdo in league with Satan or just plain amoral. Those of us who have actually sat and read King's work with an open mind see right through those false perceptions. King is a genius with incredible storytelling gifts. His dialogue leaps off the page, his ideas are brilliant and his narrative is unmatched in its ability to draw the reader in to the most seemingly uninteresting thing as if it is utterly fascinating. A huge influence on my work.
I would love to make someone's list some day....