Everyone has a literary hero. But who are the best novelists of all time? While all lists have their criteria, specific authors stand out amongst the crowd.
Novelists don’t get the same level of fame and recognition as, say, musicians or film directors. Some novelists, however, have works that have had a profound impact on the world of literature.
Whether you’re reading for pleasure, learning new things, or simply wanting an escape from the real world, a good novel will always be worth your time. From Charles Dickens and George Orwell to Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, here are some highlights for the top 10 best novelists of all time.
#1 MARY ANNE EVANS
Mary Anne Evans was born in Warwickshire, England, in November 1819. In December of 1880, she died as one of the most influential Victorian-era writers. Even though Evans could use her real name, she decided to write using the masculine pen name, George Eliot. She did not want her gender to be a distraction from her writing.
Evans was a prolific writer and one of the most highly regarded writers of all time. Her writing gets taught around the world. She is also acclaimed for her work as a political activist and was active in the feminist movement.
In 1856, Evans published her first novel, “Adam Bede,” under the male pseudonym of George Eliot. From there, she wrote six more novels: “The Mill on the Floss” (1860), “Silas Marner” (1861), “Romola” (1862–63), “Felix Holt, the Radical” (1866), “Middlemarch” (1871–72), and “Daniel Deronda” (1876). She wrote with a politically astute pen where she presented the cases of social outsiders and small-town persecution. Her comedic plots highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security.
Middlemarch became known as a 19th-century classic and got described by fellow novelist Virginia Woolfe as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Evan’s commitment to social justice and reform was not limited to her own time, however. In the Victorian era, women got largely excluded from the political sphere, but Eliot’s work sought to change this. She wrote several poems that voiced her support for women’s suffrage and equal civil rights.
Most of her work gets set in provincial England. As you read her novels, you will see how they are known for their realism, psychological insight, and very detailed descriptions of the countryside. You should also know that much of her material got drawn from her own experiences.
#2 JANE AUSTEN
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) was a British novelist. Her romantic fiction works are the most beloved and have earned her a place as one of the most read. She was also a friend of Charlotte Bronte. For Austen’s entire life, she lived as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry.
She is known around the globe for her literary genius and is considered a landmark in English literature. The stories she wrote are known for their insight and rich character development. It’s been said that Austen was one of the first people to describe romantic life in the middle class, which is a large part of what makes her books so relatable.
Austen wrote during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, where female authors got published under their names. It was not uncommon for women to have careers as writers.
Jane Austen is known for her six major novels: “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Mansfield Park” (1814), “Emma” (1816), “Northanger Abbey” (1817), and “Persuasion” (1818). Her novels, like “Pride and Prejudice,” are classics and are still widely read today. She is also known for her two unfinished novels, “Lady Susan” and “The Watsons.”
Her novels are still widely taught in schools. Austen has been popular for over two hundred years, and her novels still sell millions of copies. Her stories have gotten adapted into films, TV shows, and even opera. Her work Emma got turned into a movie in 1996.
#3 CHARLES DICKENS
Charles Dickens, an Englishman born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812, was a writer and social critic. Regarded by many as the Victorian era’s greatest novelist, he created some of the world’s most well-known fictional characters. His works enjoyed unmatched popularity during his lifetime. Critics and scholars alike recognized him as a literary genius.
His writing career began in 1833 when he started contributing stories and essays to various journals. Twain’s literary success happened at just 24 years old with the 1836 serial novel publication of The Pickwick Papers. It was a weekly publication that sold an astounding 20,000 copies a week, which was unheard of at the time. This was possible by him keeping his stories exciting and fresh. Its popularity helped the novelist make a living from his writing alone.
In 1843, Dickens released his novella “A Christmas Carol.” This, along with his other popular novels, “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations,” is often adapted in multiple artistic genres. Like many of his stories, the images within portray early Victorian London.
Later in 1859, his novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” set in London and Paris, is known as his best historical fiction work.
Dickens not having a formal education did not hinder his success. In his lifetime, he was an editor for a weekly journal for 20 years. Plus, he wrote 15 novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories and nonfiction articles. Dickens even gave lectures and performed readings frequently. He was also a philanthropist that championed children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.
Edwin Drood was the last of his work that was left unfinished due to his death in 1870.
#4 J.D. SALINGER
J.D. (Jerome David) Salinger was born and raised in New York City (1919). His father, Sol Salinger, was a salesman. His mother, Marie, was a homemaker. Salinger began writing stories as a teen while attending Valley Forge Military Academy. In 1936, he graduated and ended up at Columbia University in Manhattan. It was there his writing professor, who happened to be an editor at Story magazine, loved his writing so much. He had Salinger’s vignette, “The Young Folks,” published in 1940.
During World War II, Salinger began submitting his short stories to The New Yorker. After rejecting seven of his novels, in 1941, it accepted “Slight Rebellion off Madison.” Salinger’s stories center on children or teenagers. Events take place in the wealthy suburbs of New York City. Readers regularly compared his style to that of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In the post-war years, Salinger published several more short stories in Story magazine and served as a contributing editor for the magazine between 1946 and 1947. Salinger worked almost exclusively at the New Yorker for about twenty years, leaving in the mid-1950s.
J.D. Salinger was famous for his portrayal of adolescent angst in his novel Catcher in the Rye (released in 1951). In 1965, he published the novella Hapworth 16, 1924. This is a story told from Seymour Glass’s perspective, the brother of a character from Salinger’s early work, “The Catcher in the Rye.” It was published in The New Yorker and had an illustration by Salinger himself.
In addition to the Catcher in the Rye, “Franny” (1955) and “Zooey” (1957), “Raise High the Roof Beam” (1955), “Carpenters” (1955), and “Seymour: An Introduction” (1959) are novels of Salinger’s.
#5 MARK TWAIN
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, with the pen name Mark Twain, was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835. He and his family moved shortly after that to Hannibal, Missouri, where he spent most of his childhood. Twain’s childhood friends and neighbors included Henry Clay Riley, John Briggs, and Tom Blankenship, the latter two of whom later became Twain’s first publishers.
A year after his father died, he became an apprentice for a printer. He began writing articles and humorous sketches for The Hannibal Journal.
Twain was an American humorist, novelist, entrepreneur, lecturer, and travel writer. His writing style was unique and spoke to the everyday person, which made him a massive hit in his time, and it still resonates with people to this day. His wit and satire earned him praise from both his critics and peers.
Twain was a friend to many, including presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty. Twain gets quoted often as saying, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
He first turned to journalism for Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. He then had his first story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1865. With this came such international attention, a French version was released.
For Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1876) and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884), also known as “the Great American Novel,” are his best-known novels. With his works translated into more than 30 languages, he has become one of the most quoted novelists of all time.
#6 ERNEST HEMINGWAY
Ernest Hemingway, born in 1899 in Illinois, became a journalist and an author. He was the second of six children and died in 1961. He had an understated and straightforward style with a strong influence on 20th-century fiction. Additionally, his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Ernest Hemingway said, “to know how to write, you must first be able to read.”
Hemingway worked on the school newspaper in high school and immediately following graduation became a journalist at The Kansas City Star. From there, he went to Paris to work for Star as a foreign correspondent. While in Europe, he and his first wife attended the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain. This was the inspiration he needed to write his first novel in 1925, “The Sun Also Rises.” This got acknowledged as his best work that artistically addressed the disillusionment that followed the war. When the United States entered into World War II, he served as a correspondent.
Hemingway was considered a pioneer of the modernist movement in the 20s. He is also known for “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” The latter got inspired by his time spent in the Spanish War. He took home the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.
Ernest Hemingway lived a fascinating life and was responsible for writing some of the best-loved classics of American literature, including “The Old Man and the Sea.” Overall, he wrote two novels, three novellas, six short story collections, and four nonfiction works. Hemingway also wrote four plays and screenplays. When not writing, he enjoyed a life of adventure. This included big game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, and deep-sea fishing in Florida.
Tragically Hemingway took his life in 1961 after battling depression and injuries from his many adventures. He had three novels released posthumously: “Islands in the Stream” (1970), “The Garden of Eden” (1986), and “True at First Light” (1999).
#7 GEORGE ORWELL
George Orwell, real name Eric Blair, was an English novelist, journalist, and political writer who lived from 1903 to 1950.
Orwell received his education at Eton and served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma from 1922-1927. In April 1932, George Orwell became a teacher at The Hawthorns High School, a school for boys, in Hayes, West London. He taught at the school for almost five years, from April 1932 until November 1937. During that time, Orwell wrote two books, “Burmese Days” and “Down and Out in Paris and London.” His experiences also made him one of the most outspoken critics of what he perceived to be British public schools’ oppressive nature.
Orwell is most beloved for the novels “Animal Farm” and “1984”. “Animal Farm” is a political allegory about a society of overworked, mistreated farm animals who overthrow their human masters. Orwell’s influence on contemporary culture, popular and political, continues decades after his death. The term Orwellian describes totalitarian or authoritarian social practices. It has entered the language together with many of his neologisms, including the cold war, thought police, Room 101, memory hole, and thoughtcrime.
His novel “1984” depicts a dystopian future in which a totalitarian government spies on its citizens and manipulates the truth. Orwell’s work got considered to be part of the literary genre of ‘social realism.’ It has also been credited as an influence on the genre known as ‘cyberpunk.’
“Animal Farm” and “1984” are two of Orwell’s novels that are still relevant today to understand totalitarianism, censorship, and mass surveillance. He also wrote nonfiction essays on topics like poverty, imperialism, censorship, and war. Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party in 1938. He fought for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and was wounded but luckily recovered.
Orwell’s health continued to decline after getting tuberculosis in 1947. He passed away at only 46 years old from an artery that burst.
#8 VIRGINIA WOOLF
Virginia Adeline Stephen was born in London into privilege in 1882. Even though she was born into this privilege, she was very unhappy with her life in a patriarchal society. Her father was a visible figure in the city, and she was expected to marry well and be a good wife. Her parents were Leslie Stephen, the Oxford Dictionary of Biography founder, and his second wife, Julia Duckworth. Woolf’s father, known for his literature services, gave her the run of the library as a child. At just eight years old, she submitted her first article into a competition. Even though it didn’t win, it foreshadowed her first novel 25 years later.
At thirteen years old, Woolf got sent to a ladies finishing school in Germany. Upon her return to England at seventeen, she began to write stories and her first novel. Her writings explored the stream of consciousness technique and women’s issues.
Woolf was one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century and a significant figure in feminist thought. Her most well-known works include “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) and “To the Lighthouse” (1927). She is an under-appreciated novelist who is widely known for her experimental writing. Before “Mrs. Dalloway,” she published three novels: “The Voyage Out” (1915), “Night and Day” (1919), and “Jacob’s Room” (1922). In her twenties, Woolf began writing professionally, supplementing her income with portrait commissions and teaching positions. In 1912, she published the controversial novel “The Voyage Out,” detailing the mental unraveling of a young woman suffering from depression. Many of her works went on to get adapted to the big screen and even an opera.
Sadly, Virginia lost her mother, father, and brother in quick succession. She struggled with poor mental health for much of her life and tragically committed suicide in 1941.
#9 TONI MORRISON
Born in Ohio in February 1931 as Chloe Anthony Wofford, Toni Morrison‘s parents were Ramah and George Wofford. Her favorite authors growing up were Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. She became known as a well-decorated American novelist, editor, and professor. Morrisons had the honor of becoming the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and the first black woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. She is regarded as one of the most significant American writers of the twentieth century.
“The Bluest Eye” was Morrison’s first novel and was published in 1970. Her books that followed included “Sula,” “Beloved,” and “Tar Baby.” “Beloved” (1987) became her most celebrated novel and spent twenty-five weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. It shared Margaret Garner’s story — an enslaved woman who escaped only to be tracked down by slave hunters. By 1988, It didn’t get the acknowledgment it deserved, and the likes of Maya Angelou (plus forty-eight others) wrote in protest in The New York Times. Two months went by, and “Beloved” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
She went on to write “Jazz” (1992) and “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” (1992). They were coined the “Beloved trilogy” as Morrison’s intent was for them to get read together. In 1998, Oprah brought “Beloved” to the big screen. Before the last novel of the trilogy was published, she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
In 1996, Morrison got selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Jefferson Lecture. This is known to be the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for “distinguished intellectual achievement in humanities.”
Morrison’s eleventh and final novel was “God Help the Child” (2015). Sadly, she passed away from pneumonia in 2019. She is praised for all her works to address the consequences of racism in the United States.
#10 ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Born in January 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, Zora Neale Hurston was a very accomplished African American writer. She was the baby of eight children, and her father a Baptist minister. She was taught in a one-room schoolhouse and later attended Morgan Academy, where she was the only black student.
When Zora was just three years old, she and her family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville ultimately became the setting in many of her stories. Eatonville now holds an annual Zora Festival in her honor.
Hurston published her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in Stylus, Howard University’s campus literary magazine. From there, she went on to write the short story “Spunk and the play Color Struck. They both won second place in a literary contest hosted by Opportunity, and “Spunk” got published.
Hurston became a prominent literary figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Her novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a classic of American literature. Her work is taught in schools worldwide, and she’s also frequently cited by authors like Toni Morrison for her influence.
Other notable novels include “Mules and Men” and “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” Zora Neale Hurston became known as a novelist, short story writer, and folklorist. She is considered by many to be one of the preeminent voices of Southern literature. Hurston’s literary career spanned seven decades. Hurston rounded out her career as an accomplished literary critic and anthropological and cultural anthropologist.
She passed away in 1960 from heart disease.
So grab one of these novelists’ books and a blanket and get cozy on the sofa for some excellent reading!