Literature is a complex and multifaceted thing that relies heavily on the subjectivity of the reader to decide whether it is good or bad, but some writers can rise above this and be recognized as greats. These luminaries of the craft rarely come along, but when they do, they present a story in such a way that it alters the craft itself.
Here we look at a few writers who have done just that and ask why.
1. Franz Kafka
So important was Kafka's contribution to the 20th-century literature that the phrase Kafkaesque has entered the lexicon to describe situations that often crop up in his work, that focused heavily on the absurdity of bureaucracy and explored the themes of alienation, existential anxiety, and guilt.
Through his intense and bizarre imagery, Kafka was concerned with identity and depression; two issues that plagued him in his lifetime, to the point that he ordered his work destroyed upon his death. Fortunately, his publisher, and friend ignored him and he became one of the biggest influencers of other 20th-century writers and artists.
2. James Joyce
The Irish writer was a leading light in the 20th-century avant-garde movement and created several groundbreaking novels where he would often use onomatopoeic words that were not in the English language and yet, seemingly made sense. This use of language helped him create unique and vivid imagery through language that had not previously existed.
Often writing in a stream of consciousness, his texts mimic human thought as closely as possible, and his style has not really been imitated since.
3. Jack Kerouac
Hanging around with beat poets and other literary giants of that American generation such as Allen Ginsberg certainly would have helped Kerouac's iconography but it was his writing about jazz and drugs and other life experiences in such a candid and open manner, going so far as to glamorize his vices, that shook the literary world at the time.
His method of writing where he improvised sentences and never edited caused much consternation and split the writing community with Truman Capote commenting "That's not writing, that's typing." However, it undoubtedly lent an unsee energy and nuance to his writing that was not seen before, and he is one of a select few credited with starting the hippie movement.
4. Harper Lee
It is a sign of true greatness that, having only ever written two novels, Harper Lee is still considered a vital figure in literature due to her first book To Kill A Mockingbird. Written in the 1960s, it was a candid look art race relations in America at a time where they were devastatingly poor.
Using a child narrator, the book explores these strong themes through the eyes of innocence which allow for a vicious shaming of prejudices through the gentle presentation of new knowledge learned. In 2015, Lee published an early draft of the novel called Go Set A Watchman, which sort of acts like a sequel to her first novel, but it would be wrong to call it that.
5. Dante Alighieri
Dante's writing was important for several reasons, the first being that he wrote in a common tongue at the time, thus abandoning Latin. This meant that the monopoly on literature, held to by the elite classes who were the only ones taught latin, was broken and so helped broaden the base of learning and knowledge.
The second is his use of religious iconography and making it his own. Many of the typical images of Christianity (devils, angels, heaven, hell, etc.) actually come from Dante's work that expounded on biblical depictions.
6. J.R.R. Tolkien
Thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster versions of the books, most people have now heard of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit, but these stories are just a tiny part of the Tolkien tale. The fantasy genre existed long before Tolkien and persisted long after him, but the English writer did what no other has done before or since in his creation of worlds.
Using his knowledge of ancient languages and history, Tolkien created the languages of his world to be fully functioning. As such, you can actually learn his elvish languages. He also created an in-depth history and mythology around his Middle-earth which took him seven years of research before he had even begun to write the novels. As such, his books are so vast and expansive that they feel entirely real despite being set in fantastical lands.
7. Jane Austen
Behind the lives of luxury and keeping up of appearances of the Austen novels, there are some pretty pointed social commentaries on the lives of the English gentry at the time that delve into the minutiae of the lifestyles at the time like no other writer had before.
Her novel Emma is one of the first representations of feminist literature in English writing despite the writer herself having to publish anonymously during her lifetime because she was a woman and to be a writer would not have been acceptable.
8. Alice Munro
In an age where the short story is often dismissed as secondary to the novel, Alice Munro has revolutionized the form by using confident, simple prose that cuts through human emotion and gets to the poignant matter of things and using this to address difficult emotional subjects.
Years of her prolific writings led her to win the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature with her writing often jumping back and forth in time.
9. Kurt Vonnegut
War is a heavy subject, war is hell, war is...funny? Vonnegut stepped onto the writing scene with his first-hand experience of war and the horrific Dresden bombings where he had stared into the abyss, and he came back and made jokes about it.
Using sci-fi and comic elements to open people up to the brutalities and horrors of war made it accessible and talked about in genre-bending novels that straddled an incredibly ambitious approach to science fiction like no other before or since.
10. William Shakespeare
Anyone who has taken high-school English should know how important Shakespeare is to the world of literature by defining the language of the time and creating hundreds of words and phrases that we still use today. He remains the ultimate literary innovator and is the key reason why plays are considered as literature.
He reinvented the play as an art form, and his story and plot lines have been recreated so often that his work and phrasings have now become cliched, which is sort of the highest compliment to pay to a writer.