We are lucky to be alive at the time we are, to be able to read literature from such a diverse background of people.However, according to a US study by Lee & Low Books in 2016, the publishing industry (staff-wise) is dominated by white females, with 79% of workers being white and 78% being women. Obviously, this must be taken in context and cannot be applied to other countries. But is this the same in terms of the type of people who are published?
Surprisingly enough, there are not many concrete figures or research available on this topic, simply because there is such diversity, whether writers publish with an established company or by means of self-publishing. This means that the number of people who write recreationally cannot be quantified either.
Let us take some time to celebrate and discuss the vast variety of writers whose works we have access to and those who inspire us to write. Before we begin, we would like to make clear that these writers are not ranked, just twenty people who have made our bookshelves so amazingly varied and rich.
1. Zadie Smith (1975-)
British writer, mostly famously the author of White Teeth (2000), Zadie Smith has written four other novels and a number of short stories and essays on socially relevant issues and topics that affect people's daily lives. She has a knack for writing realistic and engaging literature regarding social inclusion however has been quoted saying:
'I wasn't trying to write about race . . . Race is obviously a part of the book, but I didn't sit down to write a book about race. So is a book that doesn't have exclusively white people in the main theme must be one about race? I don't understand that.'
An interesting point. Does a lack of diversity in literature make it so that any book exploring other backgrounds is explicitly and pointedly doing so, or is a story just a story? Either way, any literature that opens the eyes of the many and encourages debate is a great and precious thing.
2. Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
A notorious writer who explored art and beauty, aestheticism, sexuality and the human condition, Oscar Wilde is one of the most famous writers in the world of literature. Below is the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), a famous piece exploring the very idea of literature and art:
'The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything.
Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.'
So why do we write at all? Subjectivity and joy? Pleasure or self-gratification? The word 'artist' can apply to actual artists, writers, musicians, cooks, dancers and other creatives. Wilde's idea of art being useless can give power to the writer in order to create without inhibition and inspires the notion that the reader provides the meaning and thus interprets.
Wilde was found guilty of having relationships with men and was imprisoned for two years for indecency. He rapidly declined after his release and died in 1900 in France. He himself had been a victim of discrimination but had the extreme talent for the written word, constantly questioning that which was said to be the right way of life in an era of vast change in Britain and in the world.
3. D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)
Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) is probably one of the most famous books in terms of the huge scandal surrounding it. Banned in multiple countries and censored, this lead to Penguin Books Ltd going to trial and winning. But the man being the novel is known for exploring the idea of the mind and the body and how they relate to one another.
After leaving England due to pressure from the British Armed Forces, Lawrence travelled around the globe, gaining valuable experience and knowledge from his new surroundings. He was also a poet, playwright and literary critic, keen to explore philosophy and politics through his works. Although his letters to Bertrand Russell and some of his political views has rustled some feathers, it is important to read and learn about all views and opinions to inform your own. Lawrence is an interesting and honest writer, who also may have been involved with other men, another example of a writer who was true to himself: an important message. No matter who you are, the actions you take and no matter what you believe in, you are always free to express yourself.
4. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Born Adeline Virginia Stephen, Virginia Woolf is known as one of the first users of stream of consciousness in literature, a trendsetter in modern literature. Her chosen style illustrates that variety in literature can come from many places and that no one should be afraid to try a new style of narrative. Whether it is a plot with a difference or an outlandish style, creativity and ownership of it is welcomed in the field of writing.
As author of The Voyage Out (1915), Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), a number of short stories and essays and most notably A Room of One's Own (1929), Woolf's work is often studied in schools and universities.
A significant part of her like, though, was her struggle with mental illness, triggered, some say, by the sudden death of her mother in 1895 when she was thirteen.
There has been some essays and analysis (which, in turn, has provoked criticism) linking mental health issues to creativity, drawing parallels between the behaviour of certain creatives and their ability to create.
It is the classic nature/nurture debate. Is anyone born creative or is there a susceptibility that can be encourage via social background and upbringing? Virginia Woolf's family were well connected and had access to lots of literature and good education. Does this have any part to play where on the other hand those who have less access to books still love them just the same?
In the modern day and age where books are very accessible to those in developed countries, it draws on the question of how to increase accessibility to those in countries where it is less likely that every child has a bookcase full of diverse, interesting and enjoyable literature.
5. Harper Lee (1926-2016)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was Lee's only novel until 2015 when the 'first draft' of the book was published as Go Set a Watchman. A close friend of Truman Capote, Lee achieved instant success when her first novel was published, defying her thoughts of being eaten alive by critics.
Interestingly, Lee did not complete a university degree, something which a lot of new authors feel they need in order to be a success due to vast competition in the field. Lee, on the other hand, with her genuine interest in literature and her father's background in law, ended up writing an influential piece of literature using what she knew and had experienced in the Deep South, exploring and discussing racial tension in America, humanity, violence and crime. It is clear that you do not need a degree to be successful. There is no formula to it, only the motivation, confidence and exposure to reach as many people as possible.
Lee also calls into question the issue of gender. Some people may have been unaware that Harper Lee was female. Many female authors have had to adjust their names in the past to suit their audience, which does imply that readers in perhaps the time of Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell were largely male. Does this ring true today? Some choose to anonymise themselves, using middle names or nicknames for many reasons and not necessarily to do with gender but this does highlight the importance of ownership and potentially the unspoken fears being publication. How important is a name for an author? Does the choice have potential impact on the book itself? These are questions that most publishers will ask and it is something that should be seriously considered when publishing.
Another great thing about Lee was that she published her last book at the age of 89, to great anticipation. Although she had success with her previous novel, it goes to show that age does not and should not stop anyone from pursuing publication of their work.
Lee once wrote: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.' This could epitomise writing in itself, a process of experiencing someone's point of view on some journey towards understanding and knowledge.
Lee sadly passed away in 2016, just a few months after her second and final book was published.
6. Salman Rushdie (1947-present)
Winner of a number of awards, including the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1981 for Midnight's Children, a tale exploring India's independence, Salman Rushdie is an innovative writer, again exploring cultural events with a focus on sharing his knowledge and views to others who wish to follow in his footprints into literature.
Rushdie also caused some controversy after the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988) over his depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. Like other authors, he published this book despite the sensitive nature of the content, opening up discussion and debate.
Living in the United States for over a decade now, Rushdie's impression in literature is far spread over many countries. But how does one become an international author? What is the definition? Is it through travel, experience or success? Or does being an author with your work freely available in as many countries as possible the main goal? Should this supercede any other goal or achievement? Should you choose a publisher who has the ability to get your book in as many countries and languages as possible, to fully maximise your outreach? It is a very important point to consider, although most authors begin by selling their work in their home country and then work their way outwards, largely dependent on demand and interest. With the help of the internet and global channels such as social media, it is now easier than ever to cross the world within the comfort of your own home and every modern publisher utilises this privilege when marketing and selling books around the country and around the world.
Not everyone will win awards for their literature but for some the goal is simply to publish or even to just finish a project, which is a very huge thing to accomplish in itself.
7. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Autobiographies can be just as powerful as fiction, if not more.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1968) describes Angelou's life up until she was seventeen and was very well received in the literary field and beyond. Using her own experiences opened the doors to her reality and allowed a large number of people into her world. Fiction can foster imagination and touch on events and cultural and social issues, however, literature with autobiographical content are a path to consider, a path where truth and words can inspire and educate.
An example of Angelou's excellent work is below:
'My education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes."'
Angelou's words have spread across the globe and she has become a household name with her beautiful and intense poetry and diction. She is also an inspiration to poets who may want to publish, poets who may find a harder time of publishing their work. Passion, honesty and bravery is all it takes to progress, delight and reach your potential.
8. Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
Essayist, author and journalist, Christopher Hitchens is a great example of sticking to your personal beliefs. As it stands, this is almost an oxymoron in terms of the fact that Hitchens said he was an antitheist and the notable author of God is Not Great (2007) and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995).
Despite the critics and the negative comments, until his death in 2011, he never changed his views and continued to research and debate on the topics he felt strongly. Mostly discussions on religion, social ethics and morality, Hitchens' work displays an informative and concise non-fiction with character and even comedy, opening up different platforms such as television, as a medium for his expression.
He was known to have said the following:
'I don't think it's possible to have a sense of tragedy without having a sense of humor.'
'Well, we can't say any more than we can say there is no god, there is no afterlife. We can only say there is no persuasive evidence for or argument for it.'
'High moral character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.'
'If someone tells me that I've hurt their feelings, I say, "I'm still waiting to hear what your point is." In this country, I've been told "That's offensive," as if those two words constitute an argument or a comment.'
Anyone can be a philosopher. The definition is that a philosopher is someone who is learned and engaged in philosophy and the definition of philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence. This does not necessarily mean you must think in fact, but to research and reason, discuss and be ready to discuss, be willing to educate others and yourself.
9. Khaled Hosseini (1965-)
Beginning his working career as a doctor in California, Hosseini epitomises the idea of changing careers as they are so vastly different. Author of The Kite Runner (2003), A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) and And the Mountains Echoed (2013), he spent 101 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Writing can lead you onto many different paths. Currently, Hosseini no longer practices medicine but most authors have no idea whether or not their work will be a success. Equally, it could take years for a reputation to grow. Some authors and poets only grew in popularity after their deaths so Hosseini is one of the lucky ones!
He is also an advocate of social growth and education for all, therefore writing can be a useful outlet to describe your ideas on change in the world or to focus on a particular issue you believe in. Hosseini is a very talented man and has written some beautiful words:
'One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.'
10. Carol Ann Duffy (1955-)
As the first Scottish and LGBT poet laureate in 2009, Duffy has made some outstanding achievements. Her poetry focuses on social issues and women, has been used in education as study material in schools and has lead her to win numerous awards.
Using everyday experiences, Duffy's work is honest and expressive and, not only this, her works show diversity: she has written poetry, plays and children's books.
Diversifying your writing can be easy. Duffy does this well, but can everyone? If you are very good at writing prose and verse or plays and poetry, why not do more if you can do it well? Take a look at Duffy's works for some ideas about how you can express your emotions on relationships, heartbreak, society and everyday things that affect your life. Sometimes it just takes writing down what happens on a day-to-day basis. Try beginning a diary an analysis it to reflect on what is going on around you, writing your responses to things that happen inside your home and bigger events that affect the world.
11. Socrates (d. 399 BC)
Perhaps an odd selection for this list of inspirational writers, Socrates is one of the founders of Western philosophy and has been providing us with inspiring, poetic words and ideas on society and nature for hundreds of years.
Below are some of Socrates ideas:
'I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.'
'Be as you wish to seem.'
'Beware the barenness of a busy life.'
'A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.'
'Beauty is a short-lived tyranny.'
Many fictional and non-fiction books also include philosophical ideas about life, society, morals, truth and people. Philosophic ideas can come out of any piece of literature or from any person and, most importantly, are opinions. Everyone has one and this can be voiced through characters or the narration of fiction and poetry. Books have elements of philosophy as they hold and reflect a certain truth, whatever genre. You can learn something from any book and anything you can learn from and makes you think about your place in the world and affects you in some way is time well spent.
12. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977-)
Feminist writer Adichie has given the world all sorts of literature. She has been nominated for a won a number of awards since first publishing a collection of poems in 1997. Her notable works include Americanah (2013) and We Should All be Feminists (2014) where she addresses issues such as culture, gender and what these actually mean in lives of people. She has been seen on social debate, news channels, panel discussions and her words have been featured in one of Beyoncé's songs, showing how your work can take you to unexpected places and reach different audiences.
She has said, 'Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our individual selves, if we didn't have the weight of gender expectations.' Tackling an issue that has been so prominent over the years, she has become a figurehead in the field. Social change is constant and has been seen in literature since ink has been put to paper.
Personal beliefs have a high impact on the words you write even if you know it or not. Your choice of genre or words reflects your experiences and views whether you mean it or not because words represent the writer. Belief does not just amount to religion, it relates to who you are as a person. Once again, opinion and belief can be a powerful and even subtle tool and a starting point for beginning your next project.
13. Maeve Binchy (1939-2012)
Everyone has seen a Maeve Binchy book at some point. Even if you have not read them, Binchy's work is a household name. The Irish writer was well known for her witty and humourous depiction of town life, including the portrayal of family life and intimate relationships. She often wrote with recurring and interrelated characters over the books, creating a community and family feel to her narrarive, reflective of real life and the wider social circles of individuals.
Circle of Friends (1990) and Tara Road (1998) are some of her popular books and she has been said to be one of Ireland's most recognised writers, having sold over 40 million copies of her books in over 30 languages. It is also well known that Binchy had also been rejected by some publishers, a story known by many writers, which later turned around and led to her becoming the success that she was.
Relationships are a huge part of any fiction, the bonds formed and broken, and those who read and write drama and romance should use Binchy as an example of resilience and inspiration.
14. Malorie Blackman (1962-)
Beginning as a children's writer, Blackman has been providing young people with thought-provoking literature for decades. Elaine You're a Brat! (1991), Pig Heart Boy (1997) and the Noughts & Crosses series (2001-2008) are among her most famous works. She has won numerous awards and has had her work televised.
She started her career in IT and published her first collection of stories in 1990, leading to a domino effect of a number of works for children and young adults. Job change is another thing to highlight here, where her love of literature did not stop her from making this her new career. Writing on social and ethical issues, her books also explore dystopian themes and classic science fiction in a very readable and exciting framework, allowing people of all ages to enjoy it and engage.
If you wish to write for children, Blackman's writing is large and varied, as well as inclusive of all kinds of people over broad topics involving culture, identity, society and its future.
15. Stephen King (1947-)
We probably all know him best for having written Carrie (1974), The Shining (1977) and short story Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (1982), but Stephen King is so much more than that.
The notion of the small town is very clear in King's works, focusing on the sinister nature of this 'dying organism'. His writing falls in the genres of horror, the supernatural with elements of science fiction and fantasy and have had very successful adaptations to film with The Shawshank Redemption (1994) said to be one of the greatest films of all time. Having sold over 350 million copies of his works, he is clearly very successful and has provided literature for generations of people and for generations to come. He is an advocate of handwriting and of reading and writing being a key factor in being able to write yourself.
In the western world, technology has taken over many aspects of life and many writers make the most of using laptops and computers, even tablets to help write up their projects. Has pen and paper become obsolete? Some think so, however as generations go on, change occurs. Despite this, some may argue that as many submissions are sent to publishers by email or an online form, there is no space for paper in an attempt to be more environmentally friendly or an attempt to be more efficient and speed up the selection and production processes.
If not in the final project, pen and paper tends to be a helpful tool during drafting stages of writing and so may always have a place in literature. King's generation and the generation of writers in a few decades will be different and so publishers are attempting to adapt from largely paper-based to electronic to modernise and improve the publication of thousands of books.
16. J. R. R. Tolkein (1892-1973)
John Ronald Reuel Tolkein was not only an author, but an experienced professor and linguist.
Born in South Africa, Tolkein moved to England at the age of three and was raised in the Birmingham area, where he grew up to be drafted into the First World War and the Battle of the Somme, eventually becoming a fellow at Oxford University. He created many languages and was said to be one of the biggest influences in fantasy novels with the publication of The Lord of the Rings, a three-part story concerning hobbits, with the first single edition published in 1968, but which also addresses the ideas of evil, friendship, honour, bravery and duty, echoing the effects of war.
Fictional and constructed languages are found in many places, for example Esperanto, which has become a real language, as well as in other literature and films such as Watership Down (1972), Avatar (2009), and in the popular Star Trek and Star Wars universes.
Language is a part of people and communication and can be used to create a more realistic setting for the world you have created and for the characters who live in it. This shows that you do not have to have characters who speak the same language and come from the same place and the language does not even have to be real, highlighting also that language does not create barriers between people, either fictional or in society. Adding another dimension to your writing is never a bad idea.
17. George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)
Along with writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Blake and John Keats, Byron was one of the writers who founded the Romantic era of literature in England. And no, it does not mean that it's all about love. Romanticism was a movement which was highly intellectual, inspired by nature but also did address the social issues of the time.
Known for Don Juan (1819) and She Walks in Beauty (1813), Lord Byron was known for his flamboyance, relationships and influence. He was born with a birth defect, a condition known as 'club foot', of which he was conscious of. Despite this, he still travelled and wrote and shared his works with many.
What is clear is that literature is non-discriminate and so many different people of various backgrounds have found common ground based on the books they read and the joy of writing and learning.
18. Miguel Syjuco (1976-)
Winner of the Grand Prize for the Novel in English and the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for this first novel Illustrado, Syjuco has achieved a lot. He has had an international reach, with his book being translated in French, Serbian, Italian, Catalan and many others.
The story begins with death and death has always been a massive theme in most literature. In fact, you would be hard pressed to not find a link with death, whether of a person or an idea, in any piece of literature. Death, a part of life, is often present in literature, making it directly relatable with the reader. Whether subtle or stark, death and life, alongside one another are ideas used in literature with effect to add realism and human emotion into literature, feeding into everyday tragedy, growth and change.
19. J.K. Rowling (1965-)
You knew this was coming. Joanne Rowling (rhymes with 'bowling' not 'howling') is said by many to be the 'end goal' and, more often than not, it is her notoriety and success people envy and not her money. Truly a household name, Harry Potter books will be a permanent fixture on people's bookshelves for years to come.
Having first publishing in 1997, the Harry Potter books have become one of the most popular books in the world, not just for children but for adults and families. Crossover fiction epitomised, millions of children have progressed from child to adult along with the characters and has inspired countless children (including the founder of this company) to write and work within the publishing field or even film, gaming and all of the other industries the books have become a part of. It is very clear that Rowling has influenced the creation of worlds and not just characters with her stories (never mind the hugely loyal fans, the fan fiction and merchandise).
As previously mentioned, death is a huge theme of literature, but here, we would like the talk about the theme of love. In contrast to death and in relation to it, Rowling discusses the persistence of it beyond the grave in the relationship and connection her main character has with his mother. A universal concept and perhaps one of the most complex, Rowling tells a tale that spans years beyond the frame of the story that leads back to the simple idea of a parent loving their child being the things that saves his life on many occasions. Some say that this story is all about magic and broomsticks, but it clearly has a much bigger story to tell.
Not only this, Rowling provides us with diverse charaters of all backgrounds, someone for everyone to relate to and even characters that we love to hate.
Thus comes the main point. Reading, in this case, has made many young people come together and inspired parents to read to their young children and people to read and write. Not to say that no one did these things previously, but there was and has been a definite post-Potter effect since Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in 1997. She has also spoken about the rejections she had received for her manuscripts. Subsequently, those who did reject her must not be too pleased with themselves today.
Rowling's journey has been an amazing one and through it all she has remained grounded and true to herself. Surely she is a role model for all writers simply for that.
20. Jules Verne (1828-1905)
French poet and novelist Jules Verne is one of the most well-known science fiction authors. His most notable works include Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), a massive influence in the science fiction and adventure genres, the subjects of numerous adaptations over the years. Verne is one of the most translated authors in the world and was influenced by the changes in France, including the Revolution of 1848.
It is undeniable that change and progress are key themes of science fiction, a genre perhaps well known today as the genre filled with aliens and spaceships. The origins of science fictions sit within sociology, biology and psychology, the changes of people in reaction to their environment, a lot of which tend to have prophetic visions of the future and warnings for the generations to come.
Social upheaval and adventure were influences to Verne and some dispute that his work was part of the science fiction genre at all. Literature, one could say, is not about fitting in boxes and should not be written to fit in a certain category. Books, like people, are complex and sometimes undefinable and can go across many genres and appeal to many people. Something to have in mind, though, is that categorisation is inevitable but should not necessarily be a focus during the writing process.
If you made it to the end, reward yourself! Hopefully this was not too long an article and you haven't lost interest at entry two.
You're probably wondering, 'Why isn't Shakespeare on this list? What about this author? What about that author? This list is not definitive as there are so many writers out there who made us pick up a book or a pen. We don't even know how we narrowed it down to twenty. It could have gone on forever but we wouldn't want to put you through even more scrolling.
Please feel free to comment below or on social media and let us know who you'd like to see here. You may then inspire us to publish another article on the writers you love or have made a difference to your reading or writing. If you get in touch, we'll be sure to acknowledge your request.
There are plenty of authors, past, present and future, who produce amazing literature, whether or not they are loved by few or many. Watch this space for some exciting literature to come and see our Submissions page for how to submit your next project!
Happy reading and writing, everyone.