[ilds] The Times' 50 greatest British writers since 1945

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Thu Jan 17 11:32:10 PST 2008

Out of fairness, Erica Wagner admits the limitations of listing here below.




 From The Times
January 4, 2008
Erica Wagner introduces The Times list of the Greatest British Writers 
Since 1945
Books cover

See the full list here

Happy new year! What better way to start the year, we thought, than with 
an argument? Yes, I know that we here in Books aren't usually thought of 
as pugnacious, but when we decided to present you — as our first 
offering for 2008 — with a ranking of whom we consider the best postwar 
British writers, we knew that at least some of you would surely be cross 
about something.

The first thing to take issue with, of course, is the notion of a “best” 
list itself. One eminent writer, when asked to contribute a profile of 
one of our choices, declined in part on the grounds of disapproval of 
lists in general. Fair enough to argue that writing is not the Olympics, 
and that writers don't set out after gold medals, in the main — although 
of course at this juncture the Monty Python sketch “Novel Writing: Live 
from Wessex” can't fail to spring to mind (“Here comes Hardy, walking 
out towards his desk. He looks confident, he looks relaxed, very much 
the man in form, as he acknowledges this very good-natured bank holiday 

The same claim can be made about prizes. However much some readers might 
imagine that agents and publishers make desperate pleas to their authors 
(“Come on, please? You gotta win the Booker this time”) I can promise 
you that it really doesn't work that way.

But still and all, we have made a list, if only because it is a good 
jumping-off point for a discussion — one that we very much hope you will 
join. Indeed, we might say that's the whole point: what do you think? 
There's a chance that you are delighted with the entire list and wish to 
congratulate us; that's certainly fine. It seems more likely, however, 
that you'll wish to take issue, and so we wait to hear from you.

You might begin by asking how we came up with our half-hundred; and the 
order in which we placed them. Because there is no scientific method for 
making such a list in the correct order, we applied no scientific 
method. But we considered a number of factors — sheer quality of 
writing, longevity, lasting impact and, naturally, commercial success.

We are a talkative bunch over here, partial to tea, coffee, biscuits 
and, sometimes, strong drink. Put it all together and you get the 
beginning of a list, or at least someone shouting “Over my dead body!” 
while someone else sulks in the corner. But this was not a task that any 
of us took lightly, and we've been working on it for a while. We 
considered novelists, poets, writers of nonfiction – those whose words 
are primarily meant to be read rather than spoken. So no Pinter, 
Stoppard or Lennon-McCartney.

Most problematic was the prewar/postwar distinction; alas, our 
contenders didn't tie their oeuvres neatly to Mr Hitler's plans. 
Borderliners such as George Orwell gave us the most bother. In the end 
we decided that they had to have produced all of their most enduring and 
significant works after 1945. So no Graham Greene as Brighton Rock came 
out in 1938, or Evelyn Waugh (Scoop, also 1938). Feel free to say if you 
think that we've erred.

There was, too, the question of nationality, occasionally a more 
delicate issue than one might think. What — Ted Hughes but no Heaney? 
But as Famous Seamus has reminded us, his passport's green. Hard luck.

Our first list was much, much longer; paring down was not much fun. 
Where's Malcolm Lowry? I hear you cry. Graham Swift? Zadie Smith? Byatt 
but no Drabble? These are weighty matters, and it sounds flip to say 
that's the way the cookie crumbles. Above all we were looking for 
endurance in both work and influence; sometimes the latter operates more 
stealthily than the former, and lesser-known names come to the fore. 
Ordering the Top Ten, particularly, seemed a near impossible task: but 
then the names fell into place, at least to our satisfaction. Yours too? 
Let us know. Let the games begin.

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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