A writer for our time

Abstract:

A survey was conducted among published writers to name the writer who most shaped American literature. The overwhelming choice was Ernest Hemingway. Other nominees include William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Graham Greene and John Steinbeck.

Full Text:

As part of our anniversary celebration, we asked our panel of experts: Who has been the most influential author of the past 75 years? The answer was as obvious as the sunrise.

  • The first appearance of Writer’s Digest preceded by four years the publication of a short-story collection called In Our Time. Almost a novel, the stories told of the young life of one Nick Adams.
  • Nick Adams would not reappear in a major role for his creator, but he wasn’t forgotten. His stories could have been the prototype childhood for a men’s club of protagonists that were to follow: Jake Barnes. Frederic Henry. Harry Morgan. Robert Jordan. The old fisherman.

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Just as Nick Adams influenced those characters that followed him, so too has Adams’s creator influenced us. When Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, the selection committee cited “his powerful style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration.”

Wounded while an ambulance driver in World War I, Hemingway was among the first wave of post-war writers. He remains the best of them–a stature confirmed by a Writer’s Digest survey of published authors, conducted as part of our 75th anniversary celebration. We asked these writers to name the most influential author of the past 75 years.

Overwhelmingly, their answer was Hemingway.

Without doubt, it is Ernest Hemingway. His writing has influenced every writer since his debut, regardless of the language in which the author writes or whether he has read Hemingway. Hemingway’s plain style, his use of timeless vernacular, the technique of starting a story in midstride, and his invention of the subjective objective are to be found in the works of artists as diverse as Roberson Davies, Anne Tyler and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Say what you will about the subjects he chose to write about and the way in which he conducted his life (which is no one’s business but the artist’s), modern literature without Hemingway is unthinkable. –Loren D. Estleman

He was not only a better than good writer, he changed writing. –Andrew J. Offutt

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The best writer was Hemingway of In Our Time and other early stories, the Hemingway who had learned from Gertrude Stein–for his understatement, delicacy, purity: the capacity to imply much by stating little. –Peter Straub

  • He introduced a style of writing–lean prose with emphasis on dialogue to move the story–that beginning writers could imitate in developing their own styles. –Elmore Leonard
  • He was clearly the best short-story writer. Although his novels seem not to have stood the test of time very well, his writing style probably had the greatest influence of any 20th-century author on world literature. –Patrick F. McManus

The 20th century has flourished amidst other authors writings, of course. And Hemingway was not the only writer to garner nominations in our poll. Four more authors names rose to the top of our list. Here they are, in order of mention, with selected comments from our respondents.

William Faulkner

Genius. –Belva Plain

Probably the most universal artist in American fiction, and a true benchmark for anyone who wants to write seriously. –William Heffernan

I believe he has no peer in modern times. James Joyce and Hemingway come close, but Faulkner’s work rivals that of Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer. His The Sound and the Fury is probably the best novel in the English language. No one experimented successfully as much as he. –James Lee Burke

He created not just a single fine work, not just novels, but a whole literary cosmos. Taking the history and mores of his region, he transformed them into something entirely new, entirely his–and he transformed them into art. –John Jakes

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer is surely one of the most important. The Naked and the Dead remains a compelling study of war, and a novel of exceptional psychological insight. Often overlooked is Mailer’s brilliant political reportage: Annies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago and St. George and the Godfather transcended the usual nuts-and-bolts analysis, and provided a penetrating glimpse of our national psyche. And such books as The Executioner’s Song and Oswald’s Tale made their unprepossessing and even repugnant subjects figures of disturbing fascination. Like Marlon Brando in acting, even Mailer’s failures are often more interesting than the successes of writers who dare less. I consider Mailer essential reading. –Richard North Patterson

Graham Greene

He stands apart from other authors-magnificent writing sparkling with similes and metaphors that evoke emotion, a place, a time. A second level in his novels probes the great themes of the day, as well as timeless struggles between belief and disbelief The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Human Factor are three enduring classics, yet everything he has written is powerful and long-lasting inmemory. –Robert Cormier

Greene produced a large body of work spanning more than 60 years and could be both serious and entertaining, often in the same book. His themes were the great ones of life and death, articulated in an almost cinematic style. –Edward D. Hoch

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John Steinbeck

He is notable not only for the brilliance of his storytelling, but for his understanding and depiction of thehuman condition. –Nora Roberts

I would have to place John Steinbeck at the head of the list, as his works greatly influenced me in my own work. The power and simplicity and importance of what he wrote is a superb example for any writer, whether budding or established. –Altan W. Eckert