It’s an odd thing to be a novelist, most especially a famous one. We can’t imagine the strangeness that must come with people having read (or not read, in some cases) the intimate details of your consciousness, thrown together onto a page to form some level of a cohesive story (also in some cases, not). We also can’t imagine what it would be like to be a highly influential author whose work most escapes the general populace, and is instead relegated to the dusty corridors of academia and the pages of graduate student cumulative projects. It’s these authors we’re going to speak on today, the type who are rarely cited as among the most popular of their time, yet consistently find themselves invoked in classrooms, essays and projects that matter only in English departments on college and university campuses. These are 10 influential authors that nobody bothers to read, for leisure purposes, that is.
10. Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes is a great curiosity as an author, someone who has been both wildly successful and critically acclaimed, yet rarely finds himself cited as one of the greatest authors of his generation. An English author who has won the Man Booker Prize (a big deal, which he won for his novel The Sense of an Ending), Barnes has produced consistently spectacular work since the publication of his first novel, Metroland, in 1980. A somewhat controversial author who is not afraid to break convention both stylistically and in content, Barnes has published several other critically lauded novels, including Flaubert’s Parrot (a master class in postmodern narrative, often used as a prime example of non-traditional story structure in university classrooms) and England, England (which is a pseudo-dystopian satire also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize).
9. Herman Melville
We don’t believe you when you say you’ve read Moby Dick. We also don’t believe you when you say you’ve read anything else by historically acclaimed author Herman Melville, who penned the great tale about Captain Ahab and his vengeance-soaked quest for revenge against the great white whale of cultural legend. Moby Dick, which is consistently ranked as one of the greatest novels of all time, also happens to be a bit of a chore to get through, and that’s why it’s been included on this list. How can Melville be one of the greatest writers of his or any generation if nobody can slog through the one novel he’s known for?! Trust us when we say it drives us crazy too. We’ve spent a significant amount of time hanging around university English departments, and we still can’t find anyone who’s been able to both get through and adore this much spoken of but rarely read novel. For that, Melville takes the number nine spot on this list.
8. Howard Zinn
Trust us when we say the world (and especially America) would be a better place if more people read Howard Zinn, the late historian whose controversial work A People’s History of the United States remains one of the most important and influential non-fiction texts ever published. A commendable attempt to tell the history of America from the perspective of the disenfranchised, marginalized and otherwise disrespected cultures who played an instrumental role in the creation of this great country, A People’s History of the United States carries in it a great deal of empathy, an emotion the United States could do with far more of given it’s contemporary cultural climate. You’re talking about a country where people are actively trying to rewrite history books so as to avoid speaking of slavery, and a place like that needs more individuals to read authors like Howard Zinn, who often championed the idea of “civil disobedience” as a solution to what ails America. Now that’s a historian we can get behind.
7. Joseph McElroy
In the world of postmodern fiction, certain names reign supreme; authors like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace are often revered (rightfully so) for their ability to deconstruct the world around them and put it back together in more digestible ways. They are not, however, the only authors with the talent to do this. One author who has contributed to the development of postmodern fiction in much the same way is Joseph McElroy, whose monumental and massive tome Women and Men is widely considered one of the definitive texts of the postmodern era, despite the fact that its rarely read by the general population.
6. Chinua Achebe
Perhaps it’s callous to place someone like Chinua Achebe, arguably the greatest author to ever come out of the African continent, on a list like this. After all, he’s undoubtedly read by hundreds of thousands of people who cite his works like Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God as some of the most important of the modern era. And make no mistake, Achebe gets an asterisk on this list because he is popular; what we’re arguing is he isn’t popular enough. Achebe, not unlike Howard Zinn (although for very different reasons), should be read by most everyone. His works are insightful, affective and terrific pieces of literature which feature some of the finest prose you’ll ever come across. Yet his works are woefully underappreciated by a population that would rather invest time into figuring out which monk murdered the other monk in Dan Brown’s latest piece of trash.
5. Marcel Proust
We’ve spoken before of the wide ranging influence of Marcel Proust, the French author whose massive, continuous tome In Search of Lost Time rates as one of the most impressive literary achievements of all time. Clocking in at seven volumes and over 4,000 pages in most instances, In Search of Lost Time is consistently cited as one of the most influential pieces of literature that’s ever been written, despite the fact that nobody has time to read 4,000 pages. Similar to Moby Dick, we couldn’t find anyone who had invested the time to both start and finish this epic and influential work (and we do mean influential…guys like F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway have all cited this as one of the most important works they ever came across). That said, In Search of Lost Time isn’t the only way to interact with Proust; he also wrote essays and short stories, most of which are held in the same regard as his magnum opus. Still, he earns a spot on this list for being consistently invoked as influential, despite the fact that his main contribution to literature is rarely read.
4. Dashiell Hammett
Raymond Chandler may get all the glory when it comes to speaking of hard-boiled detective fiction, but it’s Dashiell Hammett who contributed most to this pulp genre which took America by storm in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The author who most influenced Chandler (and many others, all of whom speak highly of Hammett’s prose), Dashiell Hammett is the author of The Maltese Falcon, the famed detective novel featuring Sam Spade, which would later be adapted into an even more famous film of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. Hammett, who also wrote influential novels like The Red Harvest, The Thin Man and The Dain Curse, remains one of the godfathers of the detective novel and one of the most important authors whose name nobody seems to know.
3. William Gibson
We don’t know how many times we have to tell people that William Gibson is incredibly important before they’ll start listening. We’ve been telling people for years that the author of works like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive and Spook Country is one of the most poorly recognized yet wildly influential authors we’ve ever come across, to little avail. Gibson, who is a Canadian author, first broke onto the scene with Neuromancer in 1984, a novel so important that it has directly contributed not only to fiction, but also to computer science, internet networking technology and all manner of study on cyberspace and the like. Since Neuromancer, Gibson has continued to produce quality science fiction stories which remain on the fringe of anonymity, despite the fact that he’s been in large part a contributor to some of the most important and often recognized tropes of the science fiction genre (that whole “hacker” image and mentality? Yeah, that was Gibson).
2. Albert Camus
In a just world, Albert Camus would be recognized for what he is—a highly influential author and philosopher whose works on existentialism and absurdism represented a massive step forward for thinking in the contemporary age—but alas, we do not live in a just world. Camus, whose most enduring popular legacy may be a difficult to pronounce last name (It’s Ca-moo, not Ca-mus), is a Nobel prize-winning author from France who penned important works like The Stranger and The Rebel, both of which are considered fundamental philosophical texts produced in the last 100 years. While he was not the founder of absurdist thought, Camus was one of the individuals who took the idea of the absurd and began to filter contemporary life through it, drawing attention to existential issues that he deemed essential to the human condition (and that often existed in harsh opposition to nihilism, that other contemporary school of thought which suggests life is meaningless and we’re all going to die, you know…kids’ stuff). The utmost champion of individual freedom, Camus represents one of history’s brightest minds and one who should be read by all.
1. Franz Kafka
No doubt most individuals have heard the term “Kafka-esque” and have had absolutely no idea where it came from, knowing only that it is often applied to experimental works that deal in the strange and the uncanny, with themes of alienation and the brutality of modern life close at hand. Of course, this term originates with Franz Kafka, the noted German language writer who wrote wildly influential texts like The Metamorphosis and The Trial. Often studied in academia but rarely read by the public, Kafka represents the ultimate in authors whose literary influence is unappreciated by the public. A laundry list of highly respected writers and academics have cited him as one of the most important authors of his or any era, yet ask your average Joe what novel’s he’s famous for and you’ll most assuredly get back an unspecific shrug.