What if you decided you wanted to write a novel that would join the “50 most influential books ever written?” You wanted your book to be studied in literature classes 100 years from now. You had a concept and premise that would address a problem and make this world a better place. And you felt you had it within you to pull off such a feat.
And what if you wanted that novel to address social injustice or something just as controversial. I included the Literature and Society sections from the “50 most” list for examples of such books.
From creating characters and stories that have become foundational elements in cultures around the world to upsetting undesirable standards and inspiring the imagination of many, these works of literature have touched the world in significant ways. These are the most influential books in literature.
- The Canterbury Talesby Geoffrey Chaucer.
- Divine Comedyby Dante Alighieri.
- The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.
- Moby Dickby Herman Melville.
- 1984by George Orwell.
- Brave New Worldby Aldous Huxley.
- The Iliad and The Odysseyby Homer.
- Don Quixoteby Miguel de Cervantes.
- In Search of Lost Timeby Marcel Proust.
- Madame Bovaryby Gustave Flaubert.
- Arabian Nightstranslated by Andrew Lang.
- One Hundred Years of Solitudeby Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez.
- War and Peaceby Leo Tolstoy.
- The Tale of Genjiby Murasaki Shikibu.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabinby Harriett Beecher Stowe.
- Crime and Punishmentby Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
- Things Fall Apartby Chinua Achebe.
- Faustby Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
- Belovedby Toni Morrison.
- The Lord of the Ringsby J.R.R. Tolkien.
These are the most influential books in terms of impacting society, texts that helped changed people’s views on racism, feminism, consumption, and language.
- The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank
- The Vindication of the Rights of Womenby Mary Wollstonecraft
- The Second Sexby Simone de Beauvoir
- A Room of One’s Ownby Virginia Woolf
- Waldenby Henry David Thoreau.
- A Dictionary of the English Languageby Samuel Johnson
- Critique of Pure Reasonby Immanuel Kant.
- The Jungleby Upton Sinclair.
- What other titles would you add to this list?
And what if there would be consequences for writing such a controversial novel? Stakes (JSB, Plot and Structure): such as harm – physical, professional, psychological – even death. Do you still want to write that book? Have you thought carefully about the possible consequences?
So, what if you decided to protect yourself by inserting a buffer or a decoy – a main character who was on a quest to write such an influential novel, thus adding another layer to the story, and taking some of the heat off yourself?
What if, even though that main character was really you, you knew you must put your MC through the ringer.
- How far would you take your MC (you), or how close to physical death would you put yourself? Could you handle torturing and nearly killing yourself?
Commando squads showing up during the night to haul you off, never to be seen again? Or being ruined professionally where you could never find a publisher? Or being driven mad with the whole quest where you would finish the book as a deranged writer?
And, before you write your answer, we are talking “social disasters” outside your own country, not your own country’s political battles. No politics, please!
Okay, so how close to death would you take your MC (yourself)?
- Upping the ante
Now, finally, let’s up the ante. Or as Donald Maass says (in his books and classes), pick the worst possible scenario, now make it three times as bad. Let’s take that writer, the MC, you, out of the equation. You no longer have the MC to hide behind. You are writing that great influential, transformational novel yourself, without a decoy or a safety net; you face the stakes of death, in reality, not in the story. Do you still want to write it?
So, now, how badly do you want to write that story? What stakes would you be willing to face? What sacrifices would you be willing to make? Do you have it within you to make the ultimate sacrifice?
- Gaming the game
And knowing that some of you are already figuring out a way to publish without pain, what tricks have you devised to deceive? I’ll steal the easy ones: publish posthumously, hide behind a pen name, ghost write for someone else who is willing to take the heat. What others?
- Do you still want to be the Main Character?
Good morning, Steve. What a terrific post.
I unfortunately am not out to change the world with anything I write, other than to put a smile on someone’s face. Actually, I guess that does change the world, or at least a small corner of it, doesn’t it? The main character, though? No.
I appreciate you sharing that terrific list. I was surprised at how many of those books I have read.
Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Steve, which will get the creative juices flowing today. Hope you have a great weekend.
Thanks, Joe. That’s what your posts and comments always do, put a smile on lots of faces, and the world needs a lot more of that. So, see, you’ve found your premise for your novel, putting a smile on the whole world, and turning Mr. Frown upside down.
Have a great weekend!
Forcing my opinions on others, even through my fiction, is not my job. I’m an entertainer, nothing more important than that. I write fiction solely to enjoy the stories my characters tell me. I publish them (almost an afterthought) in case they might entertain others. Shrug. That’s it.
As for being the MC, the main character of my 12-novel western saga, The Wes Crowley Series, is already who I would like to have been had I come of age in the 1870s in the Texas panhandle. Even with the series finished, Wes keeps tugging at my sleeve, so now I’ve written the third novel in a “gap” series that fills in a 15-year gap between novels 2 and 3 of the original saga. (grin)
Would I endure today the same things I put him through in those 15 novels? Sure, because, as Wes would say, “Upright is not a matter of degree. In every moment, you either are or you aren’t.”
For novels to add to the list, Mark Twains’ Huckleberry Finn.
Great comments, Harvey.
“I’m an entertainer, nothing more important than that.” I agree, that’s what writing fiction is supposed to be about. And as for being the MC in your Wes Crowley Series, I think most of us realize we pour some of ourselves into our main characters, some more than others.
Thanks for the addition to the list.
Have a great weekend!
“Upright is not a matter of degree. In every moment, you either are or you aren’t.”
Harvey, you might not force your opinion on others, but Wes sure made me think with the statement above. 🙂 I’m pretty sure my dear Dad said something like that, over and over again, when I was but a tadpole.
Good point, Deb. Even if we are careful not to force opinion, our moral code sneaks out from our MC, at least if he’s one of the good guys.
This takes me back to Mr. Holtby’s English classes, where we had to read for deeper meaning.
Thought-provoking post, but no. That’s not why I write. I write so I don’t have to clean the toilets.
Sorry, Terry. Comment below.
Another invaluable post. I think it’s vital for a writer to have a coherent and consistent world view, and posts such as this help us sort out what we believe and why.
That said, we should add Darwin’s On the Origin of Species” to your “Society” section of most influential books. It shook up everything, including sociology, psychology, biology, and literature. It continues to redefine the arts and sciences today.
Thanks, Mike. Great comments. I agree with you that Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” has changed society.
I hope today’s post challenges us to reevaluate why we write, and the impact of what we write, even if it’s purely for entertainment. I was always the one in class to stir up trouble.
Have a great weekend!
I would ad The Woman in White by W. Collins because it exposed the lack of women’s rights and led to changes in English law.
Thanks, Joni, for that addition. I’m still working on my remedial reading list, and will add this one to the list. I see that The Observer listed this novel as #23 in the list of greatest novels of all time (according to Amazon). And it was regarded as one of the first in the genre of “sensation novels.”
Thanks for bringing it to our attention. And have a great weekend!
Two other social change novels are BLACK BEAUTY (horse) and BEAUTIFUL JOE (dog) which became banners for animal reformers and forced laws to improve the conditions of pets and domestic animals.
I love “The Woman in White.” I believe Wilkie Collins asked that his tombstone include the phrase “Author of The Woman in White.”
Thanks, Terry. I love your comment, “I write so I don’t have to clean the toilets.” Now, that’s being brutally honest. Know thyself. I’m guessing that most of us have come to acceptance of who we are and why we write. And that’s healthy. I just thought it might be good to challenge ourselves a bit today. There are many situations around the world that are ripe for the picking, concepts that beg for a premise.
Have a great weekend!
Steve, no list like that can possibly be considered complete without To Kill a Mockingbird.
And as far as consequences for writing such a novel, we certainly must consider the life and persecution of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
I’m happy writing pulp style, hardboiled fiction primarily to entertain. That said, all my novels have the theme “justice” pulsating through them. Maybe that’s my little contribution.
Thanks, Jim. That’s exactly what I was thinking when I prepared this post. I looked twice for To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Great reminder about Solzhenitsyn. A couple (other country) humanitarian catastrophes – social injustice exist that could put a writer in peril if he were to write about them. Yet, the potential exists for such a novel to join future lists of “most influential” novels.
And I thought about Sister Justicia Marie, as a MC who must embody some facets of the author. Mike Romeo, too, for the philosophy.
Have a great weekend!
A couple hundred years ago, a group of wealthy, successful men pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor on the principle that humans were born with certain unalienable rights. (And they were rebelling against ENGLAND, which is a different country, so I’m staying within your parameters.) Our “patriots” were considered terrorists by the Crown, and by signing the Declaration of Independence, they signed their own death warrants. Had the American Revolution gone a different way, we’d have all grown up studying Thomas Jefferson in the same chapter as Guy Fawkes.
For good or ill, Jefferson and Fawkes (and, if we’re being honest here, Vladimir Lenin via Karl Marx) made dents in the world not by their words themselves, but by those words’ resonance with people who already felt discontent, but hadn’t been able to articulate them in a succinct way. Real change comes when people are inspired to take action, often at the cost of many lives.
In my own life, I work very hard to put principle above all else. If my church, government or employer requires me to do something I believe is wrong, I’ll refuse and suffer the consequences. On the other hand, if any of those entities tells me that I cannot do something that I know to be right, I will follow my own compass.
I believe moral codes to be real things. I also believe they’re worth dying for. How could they not be? Living outside of them wouldn’t be much of a life.
Wow, John, well said. And coming from the creator of Jonathan Grave, I’m not surprised.
“I believe moral codes to be real things. I also believe they’re worth dying for. How could they not be? Living outside of them wouldn’t be much of a life.”
Maybe today’s discussion will inspire someone to set their next story in the milieu of one of the many current, other-country, social disasters.
Have a great weekend!
Terrific, thoughtful post, Steve! I believe that what is considered classic literature of course will be a matter of time and perspective. Certainly your list is a fine basis for discussion. So many books, so little time, a mantra of mine when I worked at the library, and still a mantra of mine. One of my own personal classics, a historical novel about war, is The Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer. Sajer (a pseudonym) was an Alsatian conscripted to fight in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front in WW2 during the Stalingrad campaign. A searing read, which shows what war is like regardless of what side you are on.
As a writer, I don’t aspire to write classic literature, but rather, create a compelling emotional experience for the reader, which is a high enough bar for me, and something I continually strive to improve on.
Thanks for another insightful post. Have a wonderful weekend!
Thanks, Dale. Good comment on how time will filter the perspective of what is considered “classic.” Thanks for adding “The Forgotten Soldier” to the list.
I think most of us will reach, or have reached, the same conclusion for our goal as a writer, to “create a compelling emotional experience for the reader.” Yet, we will probably put some of ourselves into our main characters, and thus inspire our readers to strive for justice or a better world.
Have a great weekend!
Wow. This is really heavy thinking for a Saturday. Good thing I don’t have a hangover.
My question is, will these books really pass the test of time? In 100 years or 200 hundred will these titles be swapped out. Maybe James Scott Bell is in my head again since he’s based signposts on it, but I wonder if the Hunger Games might make the list? It’s been a go-to novel to put my writing in perspective and I highly appreciate it. I also think there’s commercial novels that will be elevated up to prestige.
The Hunger Games may not be the best written book, but I think there’s major potential in its connection to move the reader and provide group discussion. If I were teaching writing in college, it would be mandatory reading for my class.
If I were a movie director, I’d want to make the next Marvel Movie instead of Casablanca. BTW going to take my chances and going with my kids to the see Black Widow tomorrow. I thrive on excitement and the potential of creating it for other people.
My current WIP is about Oil Ruffnecks dodging terrorist in a made-up country in the Middle East. I doubt myself or my characters would be influential enough to sit with J.R.R. Tolkien. If it happened, then great for me. But my biggest hope, like the other commenters, is to have the chance to entertain my potential readers.
I don’t see To Kill A Mocking Bird on the list? It might have been cut off. That a little gem that hits hard in many ways.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Ben. I agree with you that “To Kill a Mockingbird” should be on the list.
And, like others above, you raise the question of whether these titles will stand the test of time. Now, “The Hunger Games,” I never thought of that one. It certainly raises the social issue of how far those in power will go to force others to serve or entertain them. That has been present since the beginning of civilization. Good luck with changing that.
Your WIP about Oil Roughnecks in the Middle East certainly has the potential to include culture and issues that could make it influential, and at the same time put the author at risk. Makes you think about the risk vs. benefit.
Thanks for your input. Have a great weekend!
Thank you for the kind of words.
I admit I had a laugh. There’s not much culture in the oil industry. The biggest thing that comes to mind is washing your hands before lunch. But I get what you’re saying.
Going to have to look closely to see if there’s something else there? You managed to inspire me to think differently.
Thanks, Ben. I was thinking about the culture of the surrounding communities, their religion, their treatment of women, the terrorism you mentioned, the poppy-opium agriculture, their willingness to snatch journalists or others who have criticized them, etc.
Very few popular genre writers are naive enough to believe they will make the “Best Anything” list created by the critics and elitests. The simple fact that we are popular and enjoyed by the great unwashed means we don’t belong there. I knew that going into this profession because my education was by the critics and elitests. I didn’t care.
None of us happy little genre writers here in the US will have to die for our ideas or our books. If we get any kind of popular platform, we will be metaphorically stabbed in our backs and mocked by our genre’s mean girls and grumpy old men, but that’s true for whatever job we have.
The greatest danger American writers now face is the “Woke Police” who look at works from years ago and decide we must be degenerates or bigots because we don’t toe a cultural line that didn’t exist back then. Some writers have had their first book announced with great fanfare only to be dumped by their cowardly publishers when the Woke Police pounce and attack from several paragraphs that vaguely describe the book.
I wrote one of the first, if not the first, bi-sexual romance character in STAR-CROSSED over twenty years ago, but, if my book was still high profile, I’m sure I’d be in trouble because I didn’t write her the “right” way according to today’s woke standards. It’s a quietly scary world new writers work in right now.
Marilynn, thanks for your comments. I knew I could count on you to bring me back to reality.
I’ll refrain from commenting on your last two paragraphs, because we agree to avoid politics on this site.
“The simple fact that we are popular and enjoyed by the great unwashed means we don’t belong there.” Well said. And I’m not aspiring to any such delusion. But, can you think of any author who has addressed a social issue in a genre novel, and touched a nerve in readers to the point that it has made a change in society?
Thanks for your comments. Have a great weekend!
“Woke” isn’t politics, it’s an imposed social standard of behavior like religion and ethnic culture. I have nothing against any of them until they decide they are in charge and persecute those who don’t agree with them. That’s not against a certain political party, that’s against the Constitution.
Regarding putting yourself at the line of death over what you write, I’m not so sure one can correctly anticipate that. Salam Rushdie has said he wasn’t expecting a fatwa to be ordered against him and to have to go into hiding for years. Avijit Roy probably really wasn’t holding his breath on being hacked to death. I doubt Jeanine Cummins wrote her book with the intention of having her book tour cancelled over threats of violence. Charlene Harris was expecting the reception she got over the Sookie Sackhouse series ending.
Even if you think you may be arousing strong emotions, or pointing out the horrors of something for posterity, I don’t think you can really know or control how readers, especially future readers, react to your work. I’m sure a number of the writers on your list would be surprised to know they are still read.
I wouldn’t want to have lived Anne Frank’s life.
Tolstoy could have used an editor. Just sayin’.
Good points, Catfriend. I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of not knowing the danger the writer would expose himself to with writing a novel that shows the injustice in a society. Maybe it is the examples in recent history of what has happened to writers and journalists that made me think writers might suspect the risk. But good points.
And, I certainly agree with your second paragraph; we can’t predict how readers will react to our work. But don’t we try to create a certain effect?
Thanks for your thought-provoking comments. Good analysis. Thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend!
A very, very Anglocentric list.
Anglocentric? How is that relevant for purposes of this discussion?
Late, as always, to the Saturday discussion, but I enjoyed the thought-provoking article, Steve, and the follow-up comments.
I can’t believe Viktor Frankl’s great work “Man’s Search for Meaning” didn’t make the list. I would have put it at the top. But that brings me to another point: a list is only one person’s (or one committee’s) opinion. I’m sure there are many works that changed the world that aren’t remembered. Perhaps works that inspired some of the writers shown here. I’m quite sure the list changes from year to year.
I believe every thing one says, does, or writes changes the world. It may be such a small change that it’s not detectible in the moment, but could be the source of monumental upheaval later on.
My goal is to write entertaining novels that reflect my worldview and make people think. If they are recognized in any way, I’ll be grateful.
Thanks for getting my mind in gear late on a Saturday evening! Enjoy the rest of your weekend.
Thanks for stopping by, Kay. Good point about the list being one person’s or one committee’s opinion. And that opinion is probably shaped by history and societal norms.
Your goal for writing fiction is likely what most of the rest of us would say is our goal. And your world view, as seen through your characters, is what makes your novels unique, and provides the opportunity to nudge things in the right direction.
Have a great weekend!
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