Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World

From the January/February 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Fearless, inventive, persistent, beautiful, or just plain badass—here are some of the living authors who shake us awake, challenge our ideas of who we are, embolden our actions, and, above all, inspire us to live life more fully and creatively. Add your favorites to the list in the comments section below.

Chinua Achebe
The best-selling Nigerian novelist sets universal tales of personal and moral struggle in the context of the tragic drama of colonization.

André Aciman
An uprooted Alexandrian Jew, Aciman is a writer whose careful reflections, couched in dense and unapologetic prose, unfurl like lifelines flung out to all the world's wanderers.

Uwem Akpan
His is the perfect story line: Jesuit priest from Nigeria becomes a best-selling, Oprah-chosen author. "I was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humor and endurance of the poor," he writes on his Web site.

Elizabeth Alexander
There was too much chatter about the quality of the poem. What matters is that she was up there reading it—a poem!—on the biggest and most inspiring stage in recent history.

Aharon Appelfeld
As William Giraldi wrote, he is "a man for whom language is dangerous, a man who measures every word because every word is sacred."

John Ashbery
One of the best and most enduring poets that this country is lucky enough to have. Period.

Alison Bechdel
The graphic memoirist shows us that perhaps the truest way to make sense of memory is by investigating the pictures of our past (both physical and mental).

T. C. Boyle
He's like Santa Claus, only thinner. You can count on a damn good book of fiction under the tree every year.

Anne Carson
She was bending genres like silly straws long before it was fashionable or commercially successful to do so. Plus, she's probably the smartest author we know.

Kang Chol-Hwan
His memoir, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, was the first account of North Korea's gulag system by someone who had survived it.

Susanna Clarke
She took one of the staples of fantasy writing, the magician, and turned it into a high literary epic, removing Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell from the confines of genre entirely.

Billy Collins
He's made accessible a dirty word by celebrating the poetic pleasures and small comforts of ordinary life in a way that encourages us to celebrate them too.

Joan Didion
Check for the pulse of anyone who wasn't deeply moved by The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion's simple, unsentimental prose is pure inspirational power.

Katherine Dunn
It's been more than twenty years since she introduced us to Arturo the Aquaboy, Ephy and Elly the twins, and Oly the albino hunchback, but we'll gladly wait another twenty for anything approaching the genius of Geek Love.

Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte
Two poets, two words: Cave Canem. The fact that they have eleven poetry collections between them is icing on the cake.

Dave Eggers
From A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius to McSweeney's to 826 National to Where the Wild Things Are. He might just be the hardest-working writer in publishing.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The last Bohemian. A cofounder of City Lights Bookstore. Publisher of Allen Ginsberg's Howl—and defendant in the obscenity trial that ensued. Author of A Coney Island of the Mind. His audience treats him like a rock star. Because he is one.

Donald Hall
The image of the eighty-one-year-old on the cover of Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry pretty much says it all.

Kathryn Harrison
It takes courage to write The Kiss. Plain and simple.

Brenda Hillman
Reminds us that the language we use when ordering a sandwich is also the language we use to make art. Her environmental concerns prove writers can offer more than just aesthetic pleasure.

Duong Thu Huong
A former member of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Duong, especially in No Man's Land, reassures us that beauty tends to be oblivious to the threats of thugs.

Philip Levine
He conveys and memorializes the struggles of the American working class in a way that is authentic, heartfelt, and all too rare in contemporary poetry.

Jill Magi
Her grassroots efforts to build community through a micropublishing model prove that you don't need a lot of money to make an impact.

Gabriel García Márquez
He makes the most magical of circumstances believable. And this nonsense that he's finished with writing? Don't believe it.

Cormac McCarthy
He made it okay for literary snobs to read bloody westerns and postapocalyptic thrillers.

Pat Mora
The feminist poet and founder of Día de los Niños/Día de los Libros is also an energetic advocate in the bilingual community.

Toni Morrison
A portrait of strength and beauty, the 1993 Nobel laureate writes utterly compelling novels about the whole arc of American experience.

Haruki Murakami
He consistently demonstrates how far the narrative form can bend and proves that a story with surrealist tendencies can be both moving and compelling.

Barack Obama
Let's never forget that our first African American president is also a best-selling author.

Tim O'Brien
In The Things They Carried, he gave us the ultimate meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

Lucia Perillo
Stares down multiple sclerosis and laughs in its face. Plus, anyone who has the guts to title a book of poems Inseminating the Elephant has our vote.

Salvador Plascencia
Reminiscent of another inspirational figure, Roberto Bolaño, Plascencia alters our experience of the text and challenges our associations of symbol and meaning by incorporating drawings, figures, and text objects into his writing.

Reynolds Price
The Southern poet, novelist, and memoirist has done some of his best work after becoming a paraplegic following surgery in the 1980s to remove a spinal cord tumor.

Thomas Pynchon
He's like Proust. We could live our whole lives and never read Gravity's Rainbow...and still be inspired by it.

David Rhodes
He may have been down, but he's never been out. The author of Driftless still has a glimmer in his eye when he talks about motorcycles.

Marilynne Robinson
She proves that great art takes time. With the publication of Gilead, we were reminded that twenty-four years isn't too long to wait for a novel.

Salman Rushdie
Possession of The Satanic Verses will still get you arrested in much of the Muslim world. It's probably worth it.

Kay Ryan
The quietness and measured quality of her poetry also informs her lifestyle: As both a runner and cyclist, she establishes a balance between the heady work of writing and the need of the body to do its own work.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
His novels contain heartbreakingly honest and unsentimental portraits of people struggling with such traumas as alcoholism and sexual molestation.

J. D. Salinger
He found a way to write characters, dialogue, and scenes that seem effortless. And he's managed to stay hidden for decades—how is that even possible in the twenty-first century?

Frederick Seidel
Sure he's filthy rich, but the man knows how to spend his money. He owns four Ducati motorcycles and he writes poems about them (probably while wearing a suit).

Floyd Skloot
Despite virus-induced brain damage, he writes with surprising tenderness and candor about recreating a life for himself and, in the process, makes us think about our own.

Wole Soyinka
The first black writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he's written in nearly ever genre while relentlessly pursuing freedom in his homeland of Nigeria.

Ruth Stone
Six years ago, when she was a mere eighty-nine years old, the poet was quoted in our pages as saying, "You have to allow yourself to take joy. Otherwise, you're no good to anyone."

Wisława Szymborska
The most famous living poet in Poland proves that quality is more important than quantity. The eighty-six-year-old Nobel laureate has published no more than 250 poems.

Gay Talese
The New Journalism.

Elie Wiesel
"I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man." —from the Nobel Peace Prize winner's memoir Night.

C. D. Wright
She's a true original, who manages to be odd, beautiful, tough as nails, and wonderfully inventive all in the same poetic line.

Authors who would have made the list had we compiled it a little over a year ago: Jim Carroll, Frank McCourt, Reginald Shepherd, John Updike, David Foster Wallace.

We’ve shared our list. Now we want to hear from you: Which authors inspire you most?

Post a comment and let us know. 


For a list of authors of the

For a list of authors of the world, I find it surprisingly American-centric, with a couple of token foreigners thrown in for good measure.


I'm only qualified to speak about poets. Ashbery is the most overrated poet in the world, maybe for all time. Forgettable musings from a man preoccupied by the quotidian, in no way as fresh as his forebear, Frank O'Hara. Kay Ryan is likely only popular because of the Twitter length of her verses as a rhyming minimalist. Refreshing but forgettable. Levine is boring in his old age; he was never very lyrical to begin with. Donald Hall--another insider whose work does not approach the quality of his late wife's. Zymborska, Collins deserving. Missing are Strand, Kundera, and many others--but such lists satisfy no one. Here's a link to my essay on the "Top Ten Poets in English," where at least the judgment of history comes to my aid: Thanks for the foredoomed attempt, CE

50 inspiring authors

I find this list distressing, and not only because I don't agree with every name on it (or every name left off). I don't think P&W should be promoting contention in this manner. Moreover, the squibs attached to the names reveal some pretty punk values, in my opinion. Seidel knows how to spend money: that's a recommendation? I know quite a few poets smarter than Carson. And so on. This is just ridiculous and depressing (because if this is what P&W has come to, it's a sign of how deeply SUNK is the entire literary enterprise.

Feels like a serious omission

Certainly a list like this is proof that 1} I am never as well read as I'd like to be and 2) I need to make a trip to the library, and likely another to the bookstore. On the other hand, you left off Neil Gaiman. That seems monumentally, resoundingly foolish. He wrote The Sandman, which is the only comic book to ever win the Hugo Award, which changed comic book storytelling, and which practically created the graphic novel market as we know it today. He wrote The Graveyard Book, which spent this past year on the NYT bestsellers list, and which won the Newbery. And the film of his book Coraline is likely to receive an academy award nomination for the upcoming. Beyond that (and the oodles of other books, comics, and movies he's written), he has maintained one of the most effusive blogs, full of jokes, recipes, pictures, and good solid advice on life and on the processes of writing, is one of the most gracious creators, always spending hours on end signing books for anyone willing to wait in the lines, and seems by and large to be able to remain inspiring, interesting, and a very nice person all at once.

Why have a list such as this

Why have a list such as this one when they are so many people who are worthy and aren't on it? And why limit the list to 50? Why such a scarcity model? Some of these writers are more famous than particularly inspiring (John Ashbery, Billy Collins). And to talk about Seidel's money is just crass. Plus, don't you have to be actually read to be inspiring? The only people I've ever known to read Seidel (and I like him, don't get me wrong) are poets. Period. But most disturbing, why are the dead writers who didn't get on the "list" any less inspiring now that they're dead. You'd think in their afterlife, they'd be even more inspiring. And don't you think Adrienne Rich and Arundati Roy are just slightly inspiring?

Fifty inspiring authors

"Fearless, inventive, beautiful or just badass?" I would name William H Gass, Nicholson Baker, Le Clezio, Darrieusecq, Houellebecq, Ishiguro. (Would have added Bolano but the remit is living writers.) There's lots of genuinely exciting writing around which is international in its aspect and is often far removed from the bland stuff put out by the big publishers who colonise the book review pages. For me, exciting writing is coming out of Dalkey Archive Press, McSweeney's (which is doing a great job reminding us that the big wide world out there isn't particularly pleasant or benign; and they're experimenting with new formats too, which is exciting; for instance, their iPhone ap.), and poets and novelists writing in oppressive countries where there is a real likelihood of arrest/detainment without charge, and death - just for putting pen to paper. These writers are the real heros and we should all be trying to hear what they have to say. (See PEN America) We can all criticise lists but I find them quite educational, always pointing out writers I hadn't previously heard of. I will check out the American poets listed as, being an Australian, I am really only familiar with Ashbery. I agree Ashbery's work has its ups and downs - whose doesn't - but gee, when it's up, how beautiful is it?!

this is such an arbitrary list, not that i know all of the

writers, but let me DETRACT those that I know that do not belong on any list of mine, and add those I think that do belong; of that list of fifty i myself would only keep the following few: i could also give a reason why the great majority on that list are anything but inspirational for me, but if we need other writers as examples or as inspiration, and living ones at that, the only ones who are meaningful on that list are, and even those in some cases with reluctance, are: Chinua Achebe Aharon Appelfeld Joan Didion Lawrence Ferlinghetti Donald Hall Gabriel García Márquez Cormac McCarthy Haruki Murakami Salvador Plascencia Marilynne Robinson Wole Soyinka Wisława Szymborska Since I am a specialist in German literature, I would add quite a number from that language, but will make do with the Austrians Joseph Winkler and Peter Handke, the latter for what he has added to the repertoire of the logos. Winkler has several books out with Ariadne Press, but remains entirely unknown despite his winning the Buechner Prize in 2008, I could also add a fair number of Italian and French and Slavic writers here, Mondiano for one. The list of fifty as you presented it, shows some parochialism, and a certain weightedness in three different directions, but that's how it goes.

"Fifty Authors" article

With you, I should certainly include John Updike, whose work marked my adult life. He had a finger firmly on the pulse of what it was like to live in this country in the last century and this one. Many are so moved by the shining beauty of his writing that they fail to look beneath, to the meat of the nut. When our descendants wonder how we lived -- the quotidian; the domestic matters for which Mr. Updike had a keen painter's eye and intense interest -- they will turn to him. And learn what "the middles," in his phrase, for whom he cared much, about whom he knew much, sought and pondered; our spiritual and sexual struggles and questions. Especially gifted in the story form, that most difficult to achieve, he writes as movingly in essays about, say, New England churches or the pain of living with psoriasis all his life. His criticism and essays are superb and myriad, and stand the test of time. A disciplined, prolific writer, he created also a play, several children's books, in addition to his poems, novels, and story collections. John Dufresne's characters ask, in their quirky ways, the questions of life we all ask, but often from a slant perspective. For different reasons, it's as hard to put down a Dufresne work as to abandon Updike. Mr. Dufresne's work holds up as well as any on your list -- my observation from reading him since first he began publishing. Like Updike, he has a particular gift for the story form, so much harder to achieve than, say, the novel; indeed, his first book was a collection of stories. His books on writing are as good as one will find; I believe he has another due out soon, as well a novel.

some additions

Among living writers, I would submit these as possible additions for a short list of the notably inspiring: 1) W.S. Merwin, 2) Eduardo Galeano, 3) Jose Saramago, 4) Cees Nooteboom, 5) Paul Auster. p.s.: I would respectfully give a thumbs-down to the adjective "badass," which (to these old ears at least) -- if you will pardon me -- strikes something of a wrong note. p.p.s.: it seems (tempus fugit) J.D. Salinger has been removed from the roster of living writers.

So glad that you picked

So glad that you picked David Rhodes- easily my new favorite author- so glad that he's been found again- what a gem. I would add Stephen King- a master of suspense and a keen observer of the human condition- the Twain of our day, John Irving- gritty, real, and hopelessly devoted to the quirks in human emotion, Ethan Canin- no one weaves plots from the past and the present together as well as he does, and Ivan Doig- his attention to detail is second to none.

Zadie Smith. She makes you

Zadie Smith. She makes you love people you think are unlovable. Smart, funny, ingenius. Leaves no topic unturned.

Barack Obama

He inspires me to continue on in my endeavors to reep success, he instills hope when hope was nowhere to be found, he makes me proud, not only because of the accomplishments as an ethnicity, but realizing and knowing that despite where you come from, anything is possible, you must believe in yourself, Barack expresses a unique sense of character, that grasps the attention and affects the hope of alot of children and other people all over the country, and his perserverance is nonetheless admirable....... "Yes I can, and will!"

Marilynne Robinson

I love Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping (1981), which tells the story of two girls growing up in rural Idaho in the mid-1900s and is regarded by many as an American classic; it received the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. After the publication of Housekeeping, Robinson began writing essays and book reviews for Harper’s, Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. She also served as writer-in-residence and visiting professor at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of Kent in England, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts. There's bits and bots of info, I'm writing a similar book to be produced by book publishers later this year, but either way, I highly recommend this wonderful author's work.

Paulo Coelho

Without a doubt Paulo Coelho is one of the most inspirational authors in the world. He writes about people on quests and his books are full of beautiful and enlightening proverbs. It's a must read for every one, because it enlightens without promoting a specific religion, just a higher power and the power of the self.

Anne Carson

As an author myself, I really enjoy this article.
Fifty of the Most Inspiring Authors in the World.
Anne Carson was my favorite from these list of all times.

inspiring writers

David Whyte's writing is particularly inciteful to me as a man who is continuously probing internally to understand how I see what I see, and wrestling with the dancing choices inside, especially those sitting on the sides afraid to join the dance.

Good Selection

En listing of 'Fifty of Most Inspiring Authors' is good,among which Chinua Achebe is my favorite. I am acquainted with his writings. I didn't read none of the remaining.

The list is dominated by the American Writers. I felt sorry to learn that no Indian author is enlisted.

It will be useful if the e-mail I.D's are provided, for easy communication.