50 Best Contemporary Novelists

Thank you all so much for your comments about review copies – I found them so interesting to read! I would have posted thanks yesterday, only we had an afternoon of thunderstorms that, of course, put our virgin media line out of commission, and we weren’t reconnected to the internet until some point during the night. It felt strangely peaceful not to be able to access the web, because so much of (my) life passes on it that it feels like an enforced holiday when it’s down. Although, to be fair, I seem to be suffering from ‘holidayitis’ at the moment, which is the chronic inability to organise my time and be productive. My son has finished his exams and is hanging out around the house, and it’s just too easy to waste time with him.

Anyway, given that an extra day to post has in no way sharpened up my thoughts about this week’s reading, I thought I’d start to compile a list of authors of contemporary fiction that I like. Lots of blog friends have been saying lately that they find themselves less attracted by current novels, and so I thought it would be interesting to remind myself who’s writing right now whose books I look out for with real interest. Feel free to disagree or suggest people I’ve forgotten. My only criteria are that the writer has to be alive and still writing – oh and, obviously for my own list, I had to have read them (that put out a lot of people I might have included by reputation alone – David Mitchell, Richard Powers, Mario Vargas Llosa, Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman, William Trevor, Ann Patchett).

Literary Fiction (hard to distinguish from general fiction, but I picked authors that I would prefer to read when not feeling tired, or there’s background noise going on – very scientific!)

Margaret Atwood

Kazuo Ishiguro

Ali Smith

Sarah Waters

Gabriel Josipovici

Nicholson Baker

Joyce Carol Oates

Adam Thorpe

Julian Barnes

Peter Carey

A, S. Byatt

Deirdre Madden

Jhumpa Lahiri

Justin Cartwright

Zoë Heller

Rose Tremain

Philip Roth

Michelle Latiolais

Doris Lessing

Marianne Wiggins


General Fiction (dominated by women writers for me, I note)

Jane Smiley

Jonathan Coe

David Lodge

William Nicholson

Barbara Trapido

Anne Tyler

Richard Russo

Penelope Lively

Kate Atkinson

Esther Freud

Salley Vickers

Julian Fellowes

Sue Miller

Joanne Harris

Jane Gardam

Alice Hoffman

Maggie O’Farrell

Amanda Craig


Genre Fiction

Lee Child

Sara Paretsky

Eva Rice

C. J. Sansom

Andrew Taylor

P. D. James (still alive!)


Fiction in Translation

Marie Darrieussecq

Bernhard Schlink

Milan Kundera

Javier Marias (would have picked José Saramago but he died last year!)

Orhan Pamuk

Roberto Bolano (ETA – been reminded he’s dead – can’t think who should replace him)

Finally, there were writers I considered but left off: Fay Weldon, Jane Urquhart, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Alice Munroe, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Ackroyd, Jeanette Winterson… and I’m sure there are lots of people I’ve forgotten.


29 thoughts on “50 Best Contemporary Novelists

  1. Carey and Ishiguro are definitely on my “exciting contemporary fiction” list as well. I have never been bored by a book by either of them, and both excel at the kind of developed narrative voice that I eat up with a spoon. Love Bolaño too but he’s dead, though I’d still consider him “contemporary” since he was only 50 when he died. And I’m excited to dive into the Darrieussecq novel you recommended!

    Re: Doris Lessing, I feel this must make me a bad feminist, but I just HATED The Golden Notebook with a fiery passion reserved for few books. Which I suppose could be a distinguishing mark in her favor—at least I wasn’t bored! Still, it is a deterrent to picking up another of hers. My edition had 666 pages, which I felt said it all. 😉

  2. Oh dear! I had forgotten he had died. I did struggle with literature in translation as I read the European authors I liked in French (and once upon a time in German) so don’t know who has made it into English.

    Emily – lol for Doris Lessing! I read The Golden Notebooks years ago (and got through three-quarters of it…) I liked Love, Again much more.

    Lasitaja – feel free to recommend someone in his place.

  3. I know she is not as highbrow as some of ther other authors you list, but I love Clare Chambers. I love to revisit her books and still have a few on hand I’ve not yet read, which is sort of comforting to know. You do have lots of other favorites of mine there as well–and I do wish Eva Rice would write more. I just pulled a Peter Carey off my shelf (because I really don’t have enough to read at the moment 🙂 ), so it’s nice to see him mentioned here as someone who’s not only good but well appreciated! Oh, and I love those enforced vacations–glad your son is finished with his exams–are you both officially on summer vacation?

  4. An excellent list, both of authors I’ve read and enjoyed and some I want to try. I’d have Atwood, Waters, Byatt, and Atkinson on my own list, for certain, and there are several others there who I’ve read once or twice and want to explore more (Ishiguro, Carey, Smiley, Roth, O’Farrell).

    And I’d add Laurie King, Marilynne Robinson, Helen Oyeyemi, and Stephen King to my own list. Especially Robinson, now that I’ve read all her novels and must wait for her next, which may be a long time coming.

  5. Atwood would, of course, come first on my list and a few of the authors you mention I have either read and enjoyed or I want to read. I would also definitely add Murakami. However, Shlink would be out. I did not appreciate The Reader at all at all…

  6. I’m big fan of contemporary fiction and love many of the writers you mention. How do you define the difference between literary and general fiction in this case? To me, Jane Smiley is as literary as they come. My personal list would be headed by Lionel Shriver, who I think is the most exciting novelist around today.

  7. A great list, here are some of my favorites:
    Péter Nádas, I reading him now, and am totally impressed, he is like Thomas Mann with a hint of Virginia Woolf + a big dose of erotics.
    Annie Dillard, her essays are fantastic, and she also write very interesting on writing. Rebecca Solnit (nature writing), Sarah Bakewell (for her brilliant work on Montaigne).

    • Thomas Mann + Virginia Woolf + eroticism??? Where has this Péter Nádas person been all my life?? Off to add his work to my wishlist post-haste!

  8. I shall have to print this off and think about it over morning break, but having just fought my way through Jonathan Coe’s latest (the first of his I’ve read) he definitely wouldn’t be there. Was I missing something?

  9. I was going to say Nemirovsky, then got a little jolt remembering she’s been dead a long time now 😦 Absolute mad agreement on Joyce Carol Oates, isn’t she the business? I’d maybe add Pat Barker to the lit fic list, as she published ‘Life Class’ fairly recently although there being a big gap before that novel. Maybe Tracey Chevalier for genre if you include historical fiction (I know a lot of people don’t like her stuff but she picks such interesting subjects and is very good at making you think) and I always look out for Sarah Durrant’s historical fiction eagerly. Really I could make a whole list of genre authors, or one of authors who seem exciting but have onyl written a few books so far…See what you’ve started?;)

  10. Well, I’m somehow a little surprised and a little not that nobody has listed Cormac McCarthy yet. Yes, some of his stuff is more than a touch violent, but I still rate him among the best living. No McEwan? He’s not a great, but still among the most respect names out there, not to mention a distinct, British voice that isn’t painfully Jamesian. But the sad, sad, sad truth that nobody wants to hear or believe is this: there are some great novelists popping up out of nowhere nowadays. I’ve been forced by my S.O. to start reading some non-critically acclaimed books, and though some have been terrible, others have had me wondering how the academic aristocracy determines who’s who and who ain’t. The whole literary vs. genre thing officially died for me with the Illegal Spy Novel. How is stuff like that going unnoticed while [insert your favorite expletive-noun here] like The Help sells?

    P.S. Tea Obreht’s new book was pretty good IMO.

  11. I would have placed quite a few of the writers you placed in the literary fiction category in the general fiction category and vice versa. Rose Tremain for example or Sarah Waters, but that’s just my perception. I also think my Fiction in translation would be longer. What about Marie Ndiaye? I haven’t read her yet but I think you apprecaite her a lot , no?
    My list would be headed by Antonio Tabucchi and Erri de Luca.

  12. Yay for Margaret Atwood being at the top of the list! No Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco? And if you haven’t read David Mitchell I hope y ou get around to reading Cloud Atlas sometime. That is, of course, if you want to 🙂

    • so good to see a mention of david mitchell. i have read almost all his fiction and he is in a tie (with several others including ishiguro and lively) as great favorites.
      by the way, this site is new to me but very much enjoyed the stegner review.

  13. Thanks litlove… I’m going to bookmark this page. Many of the authors here I want to explore, and have seen their works in the book sale. I’ve a few suggestions: Jonathan Safran Foer and his wife Nichole Krauss (although I’ve yet to read her History of Love) also, Ian McEwan. And as a Canadian, I’d like to add Yann Martel and Anne Michaels.

    BTW, just a short while ago, I was discussing, ok, debating, with my son as to where to draw the line between ‘popular fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’, or whether there should be a line differentiating the two. Just wonder what your mental process was as you made these lists.

  14. This list was a great reminder for me of the reasons I *do* like contemporary fiction. So often I think, in the unkind phrase Teresa and I use, “Oh, book-club bait,” and won’t give it a chance, but with Atwood, Atkinson, Byatt, Waters, and others out there, I can’t dismiss it altogether! And you put lots of people on your list I’ve never tried. (Yet.)

  15. Great post! Really interesting to see what’s in the list and what’s in it! Makes you think…
    I agree with Stefanie about Eco. I read The Name of the Rose a few years ago and, while it’s not always the most readable of books (it’s written to sound like a translation of an old document in latin) it’s really intelligent and written by a a true master. I recently read his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (about a man who looses the memory of everything that happened to him in his life, but remembers all the books he’s ever read), and this one is truly fascinating and moving, especially for book lovers.
    Also, what a shame that Alice Munro didn’t quite make it on your list! I find that I often go back to her for her well-drawn characters, her emotional depth and resonance, her beautifully worked, unassuming prose…

  16. Fun list! I’d put quite a few of those authors on my list as well, especially Baker and Ishiguro. There are quite a few names I’d like to explore as well, including Ali Smith and Barbara Trapido. Sara Paretsky is a new crime favorite of mine as well.

  17. Danielle – I knew there would be writers I’d forgotten! I’d actually intended to put Clare Chambers on and then she’d slipped my mind. I love her writing – she is just the perfect comfort read. Yes, my son and I are both officially on vacation now, which is a nice feeling. In about a week or so I’ll start thinking about how the time is just rushing past and autumn is approaching (summer never seems long enough) but just at the moment, it feels nice. My favourite Peter Carey remains Oscar and Lucinda. It’s years since I read it, but it made a big impression at the time.

    Teresa – thank you! I really hoped people would suggest other possibilities. I’ve been meaning to try Laurie King and Helen Oyeyemi for ages – you remind me that I must make a space in the schedule for them.

    Em – Finally I own a Murakami novel, and I must must get around to reading it this year. I really do want to try him out!

    Celawerd – how do you manage to keep track so that you can buy books or get them from the library? I’ve reached the age where I forget which books I have by and author and which I don’t (which inevitably means the purchase of doubles!).

    Charlotte – oh how I oscillated over Shriver! She could easily have made it in on another day. I tend to think of literary fiction as being that tad harder to read, but when you mentioned Jane Smiley, I realised that American writing has far less distinction in my mind between what’s literary and what’s general. I think it has to do with the unencumbered style of American writing, and the emphasis on showing over telling. So with the exception of a few more ‘ideas driven’ American novelists, that literary section is very heavy on Brits and other English language countries. So that’s interesting – I hadn’t thought about that until your comment came in!

    Sigrun – thank you! I love getting suggestions. I do own a book by Rebecca Solnit and your mention of her will now ensure it rises nearer the top of my reading pile! I had to look up Péter Nádas – he sounds most unusual (and Emily’s comment made me laugh!).

    Annie – I haven’t read the latest, but I very much enjoyed The Rain Before It Falls, and his early books, The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. He can write quite differently, depending on his subject matter, but I’d understand if you didn’t want to try him again. There are so many books to be read!

    Jodie – I have been meaning to read Tracey Chevalier and Pat Barker – it’s always so lovely to have other names recommended. Brings them back to mind! I’d love to see your list. I am always amazed by how many interesting authors you write about whose names are completely new to me. That’s so cool.

    Ally – I am quite sure that there are fantastic novelists out there that I’ve never heard of – so few books get promoted by publishers these days and I expect that’s getting worse. Please, do leave a list here or on your blog of writers we could try. I love blogging for the way it brings great books to my attention that I would have completely passed over. I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, and whilst I really enjoyed On Chesil Beach by McEwan, I wasn’t quite so convinced by Amsterdam (and that’s all I’ve read by him – should read more). Illegal Spy Novel appears to be only available on ereader – is that right? I don’t own one – so will have to hope that makes it into print one day.

  18. Caroline – Antonio Tabucchi is definitely someone I want to read. I hesitated over the books in translation, because by far and away the most foreign books I read are in French, and I don’t know which have been translated and which haven’t. I love Marie NDiaye and Marie Nimier, Antoine Volodine, Emmanuel Carrere, Patrick Modiano and Anne Hebert (if she’s still alive). Oh and Louise Lambrichs. It’s always tough to make the distinction between what’s literary and what’s not, and several of my general authors could be in the literary category.

    Emily – I loved your list! It was wonderful!

    Stefanie – I really want to read David Mitchell. Mister Litlove read Black Swan Green and loved it. And I own Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas so it’s just a question of getting to them. Sigh! This is also the year for Salman Rushdie – just got to pick the right moment to read him, I think. He seems the sort of chap who needs just the right mood and context!

    Arti – I can’t think who it was I was talking to, but I distinctly remember being told that The Life of Pi is actually a fantastic book (I’m a bit put off by the premise – but who can really tell what a book will be like from that?) Anne Michaels and Nicole Krauss I’d very much like to read, and I should try JSF too. I was very unscientific in my distinction between literary and general. I put authors in the literary list if I knew I needed to concentrate that bit harder to get the best out of reading them. The ‘general’ fiction contains authors who I think of as easier reads. I’m sure there are better ways to distinguish, but it was quick and easy that way!

    Jenny – I know just what you mean about book club bait (good term!) and I don’t tend to like that sort of book myself!

    Charles-Adam – I’ve only read one Munroe book, which put her at a disadvantage (although I enjoyed the book very much indeed). You remind me I should pick her up again. I read The Name of the Rose years and years ago – I was about 18, I think, and on reflection probably read it before I was old enough to appreciate it. I’d probably like it a lot more if I tried it again. I really do enjoy being reminded of books and authors I’d forgotten by other bloggers – thank you!

    Dorothy – I don’t often make lists, but I find I do enjoy it! I haven’t read much Sara Paretsky for years, although I went through a phase of devouring her books. Just recently I bought a straight novel she’d written and I’m really looking forward to trying it.

    Lilian – oh I know! That is how I feel about it! Only a few short years and he’ll be off to university (sob!).

  19. I really like Doctorow – Ragtime and Billy Bathgate are brilliant. And Michael Chabon, mainly for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And cold war era John Le Carre under genre.

  20. Mark – thank you for those suggestions! I’m particularly keen to read Doctorow (I’ve read Chabon, and agree that he is very good). My husband has read Le Carre, but I haven’t. Hmm. Should think about that.

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