Novelists have been writing prose since Apuleius penned (quilled?) The Golden Ass in 2nd Century CE Rome. For thousands of years readers and critics have been trying to determine which novels represent the very best of prose.

Who is the Best Prose Writer?

Contenders for the title of best prose writer include Cervantes, Twain, Hemingway, Tolstoy, Achebe, Mary Shelley, and Emily Brontë. These are some of the greatest prose writers who influenced subsequent writers, and brought joy to vast numbers of readers.

Below we examine a helpful list of hugely influential prose works, and the authors who wrote them.

Which Author Influenced Style the Most?

Gustave Flaubert and Ernest Hemingway are the two writers who are widely regarded as having influenced style the most of any writer throughout history. Critic James Wood attributes the birth of the modern novel to Flaubert, and it is believed that Hemingway’s declarative style still reigns supreme.

Who is the Most Influential Prose Stylist?

When determining who is the single most influential prose stylist its critical not to overlook the contributions of Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, and Daniel Defoe. These authors have been adored and studied for hundreds of years by millions of people.

Which are the Best Prose Novels?

Here is a list of some of the best and most influential prose novels of all time. Gathered below are books which are widely considered to have had an enormous impact on the prose novels that were written in their wake. 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Written in 1605, this astonishing novel is sometimes referred to as the first novel, and also the first novel with post modern tropes (the second part contains characters who are self reflexively aware of the existence of the first half, and Don Quixote’s delusions arise from reading too many tales of knights).

So many elements of this work have found their way in contemporary parlance: ever heard the phrase ‘tilting at windmills’?

Don Quixote, a man who under a delusion believes he is knight-errant, attacks windmills, believing them to be his enemy.

Now the phrase means attacking imaginary foes.

It’s actually a really funny novel, and listed as many author’s favourite work! 

Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Hemingway said that all modern American literature stems from this work, and the way it brought ‘real’ American language to the page.

No longer were US citizens going to pay homage to the British press, they had their own homegrown heroes and way of life.

Mark Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, is still a towering figure of American letters, and this is a great introduction to his work.

For bonus fun, check out his travel books: The Innocents Abroad actually became the best selling of his works during his lifetime.

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway won the Nobel prize in 1954, and many believe the pared back elegance of this work, published in 1952, contributed significantly to that win.

Hemingway’s seemingly simple style is probably the single greatest influence on contemporary literature.

Many prose writers are inspired by his dedication to ‘truth’ in his writing, and there are endless Hemingway quotes to search through which outline his various influential theories of literature.

Not least among those is his ‘iceberg theory’: he noted that the dignity of the movement of an iceberg arises from the fact that nine tenths of it resides underwater.

So with prose, the vast majority of the work goes unsaid, or remains as subtext.

Can’t go too far wrong with Hemingway!

Check out his complete works.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

This is your go-to for fantasy writers.

It took Tolkien fifteen or so years to write it, and when he’d finished apparently no one was interested in publishing!

Is it a story for children or adults? Jury is still out on that one.

Tolkien had a famous difference of opinion re the nature of fantasy writing with C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame, which is definitely worth researching!

Keep in mind that the lengthy Lord of the Rings trilogy is in fact only a tiny slice of the overall lore Tolkien developed – the world is immense, and very inspiring!

Find the whole history here. 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This entry is really to acknowledge Tolstoy’s entire body of work.

Many list this as their favourite novel, and the greatest work of literature of all time.

It’s a vast sweeping epic depicting, amongst many other things, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Witness the decline of the Tsarist regime, and the ancient way of life of the Russian aristocratic families.

If you’d like to crack into a bit of Russian prose but this tome is just too weighty, check out Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina!

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Hard to overestimate the importance of this work.

Many of the leading prose writers in the Western tradition attribute the birth of modern fiction writing to Flaubert.

Influential literary critic James Wood has written “Flaubert established, for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible.”

Give it a look!

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Many of the most influential works of prose are long works of literature. Why is this?

If you took a normal length novel and increased it’s length ten fold is there a greater chance of it becoming more influential?

Proust will veer away from his plot suddenly to describe something in the character’s presence in minute detail for several pages.

It’s a love letter to language itself.

Emotion is conveyed through this prose in a powerful and idiosyncratic way.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Highly influential on global letters, this is one of the jewels of African literature.

Written in 1958, it’s the Nigerian author’s debut work of prose, and is studied extensively around the world as one of the greatest works exploring the impacts of colonialism.

It’s sold more than twenty million copies, and tops a lot of lists, so definitely check this one out. 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

No best-of list is complete without Moby Dick. Have you read it? Don’t worry, no one else has either.

But you’ve heard the line ‘Call me Ishmael’ and you know it’s got a guy called Ahab who hunts a great white whale.

It also has entire chapters on whale biology!

Melville’s reputation wasn’t very great while he was alive. His prose was experimental in a lot of ways, and pushed boundaries in a fashion that wasn’t properly appreciated until after his death.

Moby Dick has a habit of entering the subconscious and becoming an immovable piece of mental real estate. What does it all mean? Trying to figure it out is half the fun.

This is regularly held forth as The Great American Novel.

Check out his complete poems here.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Impossible to overestimate the impact of this novel.

It sparked a whole genre called the ‘Robinsonade’: stories about castaways and desert islands.

Think Tom Hanks naked yelling at Wilson the volleyball.

BTW they are called desert islands because they are deserted. You’re welcome. 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The story of this foundational work of science fiction goes that it was written by Mary Shelley when she was eighteen years old, as part of a bet, or competition to write a ghost story with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.

To read the opening sentences of this prose novel is to be smashed in the face with the mallet of Shelley’s undeniable genius. 

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As the comedian Hamish Blake noted, ‘the higher you go, the more you wuther.’

This stunning work of Romantic / Gothic literature published in 1847 was controversial at the time of publication for challenging Victorian morality, and is still a little controversial for its depictions of physical and mental cruelty.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster!

Check out the work of all incredible Bronte sisters here.

We hope you enjoyed this list of the greatest prose writers of all time. Remember the debate is never ending, and you should determine who you believe the greatest prose stylist is for yourself!

For tips on how to write your own novel go here.


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.

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Which Booker winning novels should I read? | Writing Journal · 14/03/2021 at 6:42 am

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