Franz Kafka was a complicated person to begin with — a German-speaking Jew living in the (at the time) Czech and German city of Prague; his identity was always a confusing factor in his life. That, and other factors, led to lifelong depression, which showed itself in his writing — writing Kafka hated so much that he made his best friend promise to have it burned when he died. His friend didn’t listen, because he saw it for what it really was — complicated, difficult, and, most importantly, new and original work that the world had never seen before.
James Joyce, the Irish writer who gave the world such groundbreaking works as Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, used the English language in a way that it had never been used before and hasn’t been used since his death in 1941. A leading member of the 20th century avant-garde movement in literature, Joyce’s texts are often stream-of-consciousness, mimicking human thought as closely as possible. Joyce was able to bend the English language, oftentimes creating his own words that somehow remain comprehensible to those who decide to take on the monumental task of reading his work.
One of the pioneers of the Beat generation of American writers, Jack Kerouac is remembered for his spontaneous style and flowing prose. No one had covered the topics that he covered (drugs, jazz, and promiscuity among them) in the way that he covered them. His method of writing was to improvise sentences and never edit, which produced amazing work. It wasn’t just literature that he changed, however — he was essentially one of the people who began the hippie movement.
Until February of 2015, when Go Set a Watchman was published, the world believed that Harper Lee had only written one novel: To Kill A Mockingbird, one of the most important works of American fiction. Even though it was published in 1960 and concerned the extremely sensitive topic of black-white relations in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, it became an instant bestseller and is now on required reading lists across the world. With one book, Lee was able to thoroughly capture the complexity of a brutal situation in a way that no one else had even tried to. The most important thing about Harper Lee is that she had no fear — and we can all be thankful for that.
Dante lived in a world so different from ours that we can hardly imagine it, but our temporal distance from him does give us the benefit of being able to see the true impact of his writing. Instead of writing in Latin, as was favored at the time, Dante wrote in the vernacular of the day — the early version of what we now know as Italian. There were many dialects, and his writing was therefore a part of standardizing the language. Dante paved the way for generations of other writers in many countries who would go on to leave Latin behind and write in the languages that they spoke.
You’ve probably read either The Hobbit or The Lord of The Rings, but it’s necessary to understand that those stories make up only a very small part of the world that Tolkien created. Fantasy existed before him and there have been many other fantasy writers after him, but he didn’t just write books — he created a universe, complete with different races of beings, different continents with their own histories and particularities, and, perhaps most famously, different languages. His books were created not as just fiction, but as the histories, legends, and myths of his universe — a feat that many have attempted, with varying levels of success, but none have done as thoroughly.
Jane Austen’s stories have become world famous for their comic twists and happy endings, but there’s much more hiding behind the pretty dresses and demure smiles. The plots are entertaining, but they also offer both pointed social commentary and a realistic view of the difficult situations that existed for the people living in her social class, the lower level of the English gentry. Characters like Elizabeth Bennett and Emma are early representations of feminism in literature and show that Jane Austen was nothing less than a trailblazer.
Alice Munro is known in literary circles as ‘the master of the short story’ because of how she has completely revolutionized the form through her decades of prolific writing. The defining feature of her stories is their tendency to jump back and forth in time, taking the reader through the characters’ lives with confident, simple prose. She cuts through the outer layers of human emotion and interaction to expose the raw underbelly, often addressing difficult and emotional topics. For all of her efforts, she won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature — a well-deserved award.
Once upon a time, war was not to be joked about — and then Kurt Vonnegut stepped onto the scene. Vonnegut’s writing is so humorous and satirical that sometimes readers forget what they’re actually reading about, until he takes them back to a war experience of his and they realize. His work straddles the line between sci-fi and literature in a way that hadn’t been tried before him; his Slaughterhouse-Five opened up an entirely new approach to ambitious science fiction writers. Satiric anti-war writing is fairly common now, and Kurt Vonnegut is a big reason why.
No list like this would be complete without the ultimate literary innovator — William Shakespeare. Few historical figures are as important and as mysterious, but the mark Shakespeare left on world literature cannot be denied. He defined the language of the time, creating hundreds of words that we still use today. The plots of his plays have been recreated so many times that no one could even begin to quantify the level of his influence. He is also a big part of why plays are even counted in the realm of literature — Shakespeare managed to reinvent a form, and in doing so, he completely changed culture itself.