Everyone's got a book in them, right? Problem is, it's likely to be an absolute turkey.
Face facts, writing a runaway literary hit is incredibly hard, and doing it with aching volumes of cool (which is how we'd all want to do it, given the chance) is nigh on impossible. These 50 managed it. Talented swines...
Also check out the 50 coolest books ever
(Images: Rex unless stated)
Palahniuk's just plain greedy. Cool first name, cool surname, three major literary awards, movie adaptations and the ability to grow Wolverine-esque sidies.
He'll probably hate us for doing, being as he's written sensational works since, but Fight Club remains our stand out Palahniuk book. The story of its conception is ace. When he attempted to publish his novel, Invisible Monsters, publishers rejected it for its disturbing content. So he did what anyone would do, he wrote Fight Club in an attempt to disturb the publisher even more for rejecting him. Publisher loved it, career exploded.
Bret Easton Ellis
Being a surreal killer is not cool, kids. But, so help us, Patrick Bateman is. The central character in American Psychodresses impeccably, is groomed to a tee and can do a thousand (A THOUSAND!) stomach crunches. Besides, he may not have been a killer at all. Speaking to ShortList, Easton Ellis himself said: "Regarding the murders, I was always on the fence about whether they were fantasy or real. I don’t know and I prefer it that way."
Writing a book and not knowing the answer to the ultimate question about it? That's cool.
How many times have you been shortlisted for the Booker Prize? Yeah, us too.
Margaret Atwood's had this honour five times. The Handmaid's Tale, her dystopian masterpiece that, for our money, is the must read book of her repertoire, received the first ever Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987. Some call the book science fiction, but Attwood's way too cool for that. She calls it speculative fiction. "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships," she told The Guardian "Speculative fiction could really happen."
That's what's so cool and unnerving about it. The woman's a genius.
Yates was described as “too little appreciated” by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford and the stats would support that. Not one of his books sold over 12,000 copies in hardcover first edition and all of his novels were out of print in the years after his death. However, posthumously many have since been reissued. So how cool was he? Well, Kurt Vonnegut described Yates' first novel, Revolutionary Road, as: "The Great Gatsby of my time... one of the best books by a member of my generation." Plus Yates has also been credited as a big influence on Mad Men. Yeah okay, that's pretty cool.
F Scott Fitzgerald
When he died in 1940 aged 44, his funeral was attended by just 30 people. He died thinking he was a failure. His publishers still had unsold stock from the first printing of The Great Gatsby.
Some twenty years later, when the world woke up, Fitzgerald was universally recognised as one of the great literary figures of the century and Gatsby was lauded as one of the greatest novels of the modern era. We could try and convince you that Fitzgerald was brilliant, but something tells us his close friend Ernest Hemingway might be better at it:
"His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings," wrote Hemingway in his memoirs. "At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."
Some Hemingway facts with which to verify his coolness:
- Ernest once took a urinal from his favourite bar and moved it into his own home, arguing that he had “pissed away” so much of his money into the urinal that he owned it.
- He has his own burger recipe. It's right here.
- After World War II, he was accused of War Crimes by Geneva surrounding an event where Ernest lead a group of French Militia against the Nazis. He was not convicted.
- In 1938 he established a world record by catching seven marlin in one day.
- There is no shortage of six-toed cats in Key West, because his six-toed cat was something of a player.
- During his life, Hemingway survived exposure to anthrax, malaria, skin cancer, and pneumonia. He lived through diabetes, two plane crashes, a ruptured kidney, hepatitis, a ruptured spleen, a fractured skull and a crushed vertebra.
- He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
Hunter S Thompson
Counter culture icon and inventor of gonzo journalism, Thompson died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on February 20, 2005. In a private ceremony commemorating his life, Thompson's ashes were shot from a cannon to the tune of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." Now that sums him up.
Cool? Absolutely, but it's probably best not to try to emulate him. "I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone," he once said. "But they’ve always worked for me."
"Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion" said literary iconoclast Jack Kerouac. He certainly wasn't cool because he tried to mimic what was already cool. A pioneer of the Beat Generation his non-conformity and spontaneous creativity was truly revolutionary. You've read On The Road (right??) so The Dharma Bums is your next port of call. Coolness level: God-like.
Philip K Dick
Some 44 published novels and 121 short stories, somehow Dick still spent most of his career in near-poverty. It's worth considering that eleven popular films based on his works have been produced, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck, Next, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau and Impostor.
Hollywood knows what's cool, alright - Philip K Dick.
Despising the term "science fiction", Ballard never used it, preferring to describe his work as “apocalyptic”. He was best known for his two fictionalised autobiographies that were neither of the above: Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women. The former told of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp outside Shanghai and became an international best-seller and was used to make, for our money, the single best Steven Spielberg movie (disputes to the usual address).
Infamous for Crash, Ballard’s disturbing work that centres on a disparate group of car-crash survivors who find themselves aroused by the violent meeting of man and machine, it dissected consumer culture and obsession with celebrity. Ahead of its time, for sure. The David Cronenberg movie packs for less punch.
Burgess invented a language. That's pretty cool, right? In his best known novel, A Clockwork Orange, sophisticated sociopath and central character Alex (and his "droog" chums) spoke Nadsat, a bastardisation of English and Russian. How brilliant that Burgess went on to note: "I would resist to the limit any publisher's demand that a glossary be provided."
Critics, however, suggest that Earthly Powers is his finest work - a panoramic saga of the 20th century which begins with the outrageously provocative first line: "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me."
"Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer, but wish we didn't." - Erica Jong
Her 1973 novel Fear of Flying - famously controversial for its attitudes towards female sexuality - has now sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. A firm supporter of gay marriage she even gets a namecheck in Bob Dylan song "Highlands".
Like most of us Banks decided to become a writer at the age of 11, but less relatable is the fact that he completed his first novel The Hungarian Lift-Jet at 16 when the rest of us were trying to get served at bars with bad fake IDs.
Best known for his novels The Wasp Factory, The Crow Road and Complicity (take your pick, they're all incredible) he quickly became one of the UK's most loved scribes. His final book The Quarry describes the final weeks of the life of a man in his 40s who has terminal cancer. He was 87,000 words into the book when he was diagnosed with cancer, himself. It killed him in June of 2013 and there's been a big Scottish gap in the literary world ever since.
To be fair, the t-shirt he's wearing in this picture alone should be reason enough for his inclusion. His first novel, Trainspotting, was published in 1993, and rumour has it Welsh wrote it in the breaks while writing his thesis at Heriot-Watt University's Library. The book prompted The Sunday Times to call Welsh "the best thing that has happened to British writing for decades" and he continues to be just that. His latest work: The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is well worth a read.
Not only is he one of the planet's finest authors but he is, at 65, still a marathon-running ironman. We admire the way he keeps a low profile, shying away from his own runaway literary successes and refuses to provide quotes for the covers of other authors' books - something we've always found a bit dodgy: "We need critiques in this world, for sure," he said. "But it’s just not my job."
Rather brilliantly he has no idea how his books are going to end when he starts writing them. "If I know who the killer is, there’s no purpose to writing the story." he told The Guardian. Book to buy? Norwegian Wood
"Cover up your neck, for God's sake. Once you're past 35 it just corrodes." Sound sartorial advice from the ever well-suited Wolfe in this brilliant YouTube clip that exudes cool. Suffice to say his books are stylistically stunning, too. His damning social and moral critique Bonfire Of The Vanities originally ran as a serial in Rolling Stone, before Wolfe revised it and released it as a novel. It works on the premise that your life can spiral out of control no matter how much money or influence you have. Read it.
Interesting aside: his trademark white suit came about in 1962. He bought his first white suit planning to wear it in the summer, however, he found the suit to be too heavy, so he wore it in winter, creating a sensation. Wolfe has maintained this uniform ever since, sometimes worn with a matching white tie, white homburg hat, and two-tone shoes.
Second World War veteran Vonnegut was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was imprisoned in Dresden. He was chosen as a leader of the POWs because he spoke some German but, after telling some German guards "what [he] was going to do to them when the Russians came", he was beaten and had his position as leader revoked. He survived the bombing of Dresden in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker used as an ad hoc detention facility. The experience was the inspiration for his most famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five. On his return to America, he was awarded a Purple Heart for what he called a "ludicrously negligible wound."
His war effort alone makes him a living legend, but the of blend satire, black comedy and science fiction that occurs when he picks up his pen, makes him a literary genius. He even has a style of writing (Vonnegutian) that is used to describe the works of many authors. Yeah, that's cool.
Another writer who had discovered his calling by the age of 11, and spent the rest of his childhood honing his writing ability.
Making a splash with his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted into a popular film, and his book In Cold Blood was a pioneering form of narrative non-fiction. It also just happens to be Tom Hanks's favourite book ever.
Capote sure knew how to throw a party, too.
Plath wrote poetry from the age of eight and by the time she arrived at Cambridge University she had written over 50 short stories and was published in a raft of magazines. What followed was a stunning career featuring award after award, but it was her 1965 collection Ariel, published after her suicide, on which Plath's reputation essentially rests. One of the most dynamic and admired writers of the twentieth century she was the driving force behind confessional poetry. A true genius, troubled to the point of taking her own incredible life at the age of just 30.
"All morons hate it when you call them a moron." Yep, Salinger had a way with words which is useful, we guess, when you're a writer. His 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye (most of which he wrote while serving in the Second World War) was an immediate success and continues to sell around 250,000 copies a year. He wrote to his maid once: “Dear Mary – Please make sure all the errands are done before you go on vacation, as I do not want to bothered with insignificant things. Thank you. J.D. Salinger.” Now, that ain't cool, but the fact that the original copy of the letter later sold for $50,000 at auction, is.
In 1816, Shelley spent a summer with her husband, Lord Byron and John William Polidori (credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre) near Geneva. Sitting around a log fire at Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story". One evening, unable to sleep, Shelley's story came to her: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together," she recalled. "I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."
She began writing what she assumed would be a short story, but became her first novel, Frankenstein. She later described that summer in Switzerland as the moment "when I first stepped out from childhood into life".
A truly towering figure in literature today, Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved and the Nobel Prize in 1993 - the last American and first black woman to do so. She has always written from the perspective of being an African American woman and powerfully evokes in her fiction the bonds that both unite and divide people of this ancestry. In 2006 Beloved was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as the best work of American fiction published in the last quarter-century and Barack Obama cites Morrison's Song of Solomon as his favourite book of all time.
Annoyingly talented, besides novels Aldous published travel books, histories, poems, plays, and essays on philosophy, arts, sociology, religion and morals, between doing huge amounts of psychedelic drugs (again, that part's not cool, kids). His best known novel A Brave New World is, surely, joint top in the greatest works of science fiction alongside 1984 - which was written by George Orwell, a former student of Huxley's, no less. Worth remembering, also, that Huxley appears on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and if you're cool enough for The Beatles, you're cool enough for us.
A leading figure of counterculture Kesey, while a student at Stanford, volunteered as a medical guinea pig in a CIA-financed study into the effects of psychoactive drugs, particularly LSD and mescaline. This experience fundamentally altered Kesey, personally and professionally and, while working as an orderly at the psychiatric ward of the local veterans hospital, he began to have hallucinations about an Indian sweeping the floors (you know where this is going, right?). When chatting with them Kesey did not believe that the patients at the hospital were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to behave. All this prompted him to write the spectacular One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest which was an instant hit.
Every single person that reads this will probably have a different reason for him featuring in this list, but every single person, surely, will agree he belongs in it. A war hero who was one of the last Hurricane pilots to withdraw from Greece during the German invasion, he didn't start writing for children until he had children of his own. At that point, from his garden shed writing room, he single-handedly transformed children's literature with his unsentimental, dark humour and utterly unexpected endings. We miss you, Roald. Every last one of us.
Douglas Adams was a bloody good egg. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, his most famous of novels actually originated in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a "trilogy" of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime and generated a television series, several stage plays, comics, a computer game, and a 2005 film. But even aside from his writing the man was cool. An advocate for environmentalism and conservation, Richard Dawkins dedicated The God Delusion to Adams, writing on his death that "Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender."
If you haven't read his poem Howl, bookmark it now. Shortly after its publication, the book was banned for obscenity. However, it overcame censorship trials and Howl went on to become one of the most widely read poems in the world. It was translated into more than 22 languages. After that he became one the leading figures of the Beat Generation, supported peace and love long before it was fashionable and championed free speech and gay rights. Grew one hell of a beard and chilled with Bod Dylan, too.
William S. Burroughs
Less about the love than his good pal Ginsberg, Burroughs once said: “The people in power will not disappear voluntarily, giving flowers to the cops just isn't going to work... The only way I like to see cops given flowers is in a flower pot from a high window.”
Another primary figure of the Beat Generation (sheesh, we're obsessed) and postmodernist author, he was described by Penguin Publishers once as: "one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the 20th century".
If you're only going to read one of his books (and that would be madness) make it A Naked Lunch.
Cormac McCarthy, author of gag-thin favourites The Road and Blood Meridian used the same typewriter for almost 5o years. He used his Olivetti Lettera 32 to write nearly all of his fiction, screenplays, and correspondence from 1960 to 2009. In 2009 the typewriter was auctioned by Christies to benefit the Santa Fe Institute and sold to an unidentified American collector for $254,500, more than 10 times its estimate. McCarthy paid $20 for a replacement typewriter of the same model, but in newer condition and continues to use that to this day. We offer no more reasons, although there are hundreds, for why he's cool.
How cool is Stephen King? Well, when he told fellow author Neil Gaiman that if he had the chance to live his life all over again he wouldn’t change a thing. Apart from appearing in an American Express advert. Oh and there's the minor matter that according to Guinness Superlatives more of King’s books have been adapted into films than any other living author.
Joseph Heller flew 60 combat missions as a bombardier in World War II before finishing his studies and working as an advertising copywriter. In 1953, he thought of the first line, "It was love at first sight." and within a week, he had finished the first chapter of Catch-22, and sent it to his agent. He did no more writing for the next year, as he planned the rest of the story. When it was one-third finished his agent sent it to publishers who purchased it and gave him $750, promising him another $750 when the full manuscript was delivered. Heller missed his deadline by almost five years but, after eight years of thought, delivered the most significant work of postwar protest literature in the history of mankind and changed the English lexicon forever. Fair play.
Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland's first novel was the international bestseller Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which introduced terms such as McJob and Generation X to the vernacular. Thirteen novels have followed, all worthy of you time, but we love Coupland not just for his undoubted writing skill but because on the whole, he doesn't really give a damn...
“I sleep in every single day until 11." He once said. "As long as I sleep in, I will be creative. If I get up even one hour earlier, the day is a waste. When I take a morning meeting, I lose a whole day of creativity. A meeting isn’t worth that. Very little is worth that.” Amen, brother.
The Times named him in 2008 as one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 and he's been listed for the Booker Prize twice to date (shortlisted in 1991 for Time's Arrow and longlisted in 2003 for Yellow Dog), but we most love Amis for his one liners, for example:
“And meanwhile time goes about its immemorial work of making everyone look and feel like shit.” (London Fields)
“Don't I ever do anything else but take soulful walks down the Bayswater Road, I thought, as I walked soulfully down the Baywater Road.” (The Rachel Papers)
John le Carré
Four words: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
Speaking of spies, Fleming's James Bond stories rank among the best-selling series of fictional books of all time, having sold over 100 million copies worldwide. He also wrote Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and if that's not an example of versatility, we're not sure what is. A spy himself, Fleming's 007 novels struggled to take off in America until President John F. Kennedy listed From Russia, With Love as one of his ten favourite books.
Though he had begun his career as one of the ultimate “cult authors,” his poems and novels were so popular that by the time of his death that he was a household name. Over the years he had risen from destitute alcoholic drifter to an established part of the 20th-century literary canon. But, rather wonderfully, his appearance never really changed with it. Want one book? Pick Factotum a grubby classic in which Bukowski's booze-addled alter-ego Henry Chinaksi meanders from one disastrous menial job to the next as he struggles to get himself published as a writer.
A writer of such incredible magnitude his 1984 phrases (Big Brother, doublethink, Room 101, newspeak) continue to litter our lexicon today and he even boasts his very own adjective. Orwell, a lifelong anti-Stalinist, is the man who coined the term "Cold War" to describe the idealogical dust-up between Russia and the US, and survived a sniper bullet to neck during the Spanish Civil War. But, most amazing of all, is his continued ability to make a farm interesting to GCSE students.
Lord Of The Flies author William Golding described Greene as "the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety." Pick up The End Of The Affair and you'll realise he's not far off that for the twenty first century.
Another former MI6 operative, Greene had a truly tumultuous childhood that saw inventive yet terrifying suicide attempts and, as a young adult, he responded to the end of a relationship by playing Russian Roulette (not cool) and eventually penning the incredible aforementioned novel (very cool).
It's vital we mention that Greene wasn't a good person, at all. Adulterous, mean, bad father his character was far from admirable, but here's the guy who penned Brighton Rock and The Third Man. As an author alone, everything else aside, he makes this list.
There's something so wonderful about the inconvenient endings to Ellroy novels that seriously appeals to us. Life rarely offers catharsis and Ellroy reflects that in his work with zeal. "Closure is bullshit", Ellroy once said, "and I would love to find the man who invented closure and shove a giant closure plaque up his ass."
He has a way with words, right? It's totally worth reading his "final comment" about the movie adaptation of his novel LA Confidential right here)
Twenty-seven books, a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and absolutely epic 'stache, Steinbeck refused to use a typewriter, churning his way through 300 pencils when writing East of Eden.
Plus, when his dog ate an early draft of Of Mice and Men Steinbeck didn't throw in the towel, he simply grabbed some more paper, a dozen or so pencils and started again.
How many honorary doctorate degrees are you planing on bagging yourself this lifetime? When Eudora died in 2001, leaving a considerably less talented Earth behind her, she had 38. Thirty eight! She was also the first living author to have her works published by the Library of America and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. If you read only one of her books, make it the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Optimist's Daughter.
Oh sorry, did we not mention her Pulitzer Prize? Yeah she kept it right next to her American Academy Of Arts And Letters Gold Medal For Fiction. Probably.
“My first rule of travel is never to go to a place that sounds like a medical condition."
What's not to love about Bryson? He injects in us a desire to travel and he does it with effortless wit and warmth. Notes from a Small Island should be on the UK school's national curriculum and Bryson should be made Prime Minister. Alas, that's not allowed until the Anglophile sits the British citizenship test, but he claims he's "too cowardly" take it.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The inventor of "casually sitting on a chair sideways" and Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur went to university with Robert Louis Stevenson, played on the same cricket team as JM Barrie and rather wonderfully was one of the earliest motorists in Britain, buying a car without ever having driven one.
As for his writing abilities, let's hand over to Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Steven Moffat:
"When it came to villains and mystery and heroes and adventure, there's never been anyone to touch Sir Arthur. Every so often I have to write a "hero meets villain" scene... I do it with a heavy heart because I know there's a moment that can't be beat – this simple exchange in The Final Problem, written in 1893.
Moriarty: "Everything I have to say has already crossed your mind."
Holmes: "Then possibly my answer has crossed yours."
"Since those words were written, the rest of us have been fighting for second place."
Edgar Allan Poe
Considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre, Poe also did a huge amount for the emergence of science fiction. He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, resulting in a pretty crappy financial existence. Still, when the money's bad and the pressure's on, authors tend to pull out their best work. Edgar's was his 1845, poem "The Raven" which appeared in the Evening Mirror and became a smash hit. Though it made Poe a household name over night he was paid only $9 for its publication.
Poe didn't just write brilliant. During his lifetime, he was best recognised as a brutal literary critic and his reviews earned him the epithet "Tomahawk Man". As nicknames go, that's cool.
Agatha was a "Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire", which is about as badass an honour as any on Earth. Needless to say it was hugely deserved - she wrote 66 detective novels mostly around the investigations of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, but she also wrote the world's longest-running play, The Mousetrap. Her writing was a joy. Here, for example, is her description of Poirot's appearance...
"His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side... The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound."
Ever read the first 20 words of this enigmatic modern master's stunning novel The Metamorphosis?
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
You should probably read the subsequent 21,790.
“You may try, but you cannot imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” (Daniel Deronda, by George Eliot)
It's something of an understatement to say that women got a rough deal in the Victorian era. Hats off to Mary Ann Evans who took the same course as the Bronte sister and used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously during a time when female authors were associated with romantic novels and hers took on realism, soul-dissection and psychology. In doing so she wrote Middlemarch, a novel that Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have described as the greatest novel in the English language.
Brooding Scandi-noir genius Larsson is one of the depressingly long list of authors who achieved posthumous success. Shortly before his death in 2004, he submitted the third volume in his "Millennium trilogy" to his publisher, but not a single book had been printed. Today more than 63 million copies of the trilogy have been sold.
Mind-blowingly successful novels aside, Larsson was also instrumental in documenting and exposing Swedish extreme right and racist organisations. He lived much of his life with death threats hanging over him.
Check out this Google image search for "Oscar Wilde Quotes". Annoying volumes of talent, the cojones to dress the way he did and a total lack of giving a damn about what society thought made him a true 19th century superstar. Though thought of as an author, he only published one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Good job it was an absolute belter.
How cool is this? She had one book published, the 1961 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, tackling issues of racism that she observed as a child in Alabama. It was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in 1991 a poll by the Library Journal and bagged her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contribution to literature.
Since its publication Lee has granted almost no requests for interviews or public appearances and, with the exception of a few short essays, has published nothing further. Why try and better the best novel of the century?