Herman Wouk – the 20th / 21st century’s greatest author

What makes a great author?

Some would argue that popularity should be the key measure, with best-selling authors the clear champions of the writing world. The public is the true test of what is great and their judgement carries all before it. Others might argue that simple popularity is a bad measure: Agatha Christie or Dick Francis may have sold millions of copies, but their books are relatively simple in structure and arguably lack depth. For such people, the true test is depth and literary accomplishment, measured perhaps by the ability to win major prices such as the Booker or Nobel.

Yet others might argue that neither popularity nor the acclaim of literary experts conveys the whole picture. A truly great author, they would argue, doesn’t just tell a good story, but conveys meaning, addresses important themes and sheds light upon major issues. Nonsense, comes the reply: if you want to send a message use Western Union. Meaning is irrelevant, but what’s more important is complexity and creativity. The ability to create and bind together dozens of characters and plot lines into a coherent whole, in the manner of War and Peace or The Wheel of Time is what truly demonstrates mastery. This, says yet another camp, is mistaken: sheer scale is trivial. What really counts is the quality of the description, the ability to draw the reader into a world unknown to them, to make it vivid and to truly immerse the reader as if they were there. A novella which does this successfully, they say, outclasses the sprawling epic that fails to. No, no, no, chimes in another voice, this is all so dreadfully conventional. Description, scale? No, what counts is the use of innovative techniques: epistolary novels, flashbacks, hidden viewpoints and other innovations. Why read a conventional novel when you could read If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller or The Dictionary of the Kazars?

And after considering all of this, what of output? To Kill a Mockingbird and Gone With the Wind are great novels, but doesn’t being a great author involve writing more than just a single book? And is variety important? Terry Pratchett certainly wrote plenty of books, but they’re all comic fantasy or very close cognates thereof. Does that matter?

We would all weight different factors, but I suspect most of us would say that a number of the factors above were important, if not all of them to some degree. So to truly be considered the greatest author of a period we need someone who can excel across the board.

These conditions, I would suggest, are best fulfilled by Herman Wouk, who though I referred to him as the ‘20th century’s greatest author’ published his latest book three years ago at the grand age of 100. As we’ll see, in any of the categories mentioned he’s a clear contender for a top position.

Popularity: His books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 27 languages. A number reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, with one remaining there for more than half a year. The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were even made into highly successful TV miniseries. He may have sold less than JK Rowling, but he is by any standards a massively successful popular author.

Literary merit: His 1951 novel, The Caine Mutiny, won the Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest literary awards. He’s won numerous other awards, including the inaugural Library of Congress Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Writing of Fiction.

Meaning: Wouk tackles some of the weightiest issues of the 20th century. The Holocaust is a major thread – arguably the principal thread – of the Winds of War and War and Remembrance and the books also address other important themes, such as the strength and robustness of democracies when tested under fire and the broader politics of how great powers rise and fall. A Hole in Texas, whilst much more light-hearted, is nonetheless an important examination of the interface between big science, academia and politics. 

Meaning at the more personal level is not neglected. What constitutes success in life, what price is worth paying and what do we truly desire is a core theme of novels such as Marjorie Morningstar and Inside Outside. It is deliberately ambiguous as to whether the ending of the former is a happy or a sad one: all depends upon your view of Marjorie’s life. And similarly, the trial at the end of The Caine Mutiny suddenly throws new light upon Captain Queeg: could this figure, until then portrayed from the point of view of the protagonist as almost a pantomime villain, actually be the real hero of the novel?

When he turns to non-fiction, Wouk continues to excel. This Is My God is essentially the Jewish equivalent of Lewis’s Mere Christianity and is sufficiently ubiquitous that a character in a Wilbur Smith novel (Eagle in the Sky) got given a copy when he wanted to know more about Judaism. It’s never since been out of print and was described by Isidore Epstein, the editor of the first full translation of the Babylonian Talmud into English, as the best book he knows on the theme. Similarly, The Will to Live On is a powerful examination of the Jewish people’s heritage and their future.

Scale: This criteria is best answered by his World War Two duology, over 1500 pages that cover the full global scope of the war and tie together dozens of characters in compelling narratives. His Israeli duology, slightly shorter and smaller in scale, nevertheless embraces 40 years of Israel’s history in a coherent whole. Wouk can and has written shorter books, but when he wants to write an epic, he has few rivals.

Description and Immersiveness: Born in 1915, Wouk writes of places and times that to most people reading today are simply part of history. Yet he writes to make them come alive. Whether it’s 1930s Broadway, tank battles in the Sinai peninsular, or a mid-century American yeshiva, he conjures up places with a rare vividness and immediacy.

The characters are equally strong. The laid-back Byron Henry, mercurial Marjorie, and out-of-depth scientist Guy Carpenter are just a tiny fraction of those who take centre-stage. Minor characters are also painted vividly with just a few short brushstrokes, as are historical characters, from Roosevelt to Ben Gurion’s wife. Youngbloode Hawke is essentially nothing but a character study, and not the sort of book I’d normally pick up, yet was utterly compelling. And the ill-fated romance of Shayna Matisdorf and Yossi Nitzan in The Hope is amongst the most heart-tugging in literature, a poignant counterpoint to the triumphant struggle for survival that is the novel’s main theme.

Innovative Techniques: They’re not the main focus of his work, but Wouk can certainly use these when appropriate. The Lawgiver is a modern epistolary novel, told through letters, emails, company memos and texts – even more impressive given he was in his ‘90s when he wrote it.

Perhaps his most innovative decision though is how he decided to tell the broader military happenings of the Second World War, essential if the non-expert reader is to fully appreciate the backdrop against which the character’s lives are playing out. Rather than bogging down the main narrative, Wouk chooses instead to insert excerpts from the (fictional) history book, World Empire Lost, written by the unrepentant (fictional) Nazi general Armin Von Roon from his prison cell, with footnotes and critical commentary from the work’s supposed translator, the novel’s main character American naval captain Victor Henry.

Output: Wouk has written over 20 books – no Asimov or Chesterton, but a highly respectable number. He is certainly far from a single-book author.

Variation: By now the variation should be obvious. Wouk has written epic war novels, a character study of a struggling author seeking to write ‘the great American novel’ and a coming of age novel about a young woman in Prohibition era New York. A Hole in Texas is not just one of the most realistic fictional depictions of modern day academia, it’s also a bitingly funny political satire. And as discussed above, he’s also written some very successful non-fiction.

Wouk’s books cover a span from the 1930s to the 2010s, from the London Blitz to modern day Hollywood and from Italy to the Sea of Japan. He can write battle scenes and court-room scenes, high politics and romance, humour and gravest tragedy. And he can do all of it well.

Across every measure of greatnyess we’ve looked at, Wouk excels. I believe he’s truly the greatest author of the 20th century; our greatest living author today. But if you don’t believe me, why not see for yourself? I’d suggest starting with either The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War or A Hole in Texas.

I’m aware that specifying any single author is necessarily a subjective judgement. I’ve put my case above; I’d love to hear others’ suggestions.