WE EXPECT WRITERS to come up with great names. Indeed, we’ve already compiled a list of those. But sometimes writers are themselves blessed with superlative names.
As always, this list is completely subjective. As always, plenty of worthy candidates were left off by reasons of space—I used mostly modern names, for example (but not too modern; sorry, Ben Fountain). As always, we encourage you to leave a comment giving us a hard time about our more egregious omissions. We may not see eye to eye on whom the best-named writer is, but I’m sure we can all agree that Dan Brown is the worst.
And now, without further ado, the 50:
50. Edwidge Danticat
Like casting a spell, I’m pretty sure if you say these beautiful syllables three times fast, a rainbow will appear.
49. Ernest Hemingway
He gave his stand-ins simple names (Jake Barnes, Nick Baker, Fred Henry) to make up for his more grandiose one. “Ernest” is honest, and “Hemingway” sounds like a back road out of some godforsaken war zone.
48. J.R.R. Tolkien
The second “R” is for “redundant.”
You know how he figures prominently in The English Patient? Yeah, the story they cite is, like, the first one in the book. So someone didn’t read much Herodotus. Who sounds like a Transformer in league with Optimus Prime.
46. Saul Bellow
I read it as “Soul Bellow,” the awful plangent wailing of our core being, the terrible screaming of the lambs.
45. Sidney Sheldon
This guy managed to combine two of the least sexy first names out there and somehow make it work.
44. Franz Kafka
The word “Kafka-esque” would not have the same ring if his surname were, say, Chmerkovskiy.
43. Marguerite Duras
Definitely someone you’d follow on Instagram.
42. Kingsley Amis
The great novelist must not have dug his regal first name, as he dubbed his more famous son the couldn’t-be-more-dull Martin.
41. Fannie Flagg
Anyone who can get away with calling herself “Fannie” should absolutely do so. It’s like the female equivalent of “Dick.”
40. Iceberg Slim
It doesn’t get cooler than “Iceberg.”
39. Camille Paglia
God is man’s greatest idea. This name is man’s second greatest.
38. Rainer Maria Rilke
“Rilke” is silky. The other two names seem to have been selected at random, perhaps from his mouthful of a given name: René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke. Also: I love when dudes go by “Maria.”
37. Baroness Orczy
Could be the villainess in the next Spider-Man movie.
36. Pablo Neruda
Say it out loud a few times. Luxuriate in its aural beauty. Then dig that it’s pab-LONER-uda. Then try and play Boggle with the letters of the name.
Lesbian (literally) poet from 600 BCE, with the name of a 21st century hip hop star.
34. Hunter S. Thompson
The current trend of giving kids first names that are last names indicating jobs that people no longer have (Taylor, Reeve, Walker, Tyler, etc.) originates here.
33. Ezra Pound
The last name is a unit of currency, a measurement of weight, and what we do to our fist on the table when we find out about his politics. As for the first name, nothing is, ahem, better than Ezra.
32. Tennessee Williams
Clearly Lawrence Kasdan, or maybe it was Spielberg, had just seen Streetcar when trying to name his Raiders of the Lost Ark archeologist.
31. Willa Cather
Willa seems to be a popular name for girls nowadays. Wasn’t always that way. Ms. Cather was a (O) pioneer.
30. Langston Hughes
Would also be a great football name. Seriously, doesn’t he play nickelback for the Seahawks?
29. Joan Didion
“Didion” is a good name for a modern art movement, a new poetic form, a prog band, and just about anything else. As for the first name, it’s no slouch, in Bethlehem or elsewhere.
28. Ogden Nash
Probably not a fun time to grow up with, as “Ogden” does not lend itself to diminutives, but for a comic poet who wrote “candy is dandy / but liquor is quicker”? Gold.
27. Agatha Christie
A harsh old-lady name combined with a sweet young-woman name. The latter has unfortunately been sullied by the corpulent governor of my home state.
26. e.e. cummings
Pioneer of the all-lowercase-letter style of writing made ubiquitous by the internet. Author of some outstanding poems and et cetera. And his last name would make Beavis chortle.
25. Danielle Steel
I always want to feminize the surname with that decorative, superfluous “e,” but it’s not there; Danielle is just a cold, hard bite of Steel.
24. Lord Byron
Definitely on the short list of “writers I would have loved to go drinking with.” Wrote the poem tattooed on Pam’s back in Archer. Fun fact: Lord Byron coined the word “millionaire.”
23. Madeline L’Engle
Inherently beautiful name. I love how it turns in on itself, like a winged horse taking flight.
22. W. Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh [tie]
I admire the use of the initial, as if there are 25 other Somerset Maughams running around; more, I love that Evelyn is a dude. Bonus for use of the name in “One Night in Bangkok”: Some are set up / in the Somerset Maugham suite.
21. J.K. Rowling
I thought it rhymed with “howling,” until I heard Daniel Radcliffe say it on SNL, with the long O. I like to think the initials stand for “Just Kidding.”
20. William Makepeace Thackeray
The great Civil War general, the wonderfully-appellated William Tecumseh Sherman, was named Tecumseh by his parents—Cump, for short—and only acquired the duller-than-dull “William” when the Church mandated it later on, when he started school. I like to think the same of Makepeace Thackeray.
19. Barbara Kingsolver
Wonderfully sonorous first name, combined with arguably the coolest last name of all time. She does not just defeat monarchs; she solves them!
French for “smart, witty, clever, learned, and a million times cooler than you’ll ever be.” Did you know he was a pen pal to Catherine the Great?
17. Djuna Barnes
Maybe the sister of Jake from The Sun Also Rises? Could also be in charge of dance night at some hot Lesbian nightclub. DJ Una in da house!
16. Orson Scott Card
However odious his views have become, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead remain sublime, and what better way to dress up the monosyllabic “Scott” and “Card” than with the name of Mork’s handler back on Ork.
15. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë [tie]
It’s the accent on the “e” that makes it all work. Their mother was blessed with tremendous foresight, because all of these names are still enormously popular.
14. Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Not many writers can pull off the comma. Or the Lord.
13. Francine Prose
When I interviewed her, one of my favorite contemporary novelists, a few years back, I asked her about her singularly apt last name. What do you say when people ask about it, I wanted to know. She told me that the best response came from her brother, who liked to quip, “Well, it could be Verse.”
12. Milan Kundera
The unbearable coolness of Czechoslovakia. Milan is a sublime and sexy first name, and Kundera? Kundera’s too sexy for Milan.
11. Ursula K. LeGuin
The entire Harry Potter series is a dumbed-down rip-off of A Wizard of Earthsea, a dispossession I appear to be the only person on earth bothered by. The Left Hand of Darkness may well be the finest “science fiction” novel of all time, and its author’s name sounds like a distant galaxy, far better than this one.
10. Edgar Allan Poe
Poet without the “t.” Inventor of at least two genres of fiction, lover of Lenore, obvious influence on numerous episodes of The Simpsons, kicked character in “I am the Walrus,” enthusiast of the word purloined, and the most famous resident of Baltimore other than McNulty and Stringer Bell.
9. Miranda July
With its Shakespearean allusiveness, Miranda is one of my very favorite women’s names, used to great effect in Emily St. John Mandel’s sublime 2014 novel Station Eleven, which you should read at once. Paired with the seventh month of the year, the name is uncannily well suited to the offbeat writer who was the subject of my first essay on these pages.
8. Ayn Rand
Legend has it she lifted the surname from her typewriter, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense that she’d choose to name herself after a corporation. I wonder how future generations will regard Ms. Rand, if
assholism objectivism will continue to have truck with the Millennials and beyond, if a century hence readers will give a shit who John Galt is.
7. Dashiell Hammett
Inferior to Raymond Chandler in every way except for his name and maybe his political sensibilities.
6. Anais Nin
Exotic and erotic, redolent with licorice, and set to the music of Trent Reznor.
5. Ambrose Bierce
The banquet implied by the first name yields to the piercing ferocity of the last. A lexicographer in league with the Devil, who defined November as “the eleventh twelfth of a weariness.”
4. Sylvia Plath
“Sylvia” means “forest,” but because of Transylvania, we think of this particular forest as dark and frightening. “Plath” is a path, a tortuous path through our darkling wood, perverted by the “L.” A better name for a suicidal poetess you will not find.
3. Oscar Wilde
As flashy and fun an appellation as the charming wit it belonged to, the genius who quipped, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
2. Dr. Seuss
I would like it with a house, and I would like it with a mouse.
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe
Wrote a runaway best seller that was of high literary quality, a novel that was a huge influence on the mindset of many, many Americans on the topic of slavery, which unquestionably turned the tide of public opinion against that odious institution. She 1) made a ton of money, 2) wrote good books, and 3) had a major political and social impact on her society. That’s the novelist’s hat trick, and it’s pretty much untoppable. Her name was awesome, too.