People are jingoes. Most people lack the wit to understand literature. If they have a dog in the fight, they back that dog. What writers someone thinks are the best says a lot about the individual making the list.
Usually, somebody will cite some writer they are sure nobody ever heard of, or they will cite someone who they know is approved as being too tedious for anyone to have actually read. Faulkner comes to mind for the latter category. I know he’s a great writer, I get it, I just don’t like reading him.
It also depends on what genre is under discussion. Crime solving books are different from what is standardly accepted as pure literature. Thomas Harris worked for the FBI, and RED DRAGON is a great book of its genre, but it doesn’t get the respect Henry James might.
People commonly say J.D. Salinger, who was a pretty good writer, but lots of Americans are better. Thomas Wolfe is much better, for instance. In fact, most of the common opinions are horrible.
To put this into context, who was the greatest all time writer? Shakespeare. Why? Because all his tremendous body of work had merit, and some of it transcended everything else written. He wrote the clichés. People will cite The Bible, which is a horribly flawed book. A careful study of the storylines show a lot of conflicts. Too many different people wrote it, or translating it is impossible. I don’t view The Bible as literature, and think it’s disrespectful to try.
John Kennedy Toole wrote the greatest American novel, THE CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, but this doesn’t make him the best American writer. He didn’t write enough. So it is with Sylvia Plath and Fitzgerald. Only one American writer wrote a huge body of work uniquely American, and he gets very little respect. He’s not a knock off of some European writer, nor a wannabee of any other country.
Robert E. Howard-the greatest American writer. Compelling story lines, florid style, good command of the English language, student of Theosophy. If I had to be stuck on a desert island with any one book, make mine The Complete Works of Robert E. Howard. Was Flannery O’Connor a better writer? Was she uniquely American? Of course. Greatness, however, is about transcendence. O’Connor never transcends her reality. The reader is always left forlorn and sniveling about The Human Tragedy as we await getting hit with a meteorite. I will sum up most literature in one sentence-Life Sucks, Then You Die. It’s easier on a T-Shirt.
Of course, though, O’Connor is completely different if you view her work as primarily spiritual in intent. This relegates her to the spiritual genre, though, which is just another literary ghetto and takes her out of contention for the grand prize. Plus, If I get stuck with nothing to read but Flannery O’Connor on my hypothetical desert island, maybe a couple of cyanide pills would be as helpful. My spiritual belief is this-if God wishes to save me, he shall. If not, that’s his prerogative.