Elena Ferrante named her top forty, and I am not sure I approve of the exercise at all. Still, here are my top twenty, in no particular order, fiction only, not counting poetry:
1.Lady Murasaki, Tale of Genji.
2. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
3. Alice Munro, any and all.
4. Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan quadrology.
5. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.
6. Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis trilogy.
7. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
8. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.
9. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter.
10. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.
11. Virginia Woolf, many.
12. Willa Cather, My Antonina.
13. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
14. Jane Austen, Persuasion.
15. Anne Rice, The Witching Hour, and #2 in the vampire series.
16. Anaïs Nin? P.D.James? A general award to the mystery genre?
17. Christa Wolf, Cassandra.
18. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian.
19. Irene Nemirovsky, Suite Francaise.
20. Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness.
Comments: No, I didn’t forget George Eliot, these are “my favorites,” not “the best.” Maybe Edith Wharton would have made #21? The other marginal picks mostly would have come from the Anglosphere. I learned my favorite Latin American writers are all male.