While it is impossible to rank the most important authors in contemporary literature, here is a list of ten important (English language) authors with some biographical notes and links to more information about them and their work.
1) Isabel Allende
Chilean-American author Isabel Allende wrote her debut novel, House of Spirits to great acclaim in 1982. The novel began as a letter to her dying grandfather and is a work of magical realism charting the history of Chile. Allende began writing House of Spirits on January 8th, and subsequently has begun all her books on that day.
2) Margaret Atwood
Canadian author Margaret Atwood has numerous critically-acclaimed novels to her credit, most recently Oryx and Crake and The Penelopiad (2005). She is known for her feminist themses, but her prolific output of work spans both form and genre.
3) Jonathan Franzen
Winner of the National Book Award for his 2001 novel, The Corrections, and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker magazine, Jonathan Franzen is also the author of a 2002 books of essays entitled How to Be Alone and a 2006 memoir, The Discomfort Zone.
4) Ian McEwan
British writer Ian McEwan started winning literary awards with his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1976) and never stopped. Atonement (2002) won several awards and is being made into a movie, and Saturday (2005) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
5) David Mitchell
English novelist David Mitchell is known for his tendency toward experimental structure. In his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999), he uses nine narrators to tell the story and 2004’s Cloud Atlas is a novel comprised of six interconnected stories. Mitchell won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Ghostwritten, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas, and is on the Booker longlist for Black Swan Green (2006).
6) Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) was named best novel of the past 25 years in a 2006 New York Times Book Review survey. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and Toni Morrison, whose name has become synonymous with African American literature, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
7) Haruki Murakami
Son of a Buddhist priest, Japanese author Haruki Murakami first struck a chord with A Wild Sheep Chase in 1982, a novel steeped in the genre of magical realism which he would make his own over the coming decades. Murakami’s most popular work among Westerners is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, though 2005’s Kafka on the Shore met with success in this country, as well. The English version of Murakami’s most recent novel, After Dark, is slated for release in 2007.
8) Philip Roth
Philip Roth seems to have won more book awards than any other American writer alive. Most recently he won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History for The Plot Against America (2005) and a PEN/Nabokov Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2006. In Everyman (2006), Roth’s 27th novel, he sticks to one of his familiar themes: what it’s like growing old Jewish in America.
9) Zadie Smith
Literary Critic James Wood coined the term “hysterical realism” in 2000 to describe Zadie Smith’s hugely successful debut novel, White Teeth, which Smith agreed was a “painfully accurate term for the sort of overblown, manic prose to be found in novels like my own White Teeth.” Her third novel, On Beauty, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the 2006 Orange Prize for Fiction.
10) John Updike
Terrorist (2006) is the most recent in the twenty-some novels John Updike has to his credit. His four Rabbit Angstrom novels were named in 2006 among the best novels of the past 25 years in a New York Times Book Review survey.
I have read a few of these authors and I do know some people who would list some of these people as their favourites. Remember this is the contemporary fiction category and is limited to living authors, so perhaps that does give you a smaller pool to choose from.
One of my neighbours is actually a huge Margaret Attwood fan, and I really like Isobel Allende’s books. Murakami is also interesting and McEwan and Roth. Toni Morrison got a lot of exposure through Oprah’s book group and I am a little ambivalent towards her work and Zadie Smith’s book, I didn’t care for at all.