The novel has been the dominant form of literature for centuries, evolving and changing in exciting, unexpected ways over the years. Just when you think we know what a novel can do, a book comes along that does something no one ever thought of before. Every now and then that innovation is so powerful, it changes the way subsequent novels are conceived. It’s easy to forget books published decades or even centuries ago were game-changers, so we offer up this list as a reminder of the books that changed everything. These novels aren’t just classics, they made the novel what it is today.
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Carvantes
How It Changed Novels: Generally regarded as the first novel in the modern sense. While there were certainly novel-like books before, this 1605 entry defined what we think of as a novel today. The fact the story remains enjoyable to modern readers and has influenced a long, long list of subsequent books is just icing on the cake.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
How It Changed Novels: Lawrence’s 1928 novel caused quite a stir with its frank depiction of sexuality, its use of profanity, and its focus on the sexual desires of an upperclass woman. Via a landmark obscenity case, it paved the way for the freedom modern authors enjoy in writing about sex, class, and the human condition.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
How It Changed Novels: Moby Dick was initially a failure, and it wasn’t until long after its 1851 publication that people began to appreciate it. This is in part due to a difficult publication path that saw truncated versions gaining wide distribution, and in part due to its complex language. Melville forged a whole new way of approaching novels, combining a deep dive into a world few people experienced (whaling ships) with a consciously verbose style that made the book as much about the language as the story—something we take for granted today.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
How It Changed Novels: Flaubert’s most famous work is one of those books whose influence is so pervasive as to be invisible. It’s the novel that codified literary realism, a style that conveys the ordinary, everyday events of existence with literary flair, eschewing false drama for an almost journalistic approach to detail and plot. Published in 1856, it feels completely modern, a testament to how many novels still mimic its style.
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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
How It Changed Novels: Put simply, Rowling’s genius novel erased the divisions between young-adult and adult reading material. The books were published by Scholastic because they were seen as kids’ books, but just as many grown-ups found them irresistible, proving books ostensibly aimed at young audiences could be packed with depth, subtext, and complexity.
Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse
How It Changed Novels: When modern-day narrators and protagonists struggle with psychological, philosophical, and identity issues, they’re echoing this 1927 novel that continues to divide readers. The themes of alienation and malleable reality were bracingly new at the time, and every time you read a novel like Gone Girl you owe a debt to Hesse, even if the connections aren’t obvious.
The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
How It Changed Novels: Tolkien’s epic more or less defines what we think of as epic fantasy, and continues to be the most influential work in the genre. Tolkien’s scholarly and literary reputation elevated the genre into respectability, and the books’ pop culture phenomenon status in the 1960s and 1970s cemented fantasy as a pillar of our modern entertainment industrial complex.
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
How It Changed Novels: Love it or hate it, Salinger’s classic changed things, both in its free-flowing subjective narration and the way it elevates the concerns of adolescence to serious commentary on the modern world. It could be argued the entire category of Young Adult fiction owes its existence, in some sense, to Salinger’s novel.
Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne
How It Changed Novels: Arguably the world’s first bestseller and cultural phenomenon, Tristram Shandy more or less broke every rule about what a novel should be at the time (1759), offering a story that rambles through obscenity, incredible plot twists, and the use of a fallible omniscient narrator. It remains a singular trick no other author has accomplished—or at least, not so successfully. If you enjoy modern literature, you can thank Sterne and Shandy.
Love Letters Between a Certain Nobleman and His Sister, by Aphra Behn
How It Changed Novels: The first epistolary novel, Behn’s scandalous story is the first to unfold as a series of letters, a technique so effective, it’s still being copied to this day.
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
How It Changed Novels: Arguably the first true science fiction novel, Shelley’s masterpiece, born from a long conversation during a boring weekend in the country, was unlike anything that came before it in Western literature, and established so many sci-fi tropes, people who have never read the book are intimately familiar with its plot, characters, and themes.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
How It Changed Novels: Wallace’s mixture of literary and sci-fi created a new genre that fuses academic tools (like the copious, twisting footnotes) and styles with more traditional postmodern techniques, and pours it all into a monumental 1,000-plus pager with a plot that remains debatable, and which leaves no tangent unexplored.
Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce
How It Changed Novels: People can talk about Shakespeare inventing words, but Joyce more or less invented his own language to write Finnegans Wake. In the process, he created a singular piece of literature that will never be duplicated, and in doing so, he freed the writers that followed from many of the strict rules of narrative, vocabulary, and structure that had been deemed necessary.
Ulysses, by James Joyce
How It Changed Novels: Joyce again, perfecting what’s come to be known as “stream of consciousness” in a story that reveled in the everyday, the physical pleasures and discomforts of existence, and his beloved city of Dublin. To this day, most novels that engage in stream of consciousness tricks are tipping the hat to this classic.
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House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
How It Changed Novels: Danielewski’s novel plays with perception, with the rules of fair play in terms of narrative integrity, and turns a novel into a puzzle-box where every word choice, page layout, and turn of phrase might be a clue to a larger meaning. Making writers who simply tell a story look lazy, Danielewski’s neo-classic horror story remains disturbing in ways no other book has ever achieved.
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
How It Changed Novels: Swift’s most famous novel was one of the first effective social satires published, and showed that the novel could be a devastating political and cultural tool that could be both entertaining and critical at the same time. In the modern day, much of the satirical subtext gets lost, yet the story itself is so iconic, it almost doesn’t matter.
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
How It Changed Novels: One of the earliest, and certainly the first wholly successful, detective novels established most of the techniques future writers would use when crafting mysteries—and its brutal depiction of physical and psychological violence is echoed to this day by the James Pattersons of the world.
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackery
There are a lot of reasons to love Thackeray’s 1848 novel, but it is the shifting, subtly mocking narrator he creates for the story that changed everything. One of the earliest and most subtle examples of the Unreliable Narrator, Thackeray’s narrator even outright states at one point that he’s leaving facts out of the story while leaving clues to them in place for readers to follow. The technique would be refined and perfected, but it had its start in modern literature with Becky Sharp.
In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
How It Changed Novels: Not only did Proust’s epic work more or less prove that novels could be really, really, really long, there’s an argument to be made that every novel written since its publication in 1913 is either an imitation of it on some level, or a refutation of its plot-light structure and passive protagonist—both surprising innovations at the time.
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
How It Changed Novels: Sometimes mistakenly thought of as stream of consciousness, Woolf’s novel—which contains almost no dialog and almost no action of any kind—is actually a masterful exercise of focalization, shifting the narrative through different perceptions and conveying the story as we experience life: through sensory input, and our own inner monologue and often inexplicable subconscious reactions. It’s a technique many writers are still trying to master today.
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
How It Changed Novels: Hemingway’s style is so iconic it’s still used as shorthand for a certain type of unadorned, macho writing popular nearly a century after Papa’s debut. Not many writers hone their craft to the point where they become a category unto themselves. Hemingway’s simple sentence structures and disdain for verbiage—the result of many revisions and painstaking work—had a profound influence on all the writers who followed.
Journey to the End of the Night , by Louis-Ferdinand Céline
How It Changed Novels: Still controversial nearly a century after publication (partly due to the unsavory antisemitism on display in the book and in the author’s private views), this novel combined blunt, reality-based vernacular with complex sentence structures in a way that had never been done before, resulting in a style that was at the time unique. That it was used in service of a story that can only be described as devastatingly misanthropic makes this book infinitely influential on all that followed.
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
How It Changed Novels: While much of Faulkner’s classic 1929 novel is perfectly comprehensible as it details the slow, grinding downfall of a Southern family, it is the first part of the book, narrated by the developmentally challenged Benjy, that changed everything. Faulkner throws the reader into the deep end by opening the novel with Benjy’s fractured, instinctive point of view without explaining a damn thing, creating a sort of prose poem that challenges, infuriates, and intrigues.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
How It Changed Novels: Chandler’s novel is one of the first noir detective stories to hit the big time, and in many ways remains the source for many of the noir tropes still in use today. Its famously complicated plot (which Chandler himself admitted had huge holes) mapped out what a noir story should contain, and just about every noir work that follows adheres to that basic outline.
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The Murder of Roger Akroyd, by Agatha Christie
How It Changed Novels: While the Unreliable Narrator wasn’t new in 1926, Christie’s bold use of the technique in the most unexpected way possible is still being debated today. Although nearly a century seems sufficient time to dispense with spoiler tags, the twist in this novel is so fundamental to the experience, we won’t reveal it, except to say that its influence remains powerful in both modern mystery writing, and in other genres as well.
Malone Dies, by Samuel Beckett
How It Changed Novels: Beckett was all about deconstruction, and Malone Dies (along with Molloy and The Unnameable) is a novel without a plot, without a firm identity for its only character, without most of the solid landmarks we use to orient ourselves in a story. In fact, calling Malone Dies a story at all is a stretch. Becket made it possible for novelists to ignore any aspect of the novel they wished—or to ignore all of them.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
How It Changed Novels: Capote more or less created a new genre with this deeply-researched “non-fiction novel.” Telling the chilling story of a murder and the two ex-cons who committed it, it’s a factual account elevated to the level of masterful storytelling. The technique and juxtaposition of style and fact has been imitated many times, but few have done it better.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
How It Changed Novels: Sociopaths have been in stories since stories were first told, and there had even been sociopathic protagonists in novels before. But Highsmith made Ripley the hero of her story despite his chillingly manipulative nature and his many crimes. Ripley opened a dark gate and many of the best novels of the last few decades owe his charmingly evil presence a debt.
The Sheik, by E.M. Hull
How It Changed Novels: You can trace the incredibly popular and successful romance genre straight back to Hull’s sensational novel, the source for the silent film that made Rudolph Valentino an international superstar. Just about all the classic romance tropes are found in a book that spoke to readers in a whole new way.
Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany
How It Changed Novels: Delany’s 1975 novel proved a science fiction book could be just as plotless, allusion-heavy, and impenetrable as any literary novel. A huge bestseller for Delany, it broke down barriers, a genre work about much more than spaceships and rayguns, inhabiting a significant literary realm all its own.
Carmilla, by Joseph Le Fanu
How It Changed Novels: Paving the way for Dracula some years later, Carmilla is not only the first major vampire novel, it also features a more or less plain-as-day lesbian relationship in 1871—although it ultimately has a fairly strict moral view, with Carmilla’s victims paying a high price for succumbing to temptation.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
How It Changed Novels: Trying to define Heller’s novel is impossible—it’s a comedy, a drama, a mystery, and a philosophical tome all in one. In short, it broadened the definition of the term novel and demonstrated there was no reason a book couldn’t explore every facet of the human experience, no matter how farcical or tragic—or both.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
How It Changed Novels: Arguably the first novel that embraced the growing gap between generations, On the Road fused a poetic sensibility and playful approach to vocabulary and grammar, and is one of the first successful novels to eschew traditional rules about plot structure, in the sense that its plot has no structure.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
How It Changed Novels: Heinlein always claimed he was in no rush to complete this epic sci-fi novel, because he had to wait for attitudes about sex and religion to catch up to him. The book goes further than that, as it is an explicit attempt to influence society, and in essence, helped elevate science fiction from juvenile entertainment to socially-powerful treatise.
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
How It Changed Novels: In its depiction of society in decline, horrifying violence fueled by youthful boredom and ignorance, and its opaque created slang, A Clockwork Orange redefined what was acceptable when it came to violence in popular fiction. It also inadvertently served as the poster novel against publisher meddling, as the omission of the final chapter in the American edition led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the message.
The Skylark of Space, by E.E. Smith
How It Changed Novels: Put simply, Smith’s 1928 novel was the first space opera, thus creating and influencing a sub-genre of sci-fi that includes Star Wars, and represents the first time interstellar travel was used as a major plot point; its mixture of adventure, espionage, and thriller elements remain the basic recipe for such stories to day.
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon
How It Changed Novels: Certainly not the first postmodern novel, it is likely the first novel to be both legitimately postmodern and a legitimate satire of post-modernism all at once, widening the rabbit hole for subsequent writers to go down. In short, Pynchon’s short 1966 novel set novels free to seriously not take themselves too seriously.
Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
How It Changed Novels: Combining a realistic basis, a disdain for paragraphs, a visual aspect in the somber photographs included in the text, and a complete and total embrace of run-on sentences (one sentence goes on for more than 10 pages), Austerlitz demonstrates that serious literature does not require rules of any kind.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
How It Changed Novels: It’s unclear whether the success of The Canterbury Tales promoted English in the vernacular to legitimacy, thus making modern English novels possible, or simply contributed to a movement already in progress. Either way, the fact that English is a literary language at all is due in some part to Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece.
The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole
How It Changed Novels: This 1764 novel was the first recognizably Gothic novel, combining unrealistic elements such as magic but placing those elements in a realistic setting—and allowing his characters to react to these elements in realistic ways. Literature would never be the same.
Waverly, by Walter Scott
How It Changed Novels: The first historical fiction novel, Waverly was a sensation when first published, although it was later surpassed in the public imagination by Scott’s most famous novel, Ivanhoe. From the Aubrey-Maturin novels to Outlander, you most likely owe a debt of gratitude to Sir Walter for carving out a wholly new type of story.
The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens
How It Changed Novels: The first wildly popular serial novel, this 1837 story made Charles Dickens into Charles Dickens; it was a blockbuster hit due largely to the popularity of a single character, and proved that serialization could lead to serious literature; while The Pickwick Papers is gentle fun, it takes the descriptions of characters, relationships, and values very seriously indeed.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet beecher Stowe
How It Changed Novels: The first novel to demonstrate the ability of the literary form to impact politics and social issues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t so much a great novel as a great moment in history in novel form, and directly responsible for every book intended to tackle the serious issues of the day. After all, when a novel is given at least partial credit for the start of the Civil War, it’s going to have some imitators.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez
How It Changed Novels: The novel that crystallized magical realism and cemented Latin American literature as on par with other literary movements remains unique and unparalleled. Few books so obviously and instantaneously examplify a whole genre, but when someone asks “what is magical realism?” this is overwhelmingly likely to be the answer suggested.
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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
How It Changed Novels: Thompson injected himself into everything he wrote, and his 1972 novel is the epitome of his “gonzo” style, fusing invention and fact, making his fiction almost inseparable from his journalism and vice versa, and opening the door for writers ranging from Tom Robbins to Chuck Palahniuk.
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Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
How It Changed Novels: The short answer is it deprecates punctuation and gets away with it. The slightly longer answer is the way McCarthy’s style mimics oral traditions and the rhythms and absorption of listening to a story as opposed to reading it, making this novel one of the only truly innovative books to be published in the last few decades.
Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
How It Changed Novels: With this serial novel that set out to capture a moment in time, specifically in late-1980s New York City, Wolfe combined the scale and verbiage of an epic with the sharp comedy and observational writing of a much more focused work, demonstrating that by embracing a specific time period, a writer could create something timeless.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
How It Changed Novels: Although dystopias had been represented in literature before, Huxley’s was the first sci-fi novel to present a dystopia extrapolated realistically from the current state of society at the time of its writing, establishing a firm connection between sci-fi, the future, and the novel’s ability to comment on not just the past and the present, but the future as well.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
How It Changed Novels: Science fiction generally takes itself pretty seriously. Adams proved you could write a sci-fi novel that was jammed full of ideas but was also in every way a comedy.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
How It Changed Novels: Neuromancer didn’t invent cyberpunk, but it legitimized it, carving it out as a sub-genre in itself. The story was so bracingly new it swept the major sci-fi awards even as it got little attention outside of the field—and yet its influence is still felt today in literally any story involving artificial intelligence, virtual realities, and any character referred to as a “hacker.”