Discover the 16 Best Books and Authors of the 1980s

The 1980s were a decade of change and excitement in the literary world. From cultural and political influences to the rise of genre fiction, the decade produced a wealth of unforgettable books. In this article, we’ll take a look at the impact of the 1980s on literature, the iconic authors of the decade, award-winning books, and unforgettable fiction.

Discover the 16 Best Books and Authors of the 1980s

The Impact of the 1980s on Literature

The 1980s were a time of major social and political change, and literature was no exception. The decade saw the emergence of diverse voices and perspectives, as well as the rise of new genres like cyberpunk and postmodernism.

The 1980s were a decade of contrasts. On one hand, the world was changing rapidly, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of globalization. On the other hand, there was a growing sense of anxiety and uncertainty, as people grappled with the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Cultural and Political Influences

Beloved: Pulitzer Prize Winner (Vintage International)

Many of the great books of the 1980s were influenced by the cultural and political climate of the time. Authors grappled with issues such as race, gender, and sexuality in their works, creating a rich tapestry of literature that reflected the complexity of the world around them.

One of the most notable works of the decade was Toni Morrison’sBeloved,” which tells the story of a former slave who must confront the painful legacy of slavery. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of American literature.

Another important work of the decade was Alice Walker’sThe Color Purple,” which explores the lives of African American women in the rural South. The book won the National Book Award and was later adapted into a successful film.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of a new generation of writers, including Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and Donna Tartt. These writers often focused on the excesses and decadence of the era, portraying a world of drugs, sex, and money.

The Rise of Genre Fiction

Red Storm Rising: A Suspense Thriller

At the same time that literary fiction was evolving, genre fiction was also experiencing a seismic shift. Horror, science fiction, and mystery novels captured the imagination of readers, as authors like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Tom Clancy explored new territory.

King, in particular, was a major force in the horror genre, with books like “The Shining,” “It,” and “Pet Sematary” becoming bestsellers and inspiring successful film adaptations.

Atwood, meanwhile, was exploring the intersection of science fiction and feminism in works like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake.” These books imagined dystopian futures in which women were oppressed and marginalized, offering a powerful critique of patriarchal society.

Finally, Clancy’s techno-thrillers like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Red Storm Rising” were hugely popular, tapping into Cold War anxieties and offering a glimpse into the world of military espionage.

Iconic Authors of the 1980s

Stephen King’s Horror Masterpieces

The Shining

It’s impossible to talk about the 1980s without mentioning Stephen King. The “King of Horror” dominated the decade with his unforgettable novels and short stories, including “The Shining,” “It,” and “Pet Sematary.”

King’s books are famous for their page-turning suspense, well-drawn characters, and visceral scares. Despite being dismissed by some literary critics, King’s influence on popular culture is undeniable, and his books continue to be widely read today.

One of King’s most famous works, “The Shining,” is a masterpiece of psychological horror. The story follows Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who takes a job as the winter caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel. As the winter wears on and the hotel becomes increasingly eerie, Jack’s sanity begins to unravel, leading to a terrifying climax that has become a cultural touchstone.

Another of King’s memorable works from the 1980s is “It,” a sprawling epic that weaves together elements of horror, coming-of-age, and nostalgia. The novel follows a group of childhood friends who are haunted by a shape-shifting monster that takes on the form of their worst fears. King’s vivid descriptions of the town of Derry, Maine, and its inhabitants make the setting feel like a character in its own right.

Margaret Atwood’s Dystopian Visions

The Handmaid's Tale

Margaret Atwood is another author whose impact on literature cannot be overstated. Her dystopian novels, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Oryx and Crake,” are chillingly prescient and thought-provoking.

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” which was published in 1985, is set in a future United States where a totalitarian regime has taken over and stripped women of their rights. The novel follows Offred, a woman who is forced to become a “handmaid” and bear children for her assigned commander. Atwood’s vivid descriptions of this oppressive world have made the book a classic of feminist literature.

“Oryx and Crake,” published in 2003, is set in a post-apocalyptic world where genetic engineering has run amok. The novel follows a man named Snowman, who is one of the few surviving humans after a catastrophic event. As he struggles to survive, Snowman reflects on his past and the events that led to the downfall of civilization. Atwood’s exploration of the dangers of playing God with technology is both timely and timeless.

Tom Clancy’s Thrilling Espionage

The Hunt for Red October (A Jack Ryan Novel Book 1)

For readers who craved heart-pounding action and international intrigue, Tom Clancy was the go-to author. His novels, such as “The Hunt for Red October” and “Clear and Present Danger,” were filled with spies, terrorists, and political maneuvering.

“The Hunt for Red October,” published in 1984, introduced Clancy’s most famous character, Jack Ryan. The novel follows Ryan as he tries to prevent a Soviet submarine from defecting to the United States. The book was a commercial and critical success, and launched Clancy’s career as one of the most popular authors of the 1980s.

“Clear and Present Danger,” published in 1989, is another classic Clancy novel. The book follows Ryan as he uncovers a plot by a Colombian drug cartel to assassinate the President of the United States. The novel is notable for its detailed portrayal of military operations and its exploration of the complex relationship between the United States and Latin America.

Clancy’s books were known for their meticulous attention to detail and deep knowledge of military and intelligence operations. They remain popular with readers who enjoy fast-paced, high-stakes thrillers.

Award-Winning Books of the Decade

The 1980s were a decade of exceptional literature, with numerous books receiving prestigious awards and critical acclaim. The following is a list of some of the most notable award-winning books of the decade.

Pulitzer Prize Winners

The Color Purple

The Pulitzer Prize is one of the most prestigious awards in American letters, and several outstanding books from the 1980s were recognized with this honor. Among them were “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson, and “A Bright Shining Lie” by Neil Sheehan.

“The Color Purple” is a powerful novel that explores the experiences of African American women in the early 20th century. Through the character of Celie, Walker examines issues such as racism, sexism, and domestic violence, and offers a poignant portrayal of resilience and hope in the face of adversity.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a play that explores the lives of African American musicians in the 1920s. Through the character of Ma Rainey, Wilson examines issues such as race, power, and exploitation in the music industry, and offers a searing critique of the racial inequalities that continue to plague American society.

“A Bright Shining Lie” is a work of nonfiction that offers a comprehensive history of the Vietnam War. Through the story of John Paul Vann, a military advisor who became disillusioned with the war effort, Sheehan examines the political, social, and cultural factors that led to America’s involvement in the conflict, and offers a nuanced perspective on the complexities of war and its impact on individuals and societies.

Man Booker Prize Winners

Across the pond, the Man Booker Prize was also honoring exceptional books of the decade. British authors such as Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro were among the winners, as were Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood and South African writer J.M. Coetzee.

Midnight’s Children

Midnight's Children

Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie is a sprawling novel that tells the story of India’s transition from colonialism to independence through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a boy born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947. Through the character of Saleem, Rushdie explores issues such as identity, history, and nationalism, and offers a vivid and imaginative portrayal of India’s cultural and political landscape.

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day: Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (Vintage International)

The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro is a novel that explores the life of Stevens, an English butler who reflects on his career and his relationship with his former employer, Lord Darlington. Through the character of Stevens, Ishiguro examines issues such as class, loyalty, and regret, and offers a poignant meditation on the human condition.

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin: A Novel

The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood is a novel that tells the story of two sisters, Iris and Laura, and their complex relationship with each other and with the world around them. Through the character of Iris, Atwood examines issues such as gender, power, and storytelling, and offers a rich and layered exploration of the human psyche.

Life & Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel

Life & Times of Michael K” by J.M. Coetzee is a novel that tells the story of Michael K, a simple man who is caught up in the violence and chaos of the South African civil war. Through the character of Michael K, Coetzee examines issues such as identity, freedom, and resistance, and offers a powerful critique of the social and political structures that perpetuate oppression and inequality.

National Book Award Winners

The National Book Award is another prominent literary prize, and several notable works from the 1980s were recognized with this honor. Among them were “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, “Paris Trout” by Pete Dexter, and “World’s Fair” by E.L. Doctorow.

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried” is a collection of stories that explore the experiences of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Through the character of Tim O’Brien, the author examines issues such as memory, trauma, and the ethics of war, and offers a haunting and deeply personal portrayal of the human cost of conflict.

Paris Trout

Paris Trout: A Novel

Paris Trout” is a novel that tells the story of a small-town businessman who becomes embroiled in a scandalous affair and a violent murder. Through the character of Paris Trout, Dexter examines issues such as race, class, and morality, and offers a chilling and thought-provoking critique of American society.

World’s Fair

World's Fair: A Novel

World’s Fair” is a novel that tells the story of a young boy growing up in New York City during the 1930s. Through the character of Edgar, Doctorow examines issues such as family, identity, and the American Dream, and offers a vivid and nostalgic portrayal of a bygone era.

These award-winning books offer a diverse and compelling array of perspectives on the human experience, and demonstrate the power of literature to challenge, inspire, and transform us.

Unforgettable Fiction of the 1980s

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

Neuromancer (Sprawl Trilogy Book 1)

Science fiction and fantasy flourished in the 1980s, with many memorable works published during this decade. “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card, and “The Princess Bride” by William Goldman are just a few examples.

These books transport readers to alternate worlds and push the boundaries of what is possible. They remain beloved by readers of all ages.

The Most Captivating Mystery and Thriller Books

Red Dragon (Hannibal Lecter Book 1)

As mentioned earlier, the 1980s saw the rise of genre fiction, and mystery and thriller novels were no exception. “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, “The Bourne Identity” by Robert Ludlum, and “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco are just a few examples of the gripping books published during this decade.

These books keep readers on the edge of their seats with compelling characters, intricate plots, and plenty of twists and turns.

Timeless Romance Novels

The Bridges of Madison County

For readers who enjoy a good love story, the 1980s had plenty to offer. “The Bridges of Madison County” by Robert James Waller, “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon, and “The Shell Seekers” by Rosamunde Pilcher are just a few examples of the classic romance novels published during this decade.

These books capture the ups and downs of love and offer a window into the complexities of human relationships. They remain popular today and are ideal for curling up with on a rainy day.

In Conclusion

The 1980s were a time of vibrant change and creativity in the literary world, and the books published during this decade continue to captivate readers today. From the thought-provoking works of Margaret Atwood to the pulse-pounding novels of Stephen King and Tom Clancy, there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Whether you’re looking for social commentary, high-stakes action, or a steamy romance, the books of the 1980s have got you covered.


What were the 1980s famous for?

The 1980s were famous for significant developments in the music industry, materialism, blockbuster movies, Reagan’s administration, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a shift in global politics.

What were the most influential books written in the 1980s?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, It by Stephen King, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card are all popular books from the 1980s.

What are the best books written in the 1980s that are still popular now?

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is arguably the most popular book from the 1980s that is still very relevant today. 

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