I think every writer learns something from everything they read - good or bad; what works or what doesn't - but there are select authors that have had the greatest influence upon their own writing. At least that's how it is for me. Here are a few of my influences:
John Irving To me, Irving is a writer's writer. The intensity of commitment to his work, his love and knowledge of literature comes through page after page of his writing. That alone I find inspiring. But equally impressive is the way he makes his well-layered plots, in-depth characters, and thematic motifs so readable. The Hotel New Hampshire and A Widow for One Year are two of my favorites of his, while A Prayer for Owen Meany is my all-time favorite novel.
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 was the single greatest influence upon my first novel. They are really nothing alike, but the minimal manner in which he created a fantastic yet believable world as the foundation for his book's ideas and themes was impressive. My own effort, I think, was a little forced at times, but satisfactory for my first time.
Sherman Alexie I generally prefer writing that is to-the-point, prose that "eschews surplusage" (as Twain put it), like Hemingway or Carver, and Alexie is one of the best. His narrative has a poetic ring to it, and his unique world-view (unique for White people, anyway) makes for absorbing, powerful reading. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven and Reservation Blues are especially good.
Iain Banks As I mentioned in an earlier post, what I like most about Banks is that I have no idea what to expect from one of his books to another. From the disturbing short work The Wasp Factory, about a sixteen-year-old serial killer, to Walking on Glass, a novel of three men in virtually different universes that have an unexpected connection, to Canal Dreams, about an Asian cellist who takes on terrorists in Panama. You can't get much more unpredictable than that. I look forward to experiencing the whole of his body of work.
Harlan Ellison I had the pleasure of seeing Ellison speak many years ago. He's intense, feisty, and always ready for a fight. His writing is the same way. He's as original and prolific as they come. You may not like everything he writes, but he is never boring. Check his classic novella A Boy and His Dog, as well as the short stories "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman and All the Sounds of Fear.
What I learned most from Ellison, however, is something from an introduction he wrote for the reprint of an essay by him nearly thirty years prior in Writer's Digest: "...never let mere money be an influence. A good writer can always make money, even if he or she has to drive a truck or lay brick or work in the steno pool."
Algis Budrys An above-average writer of science fiction, his influence for me came as editor for the wonderful, yet now defunct, magazine Tomorrow Speculative Fiction, and author of Writing to The Point - a mere sixty pages on everything you need to know about writing fiction that sells. He was also one of the few editors to respectfully decline publishing one of my earliest stories. Even though I was rejected, he made me feel like a real, honest-to-goodness writer.
Valerie J. Freireich She creates other worlds of intricately layered social and political structures. And she does it seamlessly. She explains nothing, but rather drops you into the middle of the society she created as though it were the very universe you lived within and understood. I love her novels Becoming Human and Testament, and my all-time favorite short story is her Convert, which I read in the #13 issue of Tomorrow Speculative Fiction in 1994.