Some Thoughts on Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence


I recently learned that some Barnes and Noble has an “essay” section. This will be my downfall. I was glancing through it and stumbled upon something that sounded fascinating. If you’ve been reading this blog for any significant amount of time, then you’ll know that influence is a topic that is endlessly fascinating to me.

I’ve talked about the importance of expanding your influences in Literature, Originality, Influence, and the Anxiety Thereof. Of course, I referenced Barth’s essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” in it and Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. I bring these two things up a lot, actually. Even this horrible post back in 2008 shows this topic has been kicking around for awhile.

Anyway, so I was glancing through this essay section, and saw a book titled The Ecstasy of Influence. How could I not check it out? This book is a must read for anyone as obsessed with this topic as I am. There isn’t much new, but it feels good to read about a successful author grappling with these issues in a real life context. If these issues are boring to you, then stay far away from this book (unless you’re having trouble falling asleep or something).

A truly bizarre thing happened while reading the book. The new Harper’s came (I wrote my last post on the Nicholson Baker piece from it), but another major piece in the magazine was Franzen’s essay “A Different Kind of Father.” It is basically about dwelling on influences and trying to determine who his major influences (i.e. literary father) would be. The coincidence was made a little creepy when he started talking about Pynchon and literary coincidences turning into conspiracy theories when I had been thinking what a strange coincidence it was that this article appeared right when starting the Lethem book on the same topic.

Back to The Ecstasy of Influence (clearly a play on Bloom’s title The Anxiety of Influence). It is broken up into parts based on themes. Each part has a few chapters which are either short memoirs, essays, or even short stories with analysis. The fact that it isn’t all essay keeps the flow going nicely. I was really excited when in the Preface he had already mentioned John Ashbery, John Barth, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. These are all people I write about a lot. The book is practically my blog if you throw out the math. OK. Not really. But it was sort of feeling that way from the Preface.

The second chapter is all about postmodernism in SF (speculative fiction). I was delighted to find that Lethem makes almost the exact same argument in one of the essays that I made in the first post I referenced above. Roughly that people writing SF should be familiar with all these modern day trends like postmodernism so that they can incorporate the techniques into their works to create much more effective literature. Or maybe not. Your choice. But if you aren’t familiar with these techniques then you can’t make the choice. You’re limited by what you know. He also does an interesting deconstruction of Philip K. Dick and his influences (warning: it is an essay from his youth and he is sort of embarrassed by it now).

The flashy highlight of the book so far was the title essay. It first appeared in Harper’s (is there a question in anyone’s mind why I subscribe to this magazine anymore?), and although it focuses much more on the plagiarism aspects of influence it is still incredibly well-done. You learn at the end that the entire essay is made up of quotes from other people that he tied together to make one coherent (original?) essay.

To wrap up, the book is great so far. It brings up all these difficult issues in all sorts of ways. Sometimes he uses fun anecdotes and other times serious essays. They are always very readable. The main issues addressed so far (if you haven’t caught on yet) have to do with the following:

What is meant by originality? To be taken seriously as an artist do your influences have to be (in)visible? If you copy someone else too much are you unoriginal? How possible is it to cut ties from all people before you? Is this even a desirable thing to try? Should you be embarrassed or flattered when people compare your work to someone you admire? Where is the line between imitation and plagiarism? And so on.

My favorite quote so far is an interesting definition of postmodernism (in literature). Lethem is talking about Eliot’s The Waste Land and how the excessive notes in it seems to define modernism in terms of its anxiety of influence contamination. “Taken from this angle, what exactly is postmodernism, except modernism without the anxiety?” Of course, Lethem was just quoting someone else at that point …

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