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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Literature, Originality, Influence, and the Anxiety Thereof

I really do plan to get back to some math soon. I thought I’d share an argument that I first learned from the essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” by John Barth. It is something that used to come up all the time when I was an undergrad music major. It usually comes up now in the form of literature. I’ll phrase it in terms of literature, since this is the form it appears in Barth’s essay, but it works for any art form.

The reason this came up recently is because I was watching an interview with Patrick Rothfuss. From what I’ve seen, he takes the craft of writing about as seriously as any author I’ve seen, and he really wants to better himself as an author in any way possible. He was asked what sorts of fiction he reads outside of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I was shocked to hear that he basically doesn’t. It reminded me of this argument. Similarly, the music composition students that I used to talk with had basically no interest in listening to or analyzing current living composers.

I can’t remember now, but I think I’ve made this argument on the blog somewhere before. It’s well worth repeating, since people always seem surprised by it when it comes up. There is this disconnect that because art is “subjective” it doesn’t build on itself. People seem to have the opinion that art just spreads off in random branches of originality and you don’t have to pay attention to what your contemporaries are doing. Some go so far as to claim that paying attention to your contemporaries blocks your ability to be truly original through subconscious influence.

Here is part of Barth’s argument. No one would ever dare to say this type of thing about any branch of science or math. You would be laughed at. Imagine saying you could do something completely original in physics by ignoring the last 50 years of research so you aren’t influenced. The obvious problem with this is that in order to do something new, you will have to completely reinvent all of the past 50 years of physics (at least in your area) before getting to the new part. What is the point of trying to do that when you could just intentionally learn it in a small fraction of the time and get on to your new ideas. In fact, even coming up with a new idea might be impossible without having seen the recent advances that open your mind to ideas that were inconceivable beforehand.

To put it bluntly, trying to make some awesome original art without being up-to-date on what has been done doesn’t make you a visionary. It makes you an idiot. The main objection to this is probably that in art as opposed to science you don’t have the same type of building. You don’t need to be completely current on what every contemporary author is doing in order to build off in some direction or try something new. This is in part true, but let’s try to put this in perspective.

If you were to take a one semester course whose primary goal was to expose you to as many significant advances in just some very narrow frame like American literature of the past 40 years it couldn’t be done thoroughly. This is with an intensive study by someone who knows what they are doing with this goal in mind. Think about how hopeless it would be to try to invent all these ideas yourself whenever you need one of them. It is just about as hopeless as the scientist who tries to ignore the past 40 years of science.

I claim that not only is it a good idea for a serious genre author to make an attempt to keep up with modern literature, but it is almost certainly the most important thing they can do to better themselves. Forget about the worries of being unoriginal due to influence. You are certain to be unoriginal if you don’t keep up, whereas if you know what people have been doing, then at least you have some chance of building upon it in a unique direction. It will not only improve your writing to have these modern techniques at your disposal, but it will make you a much more interesting writer as well. I quote Barth, “In any case, to be technically out of date is likely to be a genuine defect: Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony or the Chartres cathedral, if executed today, might be simply embarrassing ….”

Nothing is as frustrating as getting into these types of arguments with people who want to think that being a good artist is all about this lackadaisical, touchy-feely, everything goes attitude. That is just some romantic fantasy. All the great artists have put a lot of hard work and study into it, and part of that study is understanding what other great people in your craft have done. Don’t take my word for it. Try it out. You’ll probably find that not having to reinvent the wheel every time you need a particular technique actually frees up your energy to use on creating something that is actually new.

Examples: For anyone interested in these sorts of ideas you should check out The Friday Book by John Barth which has his essay in it. The ultimate example I’d have to say is Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence which is basically a book long case study of how some of the great poets influenced each other and overcame those influences to create something new (an impossible task if they weren’t reading each other I might point out).

I edited this post since it was too long already. I had included three interesting examples originally, but realized it almost hurts the argument to see examples. All the examples I thought of could be written off as singular, fringe cases, so I haven’t included them now. As a game, just take any of the hundreds of lists out there with names like “100 Best Novels” or whatever and try to find even one novel on that list that didn’t liberally borrow techniques from a contemporary. For you genre writers out there that think you can get away with staying within the genre, a quick glance at the Modern Library list and the Time Magazine list shows many great genre authors like George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel Delany, Philip K. Dick, and more. Every one of these authors would have been severely hindered without being up to date on modern fictional techniques that mostly weren’t appearing in the genre.