Sunday, August 30, 2009

Literary Influences

Recently, I've been discussing Raymond Carver with a few other writers. Some people insist that his work was influential. My contention has been.....not so much. However, this dialog has made me think of something that is worthy of discussion: what is literary influence and how is it qualified or quantified?

In a response to Joe's blog posting on Carver, I have to ask is someone like Carver or Wolfe, or Bellow or Malamud (all important writers) more significant in their influences on the world of literature and that world's affect on popular culture and the American identity than someone like Anne Rice. Whoa. Relax and hear me out. I'm not going to defend Anne Rice. I enjoyed "Interview with the Vampire" and her sequels, but I never considered these books to be bold and artful works. However, Anne Rice's work, much to her reborn Christian chagrin, has given birth to such writers as Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Stephenie Meyers. The tsunami of vampire novels and urban fantasy that has swept over us, producing a storm in the marketplace has definitely affected younger readers and many older ones as well. We can scoff at the literary quality of some of this writing, but they nonetheless have influence. Especially those works which find their way into theaters and onto our television screens. By insinuating themselves into our national psyche, they open doors for many other writers and also for ideas that might have been less palatable outside of genre.

Lovecraft had tremendous influence as well. I would argue more than Mr. Carver. Lovecraft's bleak view of the cosmos and many of his literary concepts would find their way through much of our culture, in book and film, without us being aware that he was the source of its influence. Kids reading Lovecraft in the fifties and sixties grew up and remembered his work as they churned out their own material. Bradbury and Bloch, both who corresponded with Lovecraft, were quick to give him the kudos he deserved. Stephen King has freely admitted the affect that Lovecraft has had on him. And while most people haven't read Lovecraft (he isn't for everyone, much of his work is dated and plods along), most people have encountered him in some form, without realizing it. I remember mentioning the name Arkham (a fictional town created by Lovecraft) and having someone chime in: "You mean the insane asylum in Batman"?

I will be exploring this in more detail at some other time, the idea of what constitutes literary influence, what we mean by the phrase. It seems to be thrown around rather liberally. I think it would be the subject of several fascinating essays.


Charles Gramlich said...

The only way Carver would influence me is for me to work hard not to write anything like him.

HPL, though. Yeah.

Joe Ponepinto said...

Yeah, I think you could spend some time on what constitutes influence. Is it sales? Or the rather judgmental aspect of "art?" Or somewhere in between? Carver (and Lish) was taught in undergrad creative writing courses for many years, and the style he/they created certainly influenced a generation of writers, some of whom were more successful than others.

I checked around a bit and found a few writers who admitted to Carver's influence in their writing: Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, Richard Ford (your fav, I know), Russell Banks, Tobias Wolff, Richard Russo, E. Annie Proulx and few others.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I'm going to research people who have written on the topic and have done some form of study to support their findings. In the meantime, let's look at your comment about those authors who say they've been influenced by Carver, or by Lovecraft. I'm never sure how reliable a statement like that might be. Someone could read Hemingway and say Hemingway was influential, and yet write in a manner that would be in opposition to Hemingway's theory of writing. And another thing to consider is the idea that people were exposed to Carver or others early in their intellectual adult development. How many times have we seen people who are taught an author nod their heads because they are seeing the author through a teacher's authoritarian influence, even if that teacher is more of a facilitator.

Still, I think this is a concept, the idea of influence, that I want to nail down in a disciplined manner. It's an enormous concept, really.

For instance, if you look at sales as an evidence of influence, then that might be misleading. On the other hand, sales is indicative of a broad readership, and probably indicative that that readership was able to connect with the writer, which is what makes for a long lasting influence. Yes?

Steve Buchheit said...

Literary influences tend to be the authors people want to have read, but not the people they tend to read.

Rick said...

I've never given the matter much thought, Stewart, but I must say I'll watch with interest where you take the ideas.

Akasha Savage said...

I like Lovecraft, although as you say it can be a bit ploddy, and I also like Anne Rice. I have most of her books: I find them readable if a little wishy-washy. But I do not like this new breed of romantic vampire books. Have you ever tried reading Twilight? I think it's best left to the teenagers; my sixteen year old daughter enjoys them. But.I can't knock them too much. My work in progress is a vampire story of sorts. Hopefully this means there is a good chance I will find a market as vampire novels seem to be 'in' at the moment.

Christina said...

Charles: lol.

Stewart: Your point is interesting. I've never felt inspired by the authors I had to read in college, but horror and paranormal really inspired me to write.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am rethinking this influence thing and will continue discussion of it in the next posting.

You raise an excellent point. Just as some people claim to have read certain books, so some people may claim to have been influenced by some writers. you were inspired to write by someone. I wonder if you were seeking some form of approval and attention seeking and if by writing you were able to fulfill that desire. That's sort of what happened for me, I believe. Or maybe there is a deep seated need to create and we were heading in that direction. Maybe the writers we read helped channel the creativity that was getting ready to emerge.